I wanted to write for a bit about the events of last Friday.
For whatever reason, the loss of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo has not garnered the attention lavished (and it was rightfully lavished) on such disasters as NASA's Challenger and Columbia. I will not attempt to speculate on just why this is the case because it is a tragedy nevertheless. A pilot named Michael Tyner Alsbury lost his life in the crash while another named Peter Siebold deals with serious injuries as I write. They did this in the name of something larger than themselves.
Space travel is an attractive subject...if you want dirt kicked in your eye. Politically, you get hit from both the right and the left. Lefties will bemoan the fact that space exploration is money not spent on their social welfare programs and while conservatives will decry that it is money spent period. Where NASA once inspired us and represented the best of America's qualities, it in time became a bloated and sick bureaucracy, a manifestation of everything someone could possibly point to and say "wasteful government spending." The Space Shuttle itself became a program that was cumbersome, problem-prone, and always with a clock ticking towards expiration and no clear replacement waiting in the wings. If humankind was going to explore space on any level, there needed to be a change.
When SpaceShipOne took its first flight, I took heart. You won't often hear me laud private sector businesses, but that was one moment when I saw private investors step up and provide leadership that was sorely needed. If the leadership of the United States is unable (or unwilling) to continue human expansion into space, then that by no means should prohibit others with the vision and the capital from doing so. My heart fluttered a bit when Richard Branson, founder of Virgin, announced that one aim of the Virgin Galactic endeavor would be to usher in a new era of "space tourism." While somewhere in the back of my mind a naysayer voice said "Ha, you'll never have the money," the spirit of the news remained the same.
I could go into space.
But I'm a writer and an academic. I'm not even close to being an astronaut. I'm just some guy.
That's the idea. Any one of us could go into space. Space can and should be a common future for humanity. This kind of enterprise has the potential to be a highlight in the oeuvre of space travel. Come on, it's one of the few things I feel positive about.
Sadly, the black crows of negativity have already swarmed in the wake of last Friday's tragic news. Many media reports have been full of inaccuracies...such as accounts of fuel tank explosions when there were none...as people seem too much in a rush to fact check. After all, they need to get to their bigger narrative: "See? Told ya so. This is too dangerous, too expensive, and there's nothing to be gained by it. It's just selling joy rides to rich celebrities and Star Trek fans. We all need to stay here where we have real problems."
What if we took that attitude with everything in history? What if we said those very same things about sea travel 2,000 years ago? From purely practical terms, we wouldn't have any of the trade and commerce that we have today. How would you get your cheap plastic junk from China to Wal-Mart without cargo ships?
What if we said that about air travel? "It just ain't natural," I could just hear someone tell da Vinci or the Wright brothers. "If the Invisible Sky Daddy wanted people to fly, he would have given them wings." So no flying. Hope you like your vacations and business trips solely by car or train.
I'll go you one better.
What if we said the same about the automobile? Fear of crashes, injuries, and deaths should supersede any possible benefits that automotive conveyance could possibly have. Not only are your beloved "roadtrips" cancelled, but without trucking we are right back to the very same conundrum with your cheap plastic junk not making it to Wal-Mart.
Status quo. Stay where you are. Nobody moves, nobody gets hurt.
We need to move forward. Just as in the case of sea, air, and land travel there are benefits as yet unknown in space. Admittedly there are risks as well. We've been painfully reminded of that fact. Still, the sad loss of SpaceShipTwo should be a motivator, not a barricade. While NASA is making its own efforts with tests on its Project Orion, I still believe that the true achievements in space travel will come from private sector leaders like Richard Branson and Elon Musk as they are free to act without hindrance from beholden congressional leaders and tunnel-visioned citizenry.
Many sacrifices have been made to bring humanity into space. Like several other heroes before him, Michael Alsbury sacrificed everything.
We dare not let those sacrifices be in vain.
Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets