‘To infinity … and beyond!’

If you ever feel an inflated sense of your self-importance, or even just slightly important compared to others, take a reality check.

Go outside on a clear night. Look at the thousands of stars you can see sparkling in the black sky. Consider the trillions of other stars you cannot see in the universe. That should do the trick.

Humans so easily seem to get things out of proportion and forget there is an English word in the dictionary pronounced "humble". It does no harm at all for us to realise that, actually, even our planet and entire solar system are miniscule and largely irrelevant in the grander scheme of things.

In recent years there has been quite a lot of talk about New Zealand’s place in the world of space exploration. We have a number of advantages for this, including our strategic and uncluttered location at the bottom of the South Pacific, our relatively clear skies and periods of settled weather, and easy access to well-trained and technologically savvy expert staff.

But there are also drawbacks. We are a long way — on a planetary scale, not a galactic scale — from the centre of the space world in the United States. And that means being distant from much of the influence, the important contacts in the business and, of course, their all-important bank accounts.

General interest in space and things astronomical is very high these days. Perhaps looking up provides a nice escape from some of the horrors unfolding down here, including pandemics, wars, mass shootings, large groups of brainwashed people spouting "alternative facts" and conspiracy theories, and a rising number of climate-induced extreme weather events.

Our recent Matariki celebration provided a marvellous chance for the country to join together in wonder at the rising of the eponymous star cluster which marks the start of the Maori new year. Many Kiwis made the effort to look for the stars around dawn, a task made easier by the late sunrises of mid-winter.

The Matariki star cluster and planets Mercury and Venus. PHOTO: IAN GRIFFIN
The Matariki star cluster and planets Mercury and Venus. PHOTO: IAN GRIFFIN
There is ongoing interest and engagement in the overhead passes of the International Space Station. The station’s astronauts regularly post stunning footage on social media sites of their rapid transits across New Zealand, and we enjoy watching the sunlight glinting off the craft’s solar panels as it traverses the night sky.

And who could fail to be wowed by the vivid sunrises and sunsets caused by particles blasted into the stratosphere during the eruption of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai in January?

Timely then that this year’s Otago Foreign Policy School focused on space exploration and the role New Zealand can play in it. Local speakers and international specialists debated the issues and the place of the South in future endeavours.

Among them was Space Operations New Zealand boss Robin McNeill, who talked about the strategic importance of the company’s Awarua base but warned of the need to have enough highly trained engineers and technicians who can provide proper support for launches and missions.

Humans are naturally inquisitive. For more than 70 years, different nations have been launching rockets and satellites into space, to improve communications on Earth, learn about the conditions in space itself and to explore other worlds.

The Moon landings remain one of the most stunning achievements to date, along with the Voyager mission to investigate the edges of our solar system and the current Mars rover missions.

Shooting for the stars is all very laudable. There is no question this is a growing field we need to be involved in and to make the most of the opportunities out there.

In the film Toy Story, Buzz Lightyear thinks he is a real space ranger on a quest to save the universe, only to be brought down to earth when he sees an advertisement for Buzz Lightyear models being sold at Al’s Toy Barn.

We need to be careful not to get carried away and put too many eggs in the space basket. There are still plenty of issues we need to resolve back here on Earth.

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