Close encounter with real heroes

'TAKE your protein pills and put your helmet on," warbled David Bowie on his 1969 hit, Space Oddity, the tale of a fictional astronaut who becomes lost in the outer reaches of the universe.

A timely release, the single captured perfectly a generation's obsession with space travel - this was the year that Neil Armstrong took one small step for man, a giant leap for mankind. An event which practically had every schoolboy in the world reaching for their toy telescope.

Today, Armstrong is one of only 480 or so humans to have explored the final frontier in the 46 years since Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit the Earth.

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Modestly, these men and women refer to themselves simply as fliers, to the rest of us however, they are cosmonauts and astronauts who, long before Google Earth allowed anyone with internet access to zoom in on their own backyard from beyond the clouds, gazed down on a planetscape that the rest of us could only dream of.

More than 80 of this intrepid band flew into the Capital earlier this month for the 20th Planetary Congress of The Association of Space Explorers, three of them taking time to launch the 2007 Edinburgh Lectures with a talk which attracted 500 locals to the Sheraton Hotel - many obviously children of the space race, tempted by the opportunity to share a room with some of their heroes.

For anyone born in the Fifties or Sixties the race to the stars, as the Soviet Union and America vied to be first to put a man into orbit and then on the moon, was an adventure in which we were all a part. Space travel was, after all, the ultimate technological achievement. Not only that, it was exciting too.

Consequently, at the Sheraton, it proved enthralling to find oneself just feet away from two real life cosmonauts; Sergei Vasilyevich Avdeyev, who holds the record for time travel by a human being - during a mission onboard the Mir space station he travelled at 17,000mph, going roughly 20 milliseconds into the future; Viktor Petrovich Savinykh, who spent 269 days in space onboard Salyut 6, Salyut 7 and Mir; and astronaut Jay Apt, who flew on four shuttle missions, embarked on two space walks and was part of the first Space Radar Laboratory.

However, they weren't the only fliers attending the event hosted by The Royal Society of Edinburgh. Twenty or so hands were raised when a call went out for anyone who had travelled into space - one belonged to Alexei Leonov, who in 1965 became the first man to walk in space.

Although the space race started in the 1950s - October 4 is the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik 1 - it was in the Sixties that the competition reached its climax, the world watching rapt as flickering images of Neil Armstrong stepping on to the lunar surface were beamed back from the Moon.

For those of us growing up at that time there was no denying that the space age had arrived and, with the adventures of Captain Kirk and the intrepid crew of the USS Enterprise to further fuel our imaginations, it seemed anything was possible. The Soviet Union may have rocketed the first man into orbit but the Yanks had landed the first man on the Moon. What would be next? A space station? Well, NASA had plans for Skylab (which orbited the Earth from 1973 to 1979) while the Russians embarked upon the Salyut programme - the first consistently inhabited long-term orbital research station.

More thrilling back then however, was talk of a permanently manned Moon base, of Space Shuttles that could return to Earth, and of course the holy grail of space travel, the manned flight to Mars.

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In 1971 Brooke Bond Tea even charted the Race Into Space with a collection of cards, each marking a milestone in man's cosmic adventures... although the final one recklessly predicted that the US would launch 12 astronauts on an expedition to Mars, using two nuclear-powered spaceships, on November 12, 1981.

Thanks to the sci-fi boom of the time - films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and TV shows such as Doctor Who and Space 1999 - playgrounds were full of spacemen being chased by googly-eyed aliens.

The truth, of course, was very different. Far from battling little green men, Savinykh and his colleagues monitored the changing conditions of planet Earth long before the term "global warming" had even been coined. Yet, if anything brings home the damage we have done to our environment, it is images captured by fliers throughout the decades - shots of the shrinking Aral Sea in Central Asia, which now covers just one seventh of the area it did when first photographed from space in the 1962, being a prime example of the effects of climate change.

Despite this damage, Savinykh, Avdeyev and Apt appeared optimistic about the future... as long as governments heed calls to stabilise the planet's ecosystems.

They may not have had to pull phasers on invading extraterrestrials, but these space explorers have been no less instrumental in attempting to save their planet than their fictional counterparts. Heroes who went where no man had gone before - and in the case of those who walked on the Moon, since. Now, about that trip to Mars...

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