Human Space Exploration and (Cause of) Dinosaur Extinction Anniversary Thoughts

  • By Dr Myint Zan


T he 20 and 21 July 2018 was the 49th (pre-‘gold’ or pre-50th) anniversary of humans, by the name of the late Neil Armstrong and Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin, setting foot on the Moon for the first time in human history. I would like to reflect on this occasion some events and thoughts regarding space exploration.

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First Human-Made Satellite ‘Sputnik’ in Space
On 4 October 1957 the then Soviet Union launched a satellite named Sputnik 1 into Space
Sputnik was roughly larger than a basketball and its radio signals from Space can be heard even by the then amateur sky-watchers (and sky-listeners, so to speak) of over sixty years ago.
The successful launch of Sputnik 1 by its Cold War adversary shocked the elites and indeed some of the people of the United States, which spurred and accelerated their inchoate efforts of Space exploration into a ‘Space race’ (between the US and then USSR) and the rest, as they say, is ‘history’.

First ‘Dog’ in Space
Less than a month after the Sputnik launch, the Soviet Union also beat the United States in sending a ‘sentient being’ or a biological animal, a female dog by the name of ‘Laika’ into Space on 3 November 1957, where the Space craft made a full orbit of the Earth. Laika apparently died soon after she reached Space in Sputnik II. One wonders whether the then Soviets had to go through an (animal) ethics committee for approval to use an animal for space exploration purposes!

First Human (Male) in Space
And then Yuri Gagarin (died March 1968) and Vostok. Upon the Vostok’s and Gagarin’s safe return to Earth after orbiting it for about 109 minutes, the then Soviet Communist party leader the late Nikita Khrushchev (died September 1971) laid down the ‘gauntlet’: ‘Now, let the capitalist countries catch us’.

First Female in Space
It took some time for the capitalist country (the United States) to catch up with the Soviet Union for, again in June 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in Space.

First Space-walk and First Woman in Space’s ‘Whimsical’ Wish to go on ‘One-way trip’ to the Planet Mars
On 18 March 1965, Alexey Leonov of the Soviet Union became the first person to venture out of the Space craft and walk in Space. (Apparently, both Tereshkova and Leonov are still alive, and several years ago, I have read that Ms Valentina has stated to the effect that she would like to travel to the planet Mars even if it is on a one-way ticket, so to speak, with no return to Earth!)

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Catching Up and Over-taking the Soviet Union by the United States in the Space Race
But the capitalist country, the United States, not only ‘caught up’ with but overtook the Soviet Union when the late Neil Armstrong and Edwin (‘Buzz’) Aldrin became the first and second human beings, respectively, to set foot on the Moon around 9:30am Burma Standard Time on 21 July 1969 (20 July 1969 in the United States and parts of the Western hemisphere).
From about 20-21 July 1969 to 16-17 December 1972, twelve American men (males) had set foot on the Moon and, in the words of the late United States President John F. Kennedy (May 1917- 22 November 1963), in his speech to the US Congress on or about 25 May 1961, pledging to ‘… land a man on the Moon [before the decade of the 1960s was out] and safely returning him to the Earth’– all of them were safely brought back to the Earth.

Voyager Spacecrafts Moving Past the Planetary Orbits of the Solar System
On August and September 1977, respectively, the Voyager II and Voyager I (Voyager II was launched before Voyager I) unmanned (‘unpersonned’?) spacecrafts were sent into Space by the United States which a few years ago have left the planetary orbits of the (‘our’) Solar system and, from what I have read, they are travelling beyond the planetary orbits of the Solar system and it might take (again at least) dozens of decades or a few centuries for the Voyager Space crafts to reach the ‘edge’ of the (‘our’) Solar system.

Over Forty Thousand Year Journey towards the Nearest Star-System
I have also read that if the Voyager spacecrafts were still functioning and at the rates they are ‘travelling’ it would take about or more than 40,000 years to reach the nearest Star system of, I think, Alpha Centauri! (Forty thousand years ago homo sapiens might still have been hunter-gatherers and might or might not have discovered the use of fire or agriculture and almost certainly no human group had, at that time, discovered or invented the wheel.)

