Monday, June 21, 2004

Reaching for the Stars
By Guest Blogger - Charles Wilhelm

The first commercial space flight occurred this morning, an historic event which should usher in an era I believe is long overdue; the privatization and commercialization of space. Pilot Michael Melvill, 63, became the first civilian pilot to reach space since Yuri Gagarin, and he is the first person ever to pilot a private craft to space. A Reuters report quotes FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation Patti Grace Smith as saying, "The flight today opens a new chapter in history, making space within the reach of ordinary citizens." I think the significance of this event goes far beyond simply making space available to ordinary citizens. This is, in my opinion, the first step in securing our future as a species. As long as humanity is confined to the planet Earth, our chance of survival is reduced to zero on a long enough timeline. Sooner or later, something will render this planet unsuitable to support our kind of life, be it cometary impact along the lines of the so-called "dinosaur killer", the eventual expansion of our sun, or even hordes of alien invaders bent on our destruction. Some are more likely than others obviously, but sooner or later it will happen. The human race needs to secure a foothold where we can in our own solar system to avoid this eventuality. The moon for starters, and later Mars. Then the larger moons of Saturn and Jupiter. If we wait for governments to accomplish this, it may take several decades or even a century, despite President Bush's recent call for a moonbase by 2020. I still think government has a place in space exploration and I heartily applaud the President's vision, but I firmly believe the biggest advances are increasingly going to be made by competition between private firms. Tourism, at least at first, will fuel this drive as companies vie for the dollars of wealthy citizens eager to pony up for a ride into space. As new discoveries are made and technologies improve, science fiction staples such as the space elevator will become reality, and manufacturing in space will become a viable enterprise due to the dramatic decrease in launch cost and danger. This in turn will get us to the point where settling the rest of our solar system is not only feasible, but inevitable. Once we have accomplished that task, our chance of long-term survival increases several fold and we can get down to figuring out how to accomplish our next big task, one I believe is our ultimate desiny: Spreading humanity to the stars.

"Earth is the cradle of the mind, but one cannot live in the cradle forever." - Konstantine Tsiolkovsky, Russian rocket scientist


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