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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Let Me See What Spring Is Like On Jupiter And Mars

Virgin Galactic, the partnership of recording mogul Richard Branson and aeronautical engineering genius Burt Rutan unveiled "spaceship2", their planned commercial sub-orbital launch vehicle today. Basically, it's a larger, slightly modified version of their X Prize-winning "spaceship1", which was the first commercial vehicle to achieve sub-orbital flight a couple of years ago.

Although it looks like flight testing could begin as early as this year, apparently there are still some significant technical challenges to be overcome, and the 100 or so folks who've already ponied up $200K apiece for the first flights will probably have to wait until 2009 or 2010 until the vehicle is "man-rated" and approved for commercial flights.

Still, it's an exciting bit of news. In a year or two, real people just like you and me (assuming of course "you and me" had a couple hundred thou burning holes in our pockets) will be able to take brief jaunts up to the edge of space, bounce around the cabin in microgravity for a few minutes, presumably make liberal use of easy-to-reach "space-sickness" bags, and then experience the roller-coaster sensation of a 6-g deceleration back into the atmosphere.

After that, orbiting hotels and vacation getaways to the moon should be just around the corner, right?


A couple of weeks ago, I got involved in a discussion on the topic of "what's the one thing we were promised about the future that you wish we really had?", one of those speculative, non-controversial subjects that you get into on social occasions when everyone is tired of talking work, art, politics, and sports. And of course, most of the usual items came up as a matter of course: where's our personal jet packs, or flying cars, or cybernetic implants or what-not?

Most of the people were in their 20's or early 30's, so they can be forgiven a certain lack of perspective on the subject. After all, they hadn't even been born during the hey-day of "the space race", and one or two were even too young to remember the Challenger explosion, so it was no surprise most of them culled their ideas of our ideal, promised future from - most likely - Hollywood science fiction films they remembered seeing as kids.

When it got around to me, however, I think I had a bit of a different perspective on the matter. "The thing about the future I miss most," I started, "was that it really never happened at all." That earned me a few quizical stares, "If you grew up in the 1950's or early 1960's, 'the future' was about more than self-driving cars, and self-cleaning homes, we were expecting to charge out into the solar system with the determination of an army going into battle. By now, we should have been landing on Mars, and building permanent bases on the moon, and even sending manned expeditions to Jupiter or Saturn. But, as soon as we hit the first big milestone; landing on the moon and returning to earth, we just - stopped."

And that's the sad part about "the future that never was", because we COULD HAVE DONE IT. Von Braun & Co. had the whole campaign mapped out back in the late 1940's, and most of the technical details were solved by the mid 1960's. But, as soon as we "beat the Russians to the moon", people began acting like that was the entire point of the exercise, like there were no goals beyond just that one. They got bored, they said it was too expensive, that we had pressing problems here on earth to deal with first, etc., etc. But you know what? We haven't solved any of those "pressing problems" 40 years down the road, and the expense today of such an undertaking compared to then is significantly higher.

The truth is, we just lost the collective will to do it, that's all.

And so here we are today, seven years beyond that "magical" year of 2001, and a few visionary billionaires are finally getting around to putting us back on-track. I'm still hoping I'll get to see that Mars landing in my lifetime; maybe even some modest outpost on the lunar surface. I'd trade the jetpacks, and hovercars, and meals-in-pill-form, and robot housemaids, and all the rest, just for the knowledge that the Human Race had finally made a couple more baby-steps off our increasingly inhospitable little ball of mud, and out into the big, wide, universe, where presumably there are plenty of other little balls of mud for us to muck up - or maybe we'll have figured out how not to do that by the time we get there.

That's a future worth hoping for, isn't it?

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Posted byCOMTE on 12:28 PM

0 Scurvy Dogs Have Gathered 'Round The Scuttle Butt

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