Capitalism 2011: Space exploration takes place in sheds while libraries are closed

Writing about space once can safely be ruled a one-off, but writing about space twice – while the Middle East is in open revolt and our Irish comrades are entrenched on the electoral battlefields – well that almost makes it a hobby. Nether the less, the sight of six men pretending to explore Mars from inside a suburban Muscovite shed on a Monday morning should not be a moment which passes without judgement.

The experiment, if it can be called that, is entitled the Mars500 project and seeks to test the limits of human endurance – by forcing 6 strangers to spend 520 days living in a series of tunnels that may have been purchased from Pets at Home.

The results, filmed like a cross between Big Brother and Event Horizon for no one’s viewing pleasure, is being heralded as the first full-duration simulation of a manned flight to Mars. This ‘spectacle’ culminated at the half way point when Russia’s mission control centre, clearly not under the same pressure to appease budget constraints as their American counterparts, broadcast live footage of Russian Alexander Smoleyevsky and Italian-Colombian Diego Urbina bumbling around in a mock Martian sand pit wearing 70-pound spacesuits .

“Europe has for centuries explored Earth, led by people like Columbus and Magellan. Today, looking at this red landscape, I can feel how inspiring it will be to look through the eyes of the first human to step foot on Mars,” said Urbina with no detectable hint of irony. “I salute all the explorers of tomorrow and wish them godspeed.”

While this ultimately pointless experiment in Russian humour was going on another event came to pass without the blitz of media attention. In a quiet suburban neighbourhood of Strasberg a 74-year-old man named Sigmund Jahn celebrated his birthday.

While Herr Jahn’s thoughts on events in the Martian-Russian warehouse are unknown what is known is that on this particular school day his youngest grandchild had the best ‘show and tell’ of her class because her grandfather was a Cosmonaut and in 1978 he became the first German in space.

It is difficult to eulogise a cosmonaut without having to hastily add disclaimers about the societies which propelled them into space. The German Democratic Republic, like all the deformed workers states surrounding the USSR, suffered from the faults of its superpower patron – Stalinist bureaucracy, militarism, the secret police. Yet, as a walk down East Berlin’s Karl Marx Allee reveals, the GDR still represents what socialism, even in its most deformed state, could achieve, inevitably prompting the question: if this is what can be achieved in spite of these flaws, what could we achieve without them?This is why a 74-year-old retired Cosmonaut remains important; he is a symbol of what can be done. 

Yuri Gagarin became the first man into space in 1961 only four decades since his nation was little more than a feudal monarchy and only 16 years after it was devastated by the Second World War. If any more testimony were needed of the merits of a planned economy over the markets then consider that when the Soviets began looking to space the British, with their still mightily Empire, were enforcing post-war rationing.

If the example of the USSR can be a benchmark for economic transformation then East Germany’s is no less impressive, for the economy of the GDR had to be completely rebuilt after losing the most destructive war in human history, and it should be added, having its surviving assets stripped away by the Stalinists as post-war reparations.

Regardless of the numerous faults of the USSR and the GDR, and there were many, the achievements of Gagarin and Jahn are undeniably inspirational; yet it also begs the question: if Stalinism can do this following such devastation what has capitalism done in the decades of its unchallenged rule?

In this age of austerity when capitalist governments are cutting education budgets, closing libraries and making further education ever more unreachable, the likelihood of mankind progressing through the bold scientific feats typified by the achievements by Gagarin and Jahn are null to void. Yuri Gagarin was a son of a peasant family from the Urals. Jahn was the son of a working family from Vogtland. Following the cuts in education and scientific research could a child born in Stratford, Portsmouth or the Bronx even dream of following in their footsteps?

This is why the closest thing that capitalism can conjure to a manned mission to mars, the most ambitious voyage of exploration ever conceived by mankind, is to place 6 men in a hamster cage in a Russian warehouse.

As socialists, we should respect the achievements of men like Sigmund Jahn and we should not hesitate to proclaim that while capitalism is looking to save itself by crushing the living standards and life opportunities of working people; an alternative society with the values of progress, science and bold endeavour for the betterment of humanity at its heart is not only possible, but could allow us all to reach out into the stars.

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