Scientific Fact of Existence of Dinosaurs from About 225 Million Years Ago to About 65 Million Years Ago
Long, long (very, very long) before homo sapiens exist (to use the ‘historic present tense’) or existed (to use the simple or ‘past perfect’ tense), it is a scientific fact that creatures now called ‘Dinosaurs’ were on the Earth from about, roughly, 225 million years ago (m.y.a) to about 65 m.y.a. And then suddenly (certainly in ‘geological time’ – time calculated in terms of the formation of the Earth about 4500 m.y.a), almost in an ‘instant’ and only slightly more than an instant in terms of ‘zoological time’ so to speak (time calculated when the first micro- organisms were formed around 3700 m.y.a on Earth) the Dinosaurs disappeared.
Landmark Scientific Article Postulating the Major Cause of Extinction of the Dinosaurs
Why? What were (or are) the cause or causes of the Dinosaurs’ sudden (that means spread over, perhaps, a few thousand years) extinction?
In 1980, in a scientific article published in the prestigious scientific journal Science, the father-son duo of authors Louis and Walter Alvarez and co-authors Frank Asaro and Helen Michel postulated that the main (they do not seem to claim it to be the sole) cause of extinction of many animals around 65 million years ago, including Dinosaurs, was that a ‘bolide’ (or asteroid) fell on the Earth with the equivalent after-effects of thousands of ‘Hiroshima style’ atomic bombs exploding all over the then Earth, causing a ‘nuclear-winter’ which engulfed it for centuries, if not millennia, and the Dinosaurs and up to 90% of the animals then — to extravagantly use the vernacular — ‘choked collectively to their deaths’.
Subsequent findings and research including discovery of evidence of a large impact crater called Chicxulub found off the coast of Mexico and other theoretical models by computers and field work by scientists, astronomers, geologists and others have amply indicated the verifiable – indeed verified — scientific fact that such a bolide or asteroid collision did occur roughly 65 million years ago.
There were loud murmurs of dissent or scientific doubts or challenges initially that the bolide collision with the Earth near the now Gulf of Mexico, where a large crater ‘evidencing’ that there was such a collision 65 million years ago, was the main cause of the sudden extinction of the Dinosaurs, but if there were still dissents to this theory they are now not as significant as before. In any case, the scientific and historical fact that such a collision did occur is now beyond (scientific) dispute.
It can be stated that the general or at least majority scientific view would be that the above ‘theory’ is now a strong, though not unrebuttable, scientific hypothesis.

Waxing ‘Philosophical’ or being plain humble: Mammals or Homo Sapiens (Arguably) Owe ‘their’ Existence on that Asteroid Collision with Earth 65 Million Years Ago
To wax ‘philosophical’ or indeed to be humble, the late (among others) paleontologist and science historian Stephen Jay Gould (10 September 1941-20 May 2002) has written to the effect that the Dinosaurs ‘ruled’ or ‘reigned’ the Earth for about 160 to 180 million years and IF (If, IF) there were no ‘bolide collision’ 65 million years ago, there would have been no reason(s) why the Dinosaurs (the longevity of these creatures deserve a capital D in describing them) would not continue to roam or dominate the Earth for the next 65 million years and smaller mammals (some of which did survive and came through the 65 m.y.a bolide collision) would still be crawling the Earth ‘at the feet of those giants (Dinosaurs)’.
According to Gould and some other scientists, we, humans, arguably owe our emergence and ‘thriving’ to that bolide collision which (to paraphrase William Shakespeare) ‘thrust itself’ upon the Earth (Shakespeare’s lines are: ‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them’).
To again paraphrase the Bard (from the play Julius Caesar: the fact that humans are, on Earth, NOT ‘underlings’ is not ‘due to the stars nor to ourselves’ but to that particular bolide (or asteroid) collision that hit the Earth 65 million years ago. (Shakespeare wrote ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars but in ourselves that we are underlings’).

Historical Narration and Counter-factual ‘Whimsical’ Thought
All of the above is mainly ‘historical narration’ and none of it is original. But I would like to conclude not as an ‘original thought’ but then at least with a completely counter-factual –indeed whimsical albeit in one sense humbling idea: IF (if, IF) Dinosaurs had launched a (not unmanned but ‘undinosaured’ so to speak) Space Craft into the Cosmos during the initial emergence of these creatures all those 225 million years ago, at the speed of say the Voyager space crafts ‘travelling’ ‘now’ (perhaps several thousand miles an hour), and if the Space crafts were still functioning, the ‘Undinosaured’ space craft would perhaps still be in ‘our’ Milky Way galaxy and perhaps (extra-terrestrial) ‘aliens’ might still have not ‘discovered’ or ‘cross-paths’ with it.

Paying Tribute to the Scientists for Space Exploration and Study of the Dinosaurs and their Extinction
I salute the thousands of persons, including cosmonauts, astronauts, engineers, scientists and many others, who worked towards, participated in and contributed their knowledge and efforts in order to achieve the great feats of human Space exploration of the past, before and since the Sputnik launch of October 1957 and the Moon landing of July 1969.
I also give tribute to those scientists who work in a narrower (but still of human interest and scientific relevance) field of studying the Dinosaurs, their mode of existence and cause of their extinction Dinosaurs qua Dinosaurs. (According to some scientists, the very distant descendants, so to speak, of the Dinosaurs are supposedly birds: hence the ‘caveat’ of the extinction of the Dinosaurs ‘qua’ – as-Dinosaurs.)

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