If once my memory serves me well

Dave Wilson examines the enormous benefits to be gleaned from man’s first privately financed flight into space.

<b>Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race. – H. G. Wells.</b>

This week, the history books were rewritten as man took his first flight into space!

Well, perhaps not the first flight exactly. But it certainly felt like it, as the American ‘SpaceShipOne’, piloted by Mike Melvill, actually became the first privately financed manned ship to travel to space.

The jaunt into infinity and beyond was all part of the SpaceShipOne team’s attempt to win the $10 million Ansarix X Prize. All that lovely money will be awarded to the first bunch of fellas that can launch a piloted, privately funded space ship able to carry three people one hundred kilometres above the earth.

Built by Scaled Composites with the help of a few million dollars from Microsoft’s Paul Allen, there’s no doubt that SpaceshipOne is a remarkable piece of engineering. But I can’t help but thinking that the trip itself was just an egotistical waste of time.

After all, we have seen it all before, haven’t we? (Or at least you have – Ed.) Because it was back in 1961, if my memory serves me well, when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to travel into space aboard Vostok 1. And although he didn’t get a ten million prize for doing so, he was given the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.

What really is the point of reproducing the efforts of the Russian Hero over forty years later? Not a lot as far as I can tell. To open up space for us all? Hardly. Just for those with the cash to go. Does the name Richard Branson come to mind?

So you can imagine how much more excited I was to learn that Tom Smith was awarded the much smaller sum of £6000 and a lifetime membership to the Royal Institution as the recipient of the L’Oréal – Royal Institution Science Graduate of the Year 2004 award.

Smith, an engineer from the University of Cambridge, took his award for the development of a novel and efficient thermofluidic pump that could have countless industrial, agricultural and domestic applications – especially in the Third World. Hopefully, the good folks at Critical Point Dynamics, with whom Smith works, will be able to exploit his innovation to do just that.

Upon receiving the prestigious award, Smith humbly said that his single greatest motivation was the real impact that his invention can have on the lives of the world’s poorest people.

This is a bit more like it, eh? Engineers with a truly altruistic attitude that genuinely work to produce something useful for mankind. So much more refreshing than the pointless engineering time and money that is being poured into a trip into space that we have taken before.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing if another Microsoft millionaire would step forward and put some dosh in Smith’s skyrocket to reward him for his unique design? Sadly, that’s not likely to happen, is it? Maybe we could all club together and buy Smith a medal with the word ‘Hero’ on it as a some sort of consolation instead.