Friday, October 15, 2010

Space Tourists: Reaching Past the End of our Brick


One of my favorite poems, which my grandmother used to tell me, was A.A. Milne's The Four Friends. Partly I was tickled that I and the snail in the poem shared the same name, but more than that, I loved the odd grouping of a massive elephant, powerful lion, bumbling goat and tiny James the snail.

Ernest was an elephant, a great big fellow,
Leonard was a lion with a six foot tail,
George was a goat, and his beard was yellow,
And James was a very small snail.

Leonard had a stall, and a great big strong one,
Earnest had a manger, and its walls were thick,
George found a pen, but I think it was the wrong one,
And James sat down on a brick

Earnest started trumpeting, and cracked his manger,
Leonard started roaring, and shivered his stall,
James gave a huffle of a snail in danger
And nobody heard him at all.

Earnest started trumpeting and raised such a rumpus,
Leonard started roaring and trying to kick,
James went on a journey with the goats new compass
And he reached the end of his brick.

Ernest was an elephant and very well intentioned,
Leonard was a lion with a brave new tail,
George was a goat, as I think I have mentioned,
but James was only a snail.


For the snail, a journey to the end of his brick was clearly an awesome odyssey, requiring a compass to keep him on course. What an amazing accomplishment for that little fellow.

Now former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, among others, is doing his best to encourage all of us to travel to the end of our brick, by which I mean take a trip into low Earth orbit. The first few travelers aboard Virgin Galactic's spacecraft will only make suborbital trips about 100 kilometers high, but some day soon they hope to offer tourists extended stays a couple hundred kilometers up.

Sounds like a lot of fun, if you don't mind a bit of radiation exposure. Of course, anyone who tans on the beach has made an informed choice to accept the risk of radiation (in the form of ultra violet light) for beauty and relaxation. So I imagine plenty of people would take on similar risk to head to orbit, although there's no tan from space travel to impress your friends with.

The thing that amuses me about the venture is the insistence of Aldrin and other space tourism proponents on using grand terms like Star Traveler rather than space tourists. They will, after all, barely step off of the planet. Low orbit travelers will circle the planet at a distance equivalent to about one percent of the Earth's diameter. It might give them a cloudless view of the stars, but it hardly qualifies them as traveling among the stars.

Maybe this is just the beginning, you might argue. Low Earth orbit today, and to the stars tomorrow!

Unfortunately, you're not going to squeeze that trip into a summer vacation. The nearest star is 4 light years away, which means that if you could travel at the speed of light (which we can't), it would take you four years to get there. And then there wouldn't be much to see other than a star. You might as well look at it through a telescope.

The nearest known habitable planet/star system, Gliese 581g, is about 20 light years away. You might make there in your lifetime, but by the time you get back you will have spent most of your life in transit.

So, are we likely to become Star Travelers any time soon? And will Virgin Galactic ever offer travel beyond our moon? Probably not. But I'll still be thrilled to take a ride a few hundred kilometers into the sky. At least it's a little way past the end of my brick.

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