December 01, 2005

Article at Cosmos Magazine

OPINION | Final Frontier

By Wilson da Silva

I’M GOING INTO SPACE. That’s not a sentence I thought I would ever write, much less utter.

But less than three years from now, I’ll be strapping myself into an eight-seater spaceplace on a runway built in the sands of the Mojave desert in California. Myself and my fellow passengers will go through a range of pre-flight checks, and then the mothercraft – carrying our spaceplane strapped to its belly – will take off and soar into the clear blue sky.

It will climb 17 km, at which point our spaceplace will detach, its rocket engines ignite, and we will be propelled straight up at three times the speed of sound; above the troposphere, to which all life on Earth is confined, and into space. Into ‘black sky’: that place where the blue of the sky disappears – because there’s no atmosphere around to scatter the light particles – and the inky void of space begins. Where stars never twinkle and where the Earth is a giant blue sphere of oceans and clouds and warmth and life.

The men and women who have been to space say it profoundly affects them, even changes them. And it must: to look down on the home world of your own species – to know that all of the history and people you’ve ever known or even read about, and all you’ve ever experienced – is in the majestic azure below. All life on Earth is there and – until we discover otherwise – below you is the only place in the universe known to harbour life. How can you not be affected?

Going into space is a difficult enterprise: technically challenging, physically arduous and somewhat risky. Which is why only a few hundred people have earned their astronaut wings. It is difficult for me to believe that I will be joining them, that I will fulfil a long-cherished childhood dream and slip – for a brief moment – outside the surly bonds of Earth.

But it will happen, thanks to Dr Alan Finkel, the chairman of the company that publishes Cosmos and one of the magazine’s founders, who has kindly arranged for me to join him in becoming Australia’s first private astronauts and the country’s first space tourists.

We will be among the first 100 people to fly on Virgin Galactic’s fledgling spaceflight service. Established by British entrepreneur Richard Branson and using the ingenious spaceplanes developed by U.S. aerospace designer Burt Rutan, Virgin Galactic will offer the dream of a lifetime for many an inner child.

It’s because of ventures such as this that the final frontier will be opened up for all. It’s been nearly 45 years since a human being was first hurled above the planet, and 35 years since humans walked on the Moon. Where are the orbiting hotels; colonies on the Moon; and exploratory missions to Mars and Jupiter that seemed so imminent?

Space is a frontier like any other that humans have faced. And it will be private industry that will take us there: just as the drive for trade, commodities and commerce propelled the first caravels from Europe and the first giant junks from China.

As well, the urge to explore and discover, which populated the Pacific and, no doubt, first drove our species from the safety of the caves and onto the savannah, will push us forward. It’s what drives our scientists today: to seek out the new and comprehend the unknown. It’s in our genes.

The type of venture being pioneered by Virgin Galactic and other private entrepreneurs is set to open the way to a future where one day, space travel will be affordable, available and routine. Something everyone can aspire to.

But every new cultural or scientific advance has to begin somewhere. And someone’s got to be first.