With so many problems raging on earth, why should governments or private enterprises like Virgin Galactic spend the time, energy and money on space exploration?
As a child I dreamed of being an astronaut and I've always been fascinated by films and television shows about space travel and science. I grew up acting out Star Wars and Star Trek, and watching Carl Sagan's Cosmos. Neil deGrasse Tyson's updated version of the series, produced by Seth MacFarlane, is even more enthralling.
I was especially fascinated by the work of Buckminster Fuller. Bucky Fuller was nearly completely blind, but using his keen sense of touch, he was able to build the dodecahedron–a nearly-spherical object–able to hold the most volume using the least material possible. Any geodesic dome-shaped home or building you see uses his principles. But Bucky's greatest work to me, was his concept of "Spaceship Earth": The idea that our planet is a vessel we are traveling on through space.
Like a ship at sea, we have a finite amount of resources. Without working together, caring for one another and the planet, our ship will suffer and perish. His lifetime of science, like that of Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, led him to the conclusion that human kind has a responsibility to care for one other and the planet.
In 1946, a NASA satellite gave us the first scratchy black and white photo of one tiny segment of Earth from space, but it wasn't until 1967 that the world saw the first glorious photo of it as a big, beautiful sphere. Today we are all-too familiar with "Blue Marble" images of our home planet, but up until that time no one, in hundreds of thousands of years of human history, could envision the Earth's beauty. It has been said that what we find the most beautiful, we care for the most; images of Earth have inspired millions of people to care deeply for the health of our fragile sphere.
People of my generation were children when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff. To us, the crew's deaths were even harder to understand. So it was with a particular sadness that we see the news of the Virgin Galactic flight crash. All I could think of was the unbearable fear and pain that went through the minds of those aboard these vessels as they realized things were going terribly wrong–and the grief of the families and team members as they watched the astronauts give the ultimate sacrifice.
I learned of the loss while watching television on a commercial flight. It brought to mind every film, show or book about test pilots who lost their lives on the way to making air travel available to the masses. As we hit a patch of turbulence, I gripped my chair suddenly; when the plane leveled, I was grateful for the science and the creativity and the lives that went into making my flight land safely.
Over the weekend, astronauts spoke often of how risky they knew their missions were when they climbed into the cockpit. Fear raced through their minds, but the sense of purpose they had was incredibly. They knew that their work would lead to something beneficial for others.
In any pioneering field, incredible risks are taken to achieve the greatest gains. Just as the fascination of flight inevitably led to air travel, so will the fascination of space lead to the inevitability of civilian space travel.
I look forward to hearing what the NTSB investigation learns about the cause of the crash, but for today I want to pause and pray for the pilot who lost his life, for the other who is fighting for his. and for the families and loved ones who are living in so much pain at this moment.
In the words of Elizabeth Kubler Ross:
The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.
I hope that the pain of this tragedy will lead to a greater understanding of space, the beauty of our planet, the fragility of life, and the importance of us all working together in stewardship of Earth.