OPINION | The Guardian | 3 November 2014
Devastating accidents in the nascent space tourism industry will not deter me from being one of the first 100 to fly with Virgin Galactic, says Wilson da Silva.
I WANT TO WALK on the Moon, kick up the fine dust and watch it gently settle on my boot, and see the sparkling blue orb of the Earth rise over the horizon. I’m not alone. Millions have the same dream. But it’s never going to be reality unless we take risks.
On 31 October 2014, those risks were crystallised in the Mojave Desert, as SpaceShipTwo burst into flames shortly after firing its rocket motors and came tumbling to the sands 14 kilometres below. One pilot was dead, another seriously injured. It was a tragedy that shocked the fledgling commercial space passenger community.
But it didn't daunt us. And it didn’t change things for me, I’m still excited at the prospect of going into space.
Lying back on the grass and looking at the night sky during the long Sydney summers of my childhood, I fantasised about exploring outer space and pushing back the boundaries of the known. In October 2004, that dream seemed within reach: SpaceShipOne become the first private manned spacecraft, rocketing into history by sending men into space twice within 14 days.
ts builder, Scaled Composites, won the US$10 million Ansari X-Prize, and Virgin Galactic signed up to use the technology to begin commercial flights. That’s when I secured a ticket, guaranteeing me a berth among the first 100 passengers to touch the edge of space and briefly experience what it’s like to be released from the bounds of our planet’s gravity.
While some of my fellow astronauts-to-be have grumbled good-naturedly about the years of waiting, we all know Virgin Galactic is doing something new and very difficult. Delays are for sound technical and safety reasons. This deadly accident is a reminder that what’s being attempted here is pioneering and risky.
We now live in the age of Google Maps and drone flights, of mass air travel, cruises to Antarctica and tourist dives to the wreck of the Titanic. So much of the world is now known or charted that, were the famed 15th century explorer Vasco da Gama alive today, his eyes would be on the stars. Not to navigate by, but to explore.
It’s this yearning that took our species out of the African savannahs 100,000 years ago. We’ve taken the first tentative steps into the final frontier, and there’s no shortage of people who want to go there: 800 have signed up with Virgin Galactic, and more than 200,000 people volunteered to fly a one-way trip to Mars.
Because air travel is safest form of transport today, we take it for granted, and forget that the birth of aviation of was similarly expensive, fraught and deadly.
The pioneers of powered flight, brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright – who gave birth of the modern age of flying – experienced a fatality in September 1908, on their third demonstration flight for the US Army before a crowd of 2,000 people in Fort Myer, Virginia. Orville took up one passenger with him, and the third of these – 26-year-old Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge – became the first passenger to die in an aircraft accident: the propeller came off, and the plane nosedived 23 meters; Selfridge died from a fractured skull, and Orville suffered a broken leg and ribs.
Aviation become important in World War I, but despite some advances in the 1920s, it was still dangerous and fatal accidents were routine. Pilots flew 100m above ground, navigating by roads, railways and compasses. It took years of flying and experimentation before air travel became safe. Between 1920 and 1926, one in every four pilots was killed annually; in the 1930s, one in 50. By 1966, it was one in 1,600.
And flights were expensive: even in 1939, a one way ticket flying New York to France cost US$6,240 in today’s terms. Despite this, passengers signed up in droves. Nearly 50,000 people flew Britain’s Imperial Airways between 1930 and 1939.
The prospect of exploring and colonising space may sound unappealing to some. So was the prospect, a few centuries ago, of a long and arduous journey across treacherous oceans in cramped conditions, only to arrive in a harsh and unforgiving wilderness. Yet tens of thousands of people set off for Australia and North America in search of a new life. Thousands perished. And yet, more came.
I’m devastated for the pilots and the families of everyone involved in the tragedy in Mojave. Space is indeed hard, and this will likely set back the project for years. Passenger flights were expected next year, with Richard Branson himself on the first flight. Virgin Galactic plans to persevere. I hope they do.
Since the 1920s, the motto of the Britain’s RAF, as well as Australia’s RAAF, has been Per ardua, ad astra – “Through adversity, to the stars”. It’s a fitting reminder that soaring above our Earth is a grand adventure, and one we still are only just beginning.