Ex astria scientia: Humankind must move beyond the cradle

Last Wednesday, mankind took another giant leap toward civilian space travel. SpaceShipOne flew to an altitude of nearly 64 miles, by official estimates. This is well above the altitude of about 62 miles needed to qualify for the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million prize intended to advance private space travel the way that similar prizes advanced commercial aviation back in the days of Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. This flight flies in the face of those who claim that only governments will have the resources necessary to put people into orbit, on the Moon, or perhaps one day on Mars. The pilot of SpaceShipOne, Mike Melvill, became, at age 63, the first man to earn his astronaut wings in a private spacecraft.
Already there are plans for even more people to go into space. To fulfill the requirements for the Ansari X Prize, the same craft must make another successful flight within two weeks of the first successful flight, no simple feat. In the first flight, the craft performed about 40 barrel rolls while climbing to altitude, something both unexpected and undesired. Still, Burt Rutan, the ship?s designer, feels that they should have any remaining technical issues worked out by their second flight, happening today.
For those who lack the skill and training to become a pilot, Richard Branson has another option. Founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways, Branson has always been pushing the commercial aviation envelope. He has now announced his intent to go beyond the Earth and to bring space tourism to those who have the money. Tentatively dubbed ?Virgin Galactic,? this new business venture would use technology that Branson has licensed from Mohave Aerospace Ventures, the company behind SpaceShipOne.
Of course, there are already arguments on how to best bring space travel (especially low Earth orbit and suborbital flights) to the masses. Jim Benson of SpaceDev, the group that designed the engine in SpaceShipOne, feels that while SpaceShipOne is acceptable for winning the Ansari X Prize, another configuration will be needed for affordable space travel. His vehicle would take off like a rocket and land like a plane, in some ways similar to how the shuttle works now.
Governments around the world are also working to bring mankind to the stars. The Communist Chinese have sent a man into orbit and have a lunar program in the works, while the Bush administration has announced plans to return to the Moon by 2020 and go to Mars no earlier (not later) than 2030. Although this is a step in the right direction, frankly, it?s a baby step. Private companies have the potential to make great strides faster than governments already having millions of other things to fund and prioritize.
But all these plans have a greater need behind them than to satisfy billionaires? desire for a new thrill and governments? desire for further superiority. Space travel has brought about many advances in science and technology, some great (bar code scanners and rotary blood pumps) and some not-so-great (space ice cream). A presence in space becomes more and more important as we grow to realize the threat presented to us by a rogue asteroid. Most important and necessary of all, traveling to space is one of the finest expressions of the human will and spirit. It lets us look beyond earthly desires and explore the limits of the universe and our own human potential.