Sunday, August 8, 2004
The fascination of flight has haunted the dreams of man through countless centuries. How many have stood and marvelled at the eagle or the hawk soaring on unseen currents of air far above the ground? And then, when the sun had set, they saw -- beyond even the grasp of eagles and hawks -- the myriad stars of the night and the unknown reaches of space.
The dream of Daedalus spread across generations and continents. The dream could not be bound by race, or language, or wealth. Until finally, from Kill Devil Hill on a beach near a small village called Kitty Hawk, the dream flared for a few dozens of seconds then metamorphosed into reality.
Like fledglings first leaving the nest, those early flights and aircraft were often awkward, fatal, or both. But the nest was large and the fledglings many. A few mishaps could not temper the urge to fly. Names like Wright, Earhart, and Gagarin became etched in the pantheon of modern heroes. And a new dream began to make itself felt - space; the moon, the sun, and the stars.
The pace of technology made the step from the blue skies of earth to the blackness of space an unbelievably quick one. After millennia upon millennia of terra-bound generations, in the course of one man's lifetime occurred the Wright brothers' first wobbly flights, Gagarin's initial rocket-ride into space, and Armstrong's first step on the moon. Unmanned probes visited the solar system and then ventured out beyond. The stars themselves were next in line.
From Kitty Hawk to Apollo the speed of flight had increased a thousand-fold: Thirty thousand miles per hour was an unfathomable speed to most of the earth's inhabitants. Yet the next few decades saw that speed increase by another thousand-fold to nearly thirty MILLION miles per hour. And the stars inched only slightly closer.
The nearest star to earth, other than our own sun, is Proxima Centauri. It lies just over 4 light-years away. Traveling at 30 million mph a spaceship would need more than 200 years to fly there. The distances were too great. The time-scales were too long. Despite the permanent stations in orbit and the small but growing colony on Mars, the dream of the stars began to waver. Sometimes, no matter how hard you wish, dreams don't come true.