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Just bring Pluto back

How can we be serious space tourists without Pluto? And why my brother’s still running from me

Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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IT’S TRUE. PLUTO IS NO LONGER A PLANET. What? Who took away my favourite orb? A bunch of scientists got together, deliberated for days, and concluded Pluto is just a small rock, part of all that insignificant detritus orbiting the sun. Now Disney needs to convince bawling babes around the world that their favourite dog is named after some random stone that doesn’t even have enough mass to qualify as a planet, a demotion akin to declaring your five-foot mother is just a motley collection of mixed-up molecules – unless she happens to be a kicking-and-screaming 300kg trophy of womanhood from Tonga, where BIG is best.

Had someone told me this earlier it would have saved years of teenage angst and pointless argle-bargle. Who wants to fight with a bunch of undersize molecules and mitochondria? And what do chromosomes, however charismatic, know about brushing teeth, staying awake all night, sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, homework, sinking grades, acne and unwashed underwear?

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With Pluto gone, who’s next? This spoils the fun for people like Iranian-born Anousheh Ansari who paid US$20 million to be the first woman tourist in space following in the footsteps of Dennis Tito. That’s a collective US$40 million of valuable tourist dollars sunk in the name of blazing a trail, eventually, to some distant planet – that could have been diverted to a week’s stay at my home in Hong Kong including unlimited reruns of Baywatch Hawaii. I would have been happy to screen a prized pirated Indonesian copy of Hollywood blockbuster Shaving Private Ryan as well.

I pioneered the Indian space programme when I locked my kid brother in a cupboard and told him he was going to Mars

All this space exploration hoopla is the culmination of a complex sequence of events flagged by momentous milestones like June 2004 when SpaceShipOne, streaked proudly into the skies above the Mojave Desert and the pilot Mike Melvill executed complex scientific manoeuvres dizzying kilometres above Earth. Said a tired but buoyant Melvill, “As I got to the top I released a bag of M&Ms in the cockpit. It was amazing.” This is how science progresses, in small, hard-fought increments.

With a glut of tell-all books on the shelves, this is perhaps a good time to reveal that I actually helped pioneer the Indian space program in the early Sixties when I locked my kid brother in a cupboard and shook it violently, telling him he was on his way to Mars. Later, countries with bigger budgets, and larger cupboards, overtook the nascent Indian space programme. My brother recovered but hasn’t stopped running (he says these are marathons) even though I’ve told him I’ve left the country.

Now what if an eminent group of scientists told my brother, Dennis, and Anousheh, that all that gruelling physical training and copious helpings of Chicken a-la Kiev (for the latter two, who blasted off from Russia) would enable Mankind to take those final Great Strides to reach some piddling rock?

Space Adventures (www.spaceadventures.com) the leading hi-tech cupboard company responsible for both Dennis and Anousheh’s space tourist trip, charges US$20 million to fly you to the Gagarin Cosmonaut Centre in Star City, Russia, where you will be subject to “centrifuge training” simulating extreme G-force as well as weightlessness. There are also optional zero-gravity experiences where large Soviet airplanes suddenly drop thousands of feet while the passengers bang their heads on the ceiling, not unlike an average flight on Ariana Afghan Airlines.

People are undergoing horrendous g-forces and throwing up all over Russia... to get to some random rock?

Freedom-loving flag-waving French-fries-burning American space tourists are willing to pay this price for a unique privilege – to throw up all over Russia. Don’t tell them they’re flying to some random rock. Business travellers like myself who don’t have the time and necessary bank balance to throw up in Russia, practise elsewhere. One popular venue is those modern high-speed elevators at hotels that flatten the hair on your scalp and send your brain down to your toes as the g-forces set in on the ride to the penthouse executive floor. Anyone planning to become a cosmonaut should do this a few times each day. It’s free and, if the hotel décor is anything like the hallucinogenic Burj Al Arab in Dubai, you’ll evict your breakfast spontaneously. Lose weight, save money, and plan for space.

Virgin Galactic, the new company by Virgin’s irrepressible boss Sir Richard Branson hopes to test fly sub-orbital craft by the end of 2007 and operate commercial space flights by 2009. For this to happen the group would like to thoroughly test their experimental craft – WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo – to sort out safety issues and to clarify whether running three separate words as one MASSIVE compound word is macho, mod, meaningful and mellifluous. If you’ve got mileage at Virgin Atlantic, save up and join the space tourist queue. British electrician Alan Watts has already booked a seat. All you need is two million miles for a roundtrip to get you a wee bit closer to some random rock. Enough of this gobbledegook. MAKE PLUTO A PLANET AGAIN.

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