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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Space: the FINAL frontier...

Sir Richard Branson is commercializing the space industry. His Virgin Galactic division has announced this week the design for a suborbital spaceliner that would carry passengers into the upper stratosphere of planet Earth.

Future thrill-seekers will ride a sleek spacecraft berthed under a massive, twin-boom mothership to the fringe of space in a design unveiled Wednesday by Virgin Galactic.

The SpaceShipTwo spacecraft and its WhiteKnightTwo carrier will begin initial tests this summer to shakedown the novel spaceflight system designed by aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan and his firm Scaled Composites.

"2008 really will be the year of the spaceship," said British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, who unveiled a 1/16th-scale model of the new spacecraft here at the American Museum of Natural History. "We're truly excited about our new system and what our new system will be able to do."

Perhaps this will be the precursor for future regular flights to the first international space station, or other such stations that may be used as a layover for connecting flights to lunar or Mars colonies.

In the earliest records of our history, man has relied upon the oceans and seas for his livelihood. Our earliest ancestors were fishermen and sea farers, braving the high seas in craft that by our modern standards are considered to be very crude, yet it was in these crude vessels that they circumnavigated our world, charting new lands, discovering new continents, and establishing routes for later travelers to wander, either for pleasure or commerce. Man fishes the seas, makes war and love at sea, farms the sea, and explores it for energy resources, such as petroleum or aquatic power. The seas have been and will be, for the foreseeable future, very important to the existence of the human race as a species.

But of course, it has not been an evolution of travel without risk. Since man put the first crude watercraft to water, there have been accidents. Through the centuries, mankind has lost members to the waters; many are the tales of ships lost at sea, of pirates treasures sunk in old hulks at the bottom of the Caribbean, stories like Moby Dick and the romanticizing of the wreck of the Titanic are an ever present part of our society today. Poetry has been written with the sea as its topic, books about ships at sea and their crews and adventures and misadventures, and at some point in time most small boys have daydreamed about sailing the high seas in search of adventures on distant lands, even in this century.

Millions of dollars a year are spent on oceanic research in modern times. Marine biology, geology, meteorology, and oceanography are but a few of the sciences involved in researching this vast and mostly unexplored part of our world. Tragedy accompanies this research from time to time, as it has accompanied the earliest days of the exploration of the seas. It has become something that is to be expected, even anticipated, on the high seas. There is even a certain tradition of death to go along with this, for every school child knows that the captain is expected to go down with his ship when it sinks. And yet when tragedies at sea occur, no one ever forwards the notion that oceanic research should be stopped, that it is too dangerous, and that it is too costly to continue funding. Our commercial bases, globally, are based upon moving freight across the high seas from one point to another, and it has been thus for so long that we accept and expect tragedy to follow ocean travel, therefore it is never even suggested that we stop our trade and travel on the seas in order to save lives or money.

How, then, is the exploration of space any different, when thinking on a universal level, than the exploration of the high seas? It is different because it is still a new concept, different because mankind is accustomed to the confines of his planet, different because it involves taking a step towards the unknown. It is different because religion has taught us that we are supposed to be earthbound creatures, and that the skies and the stars and the heavens belong to the gods, and we, for all of our technological advances and scientific thinking, are still by and large a superstitious species that can barely grasp the concept of what lies beyond the confines of this island Earth.

Our world is reaching a point of near crisis, yet we barely notice because we have grown comfortable listening to our governments telling us what to think about things through their mouthpieces in the media, who tell us where the problems are and we accept the things that we are told because we are conditioned to do so. The media doesn’t report to us the overpopulation of countries like India and China other than in the form or raw data and statistics, nor of the famines and plagues that cover the continent of Africa, other than as a side note that goes along with the latest happenings in Washington and in New York at the United Nations. We are presented with what is wanted to be seen, not an entire picture of things that are happening to us globally, as a people, as a race, as a species. While it is true that cures need to be found for the ills that torment us physically, and something needs to be done to resolve the starvation that accompanies overpopulation, we, the human race, must not limit our focus to things only of this planet.

Industry will, eventually, become a key player in space exploration, for one simple reason: it will become economically feasible to do so. Our world is limited in the amount of raw material that can be produced over a period of millennia, it takes eons for the earth to reproduce itself, through volcanic activity, and to recreate the ores, minerals, and metals which are important to the day to day lives of every man, woman, and child on this planet. The metal industry, indeed even the food industry, one day will be forced to look beyond our own limitations of atmosphere and gravity on this planet and seek answers beyond our borders of gravitational pull. Perhaps the cure for AIDS lies in the stars, or other viruses and diseases, in places we have not even dreamed of visiting. Geologists have assayed samples of materials taken from the moon and, in fact, from meteor fragments found here on Earth and collected in space travel, and have determined that these fragments, these small samples taken from debris from other worlds that have, for whatever reason, exploded, contain minerals and rocks of the same or similar composition to those we find here on our world. It is a commercial necessity, or will become one, that mankind explore space.

There is, of course, one other option we, mankind as a species, can make: the collective decision to allow ourselves to become extinct. Even with the colonization of the sea in underwater habitats and dwellings, eventually we will run out of room on this planet for us to survive. We can cave in to those who say that space exploration is too costly, too dangerous, and to those who say that we need to spend our research money on things planet side. We can ignore the beckoning of the stars for our exploration and simply remain a primitive planet in the backwater regions of our galaxy, and refuse to take our place among the stars. We can ignore whatever other peoples that might be out there awaiting us to come of age as a species and join them in their triumphs and tribulations, their confederations, their wars, their hopes for the universe and for whatever the future holds for all creatures who have ever looked to their skies and wondered what lies beyond their atmospheres. Or, we can reach up, reach out, and accept and embrace the change that will come with taking our species and trying desperately to evolve and change into something better than we are now. In the end, it is our choice, and our decision; do we dare defy the gods of our ancestors and seek out the unknown, or do we remain here, alone, isolated, and adrift in our orbit around a sun that will, one day, burn out and die?

In memory of the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger and the Columbia and their vision “to boldly go where no one has gone before” in their quest for our “last, best hope for peace,” and in salute to Sir Richard Branson for being visionary enough to venture into commercial space exploration...

Once and Always, an American Fighting Man