Once again it’s been a while, readers. I’m hoping that over these summer months, when you really should be outside or doing as little as possible, your patience will extend to another odyssey through the more unusual side of world events. In fact, this article may be more summery than the weather wherever you are – after all, the Sun always shines in outer space.
Forty-two years ago, the sight of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon changed the world forever (right, conspiracy theorists?), and ever since, countless children have dreamed of following suit, myself included. Of course, for a brief period in between my time as the sixth member of the Spice Girls and digging up dinosaurs I was destined to travel at warp speed and talk to little green men, boldly going where no man had gone before. Gargarin, Armstrong, Kirk, Skywalker, Parkin. Alas, life hasn’t quite panned out the way I envisioned – I haven’t even found a pterodactyl under Palace Green yet – but it turns out that another relic from my childhood is finally living out my dream: NASA’s latest flight crew are made from Lego.
The spacecraft Juno launched on Thursday, beginning a five-year journey to discover the origins and development of Jupiter. It carries no human crew, but does contain Lego figurines of the Roman gods Juno and Jupiter as well as Galileo Galilei, the Italian Renaissance scientist who made several of the earliest discoveries about the planet. Carrying his telescope and rocking an impressive beard alongside his deified friends, Galileo is one of many Lego characters produced by the partnership between The Lego Group and NASA which began last November.
The two organisations are working together under a three-year Space Act Agreement to undertake educational and public outreach projects aimed at increasing participation in engineering, science, technology and mathematics under the title of “Building and Exploring Our Future”. As a result, this year’s Lego City line includes four NASA-inspired sets including educational materials, while the space shuttle Discovery carried a commemorative Lego shuttle on its November flight. NASA also sent special Lego sets to the International Space Station in February to be assembled by astronauts as well as earth-bound students and children. Sadly, the Pirates of the Caribbean play sets were out of stock.
It’s the kind of partnership which makes total sense. The Administration has had a rough time of late. The Space Shuttle Atlantis landed for the final time in July, marking the end of a thirty year era for the shuttle programme and making way for an age of commercial space flight. Controversial budget cuts have threatened the scope of its research. NASA has to demonstrate value for money in years to come, continuing to deliver the benefits to mankind for which it was established; consequently, the education and public outreach projects which go along with its missions are becoming more important than ever before. A generation of future voters and politicians fascinated by space exploration can’t harm its chances of survival either.
Meanwhile, Lego is the perfect choice. Space, the final frontier, is full of the unknown and a perfect canvas for the imagination, while Lego is designed to encourage creativity. However, the process of realising a design from the imagination teaches principles of engineering which NASA uses every day to build crafts like Juno and the upcoming two-craft lunar mission GRAIL. It may make little sense to lock plastic people into a scientific instrument in which they are unlikely to be seen again, but it’s encouraging to think that there may be children around in 2016 still following the mission in the hope that Galileo and the gods reach their destination. We can only hope that Toy Story 4 will feature their wild parties as they dance around the magnetometers.
As Douglas Adams once told us, “space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.” It’s staggering to think of how much is out there, waiting to be discovered. We’ve barely scratched the surface of this universe – and is it really the only one? – so here’s hoping Lego inspires a generation to finally build me that Starship Enterprise.