I could have used the title ‘Reach for the skies’ but that would have seemed a bit trite.
Given the death of the pilot of the Virgin Galactic spacecraft crash when testing over California's Mojave Desert last week, it might be disrespectful.
For as long as humanity has possessed the ability to engage in sentient thought – believed to be at least 200,000 years – there has always been a sense of wonderment about what lies beyond the horizon.
The desire to travel is the basis of the theory advocated by those who assert that this is what motivated our antecedents when they left Africa to populate other continents.
Though there is no doubt that the willingness of more latter-day explorers to journey into the unknown created understanding of the world as we know it today, historical artefacts tell us that every civilisation has had an intense fascination with what lies beyond this planet.
After all, as soon as it gets dark you only have to look up to see the constellation of the planets though in cities such as Birmingham light and other forms of pollution makes that more difficult.
Therefore it is hardly surprising that human beings have always had a curiosity about what the planets they could actually see consisted of coupled with, I strongly suspect, a belief that other forms of life looking back at them.
We have a pretty good idea about the nature of planets within our solar system and, to a limited extent, the universe.
Unless we are being lied to – always a popular line among the conspiracy theorists (see also below) – no observable life-form has yet been found to exist beyond earth.
Indeed, it seems, planet earth is what is known among those interested in astrophysics and astrobiology as being in a ‘galactic habitable zone’ commonly referred to as a ‘Goldilocks zone’.
Earth is neither too close nor too far from the sun and therefore exhibits just the right conditions for life.
However, what we also know is that life on earth is coming under threats in ways that, according to the advocates of global warming theory (confession I am one), which will make our existence far more difficult in the future.
Notwithstanding global warming there is always the risk that we will all be wiped out by the type of huge meteorite which, it is believed killed the dinosaurs millions of years ago and which some consider we are statistically we are due to experience again.
And whilst we are at it let’s not forget that if a supervolcano erupted in, for example, Yellowstone National Park in the United States the delicately balanced ecosystems and climate that make life possible across the planet would be significantly altered and probably lead to deaths measured in many hundreds of millions if not billions.
This is scary stuff and, thankfully, we choose to believe that we are not at risk; for the foreseeable future at least!
Whilst the continuance of life may be a good reason for leaving this planet, Richard Branson’s venture into space is seen as being for profit based on the ability of the super-rich to afford the cost of a ticket; at least £150,000 for a couple of minutes of weightlessness.
The dream of being able to fly, an essential prerequisite to going into space, has a long history littered with failed attempts.
Undoubtedly borne of a wish to be like birds, see the Greek legends of Daedalus and Icarus, there have been many inventions intended to allow someone to fly or at least glide (kites are believed to have been invented in China in 500BC).
Hot air balloons became popular in the eighteenth century when popularised by the Montgolfier brothers in France though first documented hot air balloon flight was by a Portuguese priest Bartolomeu de Gusmãoon on August 8, 1709, in Lisbon.
It is suggested once again the Chinese achieved this feat many centuries before.
The influence of renaissance thinkers was essential in creating the basic laws of physics that were the basis of the development of propulsion in engines.
Englishman Sir George Cayley (1773 –1857) who is seen as the “father of the aerodynamics " in that he theorised and tested principles fundamental to using wings and air pressure.
Times of crisis are especially crucial to ensuring ideas are allocated sufficient resources and in the case of the first-world war we saw the origin of the first planes capable of engaging in flight.
Without Reginald Mitchell (1895–1937) and his invention of the versatile and amazingly fast spitfire aeroplane it is unlikely that this country would have been able to defend itself against the Luftwaffe during The Battle of Britain and defeating the threat from The Nazis.
And the next time you are sitting on a budget flight don’t forget the role of Sir Frank Whittle (1907–1996) who is credited with single-handedly inventing the turbojet engine.
Though the horrors that were inflicted during the second-world war should, rightly, never be forgotten it is a strange irony that America’s ability to win the space race was achieved by their willingness to use technicians and engineers, most notably Wernher von Braun , all of whom had been involved in the V-2 rocket project in Peenemünde and intended by Hitler to drop vast amounts of munitions on London to destroy our spirit and willingness to continue the war.
In the late 1960s though landing a man on the moon was seen as incredible it was widely believed to herald a new age in which space travel would become commonplace; just as Richard Branson thinks will eventually be possible.
Like the notional visits of aliens to earth that conspiracy theorists believe have been covered up, many argue that the moon landing was so technologically difficult as to be impossible.
Such people believe that the moon landing was a fraud invented to make America look good at the expense of their only competitors at that time, the Russians.
Nonetheless it is worth recalling what President John F. Kennedy stated in a speech in September 1962 concerning the intention of the NASA lunar programme:
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
Anyone who appreciates the physics of getting a space craft out of the earth’s atmosphere will understand that it requires tremendous force; effectively incredible explosive power found only in rockets.
To enable allow human beings to exit the earth’s atmosphere and return safely is not an easy feat as has been demonstrated by the all-too-frequent deaths over the last six decades but particularly exemplified by the two disasters involving the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia in 1986 and 2003 respectively.
If ever travel to outer space is to become the sort of everyday experience envisaged by science fiction writers then we will need to sort of ingenuity that allows us to experience sustained flight as an everyday experience.
However, whether it will ever happen anytime soon depends on making it a whole lot cheaper and safer than is currently the case.
Though many scoff at Richard Branson for his belief that routine ‘space tourism’ is just a few months away he at least continues to pursue the dream that at least those with deep pockets may see what is reputed to be both the splendid isolation and incredible beauty of earth against the vast blackness and magnitude of space.
Whilst we live on a 'perfect' planet capable of sustaining our continued existence, Richard Branson should not be criticised for continuing our ancestors’ dream of attempting to journey into the unknown.
Despite the tremendous associated costs and risks involved in space travel it is vital for our future, in terms of new discoveries, innovation and ingenuity that we don't stop reaching beyond the sky.