Monday, February 05, 2007

Close encounter

On Thursday I interviewed a rocket scientist. To be honest, I was more interested in him as a person – his name is John Zarnecki by the way - rather than the ultraviolet radiation levels on Mars, although the space talk was far from boring.

JZ (as no one calls him) had something of the Forest Gump about him, being one of those people who makes you wish your own life was more entwined with history or at least more interesting. As well as a rather luminous career (Giotto, Hubble, Cassini-Huygens), at one stage he mentioned that he'd been at Wembley in 1966 to see England win the World Cup. I asked him what first attracted him to space. His reply:

"I was a schoolkid in north London in 1961. Yuri Gagarin, the first astronaut, had suddenly become the most famous person alive. He embarked on a world tour and the first place he went to was London.

"In those days every visiting Russian dignitary would have to go to Highgate cemetery, where Karl Marx is buried. I was at school just round the corner. We were given the day off so that we could go and see him – that's how famous he was. Most of my mates went off to play football or play on their Playstations, or whatever you did in 1961. For some reason, I decided I had to go along.

"I ended up standing about 10 feet away from Gagarin. He was wearing this big Russian uniform with a massive cap, standing in front of this big mausoleum and saluting. I just thought, 'Bloody hell, this bloke has been around the world in 93 minutes'. You can't imagine how mind-blowing that seemed – the first person to leave the confines of the Earth. I was just inspired by that. I didn't really know what it was all about, but I knew it was what I wanted to do. That was the trigger. I was 10 years old."

Zarnecki did, of course, go on to become a space scientist; his major achievement was his work on the Cassini-Huygens mission, which began in the late '80s. Fifteen years of his life was spent on providing instruments to go on the Huygens probe, which finally touched down on Titan, one of Saturn's moons, on 14 January 2005. Why this is so special: Titan is 3.5 billion kilometres away. Like, woah.


And here's how to make a beatbox:

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