Our pre-20th-century ancestors lived a tightly circumscribed life. Most never travelled more than a few kilometres from the place in which they were born, or met others who had travelled from farther away than that.
Today, we live in a time of unparalleled mobility: the jet engine has made of the world a ball that, it seems, we can hold in one hand, which means we’re able to make statements that would have seemed absurd to our ancestors: “I’m in London this week and New York next!”
Still, one fact remains true of all but a handful of humans who have ever lived: we remain Earth-bound. For most of us, the vast reaches of space beyond the tiny sphere that is our planet remain inaccessible and, on a day-to-day basis, irrelevant. But two small yet significant items of recent news are signs of how that is all about to change.
Virgin Galactic, the private space flight company established by the British businessman Richard Branson, has announced that its first passenger flight to space is expected to take place this year. Branson and his two children will be among the six passengers aboard the first official flight of SpaceShip-Two, the lightweight carbon-fibre craft that Virgin Galactic engineers have been testing in the Mojave Desert for three years now.
The rocket-powered plane piggybacks on a jet airliner for the first half of its flight, and then soars to around 100km above the Earth’s surface, taking it to the Kármán Line, the boundary that by convention separates Earth and space. That will make for a suborbital flight of around two hours, including a short period of weightlessness. Celebrities including Tom Hanks, Katy Perry and Brad Pitt have already purchased US$200,000 (Dh734,600) tickets for subsequent SpaceShip-Two flights (could be quite a ride if they’re all on the same plane).
Industry analysts say the suborbital flights could eventually transform the way we travel, rendering London to Sydney a four-hour journey. Give it 15 years and it may be available for around $20,000 (about the price of a first-class ticket from London to Sydney today).
Meanwhile, the US firm Deep Space Industries has announced its intention to mine a near-Earth asteroid for precious metals by 2020. They’re planning the 2016 launch of a series of satellites that will land on asteroids and then take three years to collect minerals from the rocks before bringing them back to Earth. Asteroid mining could transform the supply of precious metals – and become a $1 trillion industry.
The implications, then, are apparent. Forty-four years since men – armed with the kind of computing power you might now find in a wristwatch – landed on the moon, we are reaching out into space in manifold new ways, and starting, at last, to draw on its resources as we have for so long drawn on the resources of Earth. While the pioneering space programmes of the 1950s and 1960s laid the groundwork, it’s only now that we’re taking the first, tentative steps towards spreading our arms into the world beyond ours.
How long before access to the universe beyond the Kármán Line becomes commonplace for ordinary people? Perhaps it’s a leap too far to expect that in our lifetime.
But, for now, if you have $200,000 to burn and an appetite for adventure, Richard Branson should be on your speed dial.
David Mattin is lead strategist at trendwatching.com