The images of the Virgin Galactic SpaceShip Two shattered on the sands of the Mojave Desert were beamed around the world in an instant. Almost as quickly, the argument was being raised about the dreadful cost of ‘space tourism’ and whether any such pastime is worth the dollars and lives it may take to achieve the end result.
The debate had started well before the facts were known and far in advance of any formal findings. Miraculously, one of the pilots survived the high altitude tragedy, assisted by his automatically deployed parachute and watched over by the chase plane that circled at a safe distance. Still, the images of the crumpled debris on the desert floor were inescapable; another life had been lost in the pursuit of a new frontier.
Such losses are neither rare nor a distant memory. The Apollo program lost lives on the launch pad and the Space Shuttle had two very public tragedies as one shuttle set course for space and the other for home. And these were examples associated with the space program. Test pilots have been killed for a century taking machines to the fringe of the envelope. Whether the vehicle was frail, built only of frame and fabric, or substantial enough to counter the rigors of re-entry, there was a human life at the helm; a life that could end at any second with a cruel twist of fate or physics.
Yet for all the physics, science and supercomputers, there will always be risk. In the very week that the Virgin Galactic tragedy had occurred, NASA had lost an unmanned vehicle shortly after take-off. Only weeks later, the first successful landing of a probe wasn’t without event as the first ‘touch-down’ actually resulted in a bounce of more than a kilometre back into space.
Pushing ever-higher, ever-faster with highly volatile fuel as a partner will never cease to be an exercise for the brave-hearted. Even so, brave men and women have volunteered to take that chance and will undoubtedly continue to pursue the next horizon no matter how distant. That in itself is core to human existence.
If our species had been totally risk adverse and content we may well still be sitting in caves drawing circles in the sand with a stick. However, they dared to step beyond the threshold of the cave and cross continents and undoubtedly there were losses along the way. Equally there were those I suspect that stood with spear in hand shaking their heads as a small tribe set forth for the new world.
Absolute contentment is not ever possible or advisable, for a degree of dissatisfaction is the base commodity for advancement. At some point our forefathers looked at the stars in wonder as the embers of their newly discovered fire drifted into the sky. Some would have gazed in wonder and some would have drawn the image on the cave wall, but a small minority would have sought somehow, someday to reach those stars. And we’re still reaching today.
The cost of human life is undoubtedly beyond measure and its after-effects will be deeply felt by families long after the headlines have faded. Still, those that venture out into the thin air are well aware of the risks and seriously seek to minimise the chance of fatal error, but even so it will happen. In the wake, the best tribute that can be paid is to learn. To glean further knowledge from the ashes and fight tooth and nail against the chance of such a fatal outcome ever resulting from such an event ever again. This is how the skies have been challenged for a century. Although they will never be conquered, with each step forward and each stagger back, we learn a little more about our humble existence in this vast domain.
Space has become increasingly too expensive for governments and through those gaps in the pavement have grown private ventures and consortiums. However, to label the undertaking as ‘space tourism’ cheapens the work of those at the cutting edge. It infers that the commercial aspect is the real achievement and while it may be necessary to advertise the fiscal sustainability and the public allure of the project; that is not where the real advances are made. Nor are the dollar-signs the focus of the crews strapped into their craft as they put their lives on the line.
From these new efforts successes and failures new technologies and new lessons will undoubtedly emerge. A good many may branch out beyond the mere realm of aviation and aerospace. Advances in areas such as communications, life support, materials and propulsion are just some of the fields that have spilled from the skies and into other branches of human endeavour. Without such vision by those gone before, the critics would not have had the satellites to view tragic images on their computers around the globe within hours and had the opportunity to share their views with the world.
As a species, it seems that we will always look to the skies and beyond. Not satisfied to go back to our rooms and paint stars on a canvas, a brave few will continue to forge new frontiers. Equally human will be the presence of commercial necessity and politics in the process, as undesirable as that may be. We must recognise their seat at the table and watch them closely, but not at the expense of bridling the brilliant minds and brave hearts that push mankind ever higher.
Only through seeking out and challenging the greater boundaries can we continue to move forward. Along the way their will be victories and losses and they must be respected, learned from and kept in perspective. Only then will we be able to follow the embers of our own fires and seek out the stars.