Wednesday, 13 April 2011

The final frontier

In December 1903 a pair of American brothers, who would become known as simply the Wright brothers, made the first powered and controlled flight in a heavier-than-air, fixed-wing aircraft. Just 58 years later, on 12 April 1961, two years before I was born, the human race had evolved to such an extent that a Russian, Yuri Gagarin, aboard Vostok 1, became the first man in space.

In that same year the American President John F Kennedy was inaugurated, the Berlin Wall went up, the population of the world was less than half what it is now, at 3 billion, and The Beatles were unknown and still to record their debut album, Please Please Me in 1963.

I have always found it incredible that in just 50 years we have gone from Yuri Gagarin, to having spacecraft that come and go from space, that now only attract a couple of lines in the national press. Even more astonishing is that every 90 minutes, far above our heads, a man-made space station completes an orbit of the earth. Am I the only one that finds that incredible?

My love of all things space, be it early programmes by Carl Sagan, or more recently by Brian Cox, started back in July 1969, when Neil Armstrong stepped from the Eagle of Apollo 11 onto the moon's surface. Since then I have been in awe at the continued achievements of man in space. These achievements have come with their own tragic elements too. It was a sad day indeed in early 1986 when the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after take off, and another, Columbia, would be lost on re-entry in 2003.

Space Shuttle Columbia was famous in its own right as it was the first of all the space shuttles to be launched. Fittingly, it's maiden voyage was on 12 April 1981, exactly 20 years to the day after Yuri Gagarin. That timescale in itself is astonishing.

The tragedies of the many losses connected with the space program did not stop the pioneering efforts of the brave men and women involved. Now only two space shuttle missions remain. At the end of April Endeavor will start her last mission, and the final space shuttle to go into space will be Atlantis at the end of June. Discovery launched for the final time in February and is now safely home and on her way to a museum.

It seems strange to me that things which are incredibly difficult and awe inspiring, become just another part of life. Only when tragedy hits, such as the drama surrounding Apollo 13, or the two space shuttle losses, do the general public notice them again. Even the very last shuttle launch on 28 June will most likely be at the end of the news in their "and finally" slot.

However, it wont be the final chapter in man's adventure into space. Just as man pushed west across the prairies in America in the mid 1800s to populate new lands, so too will we push on into space, the final frontier.

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