Anniversary message from Paul

Learning from Dogs has been running for one year.

On July 15th, 2009 a post called Parenting lessons from Dogs started what has now become a bit of a ‘habit’.  But more reflections tomorrow.

Reach for the Skies

Today I want to voice something that has been running around my mind for some time.  It is whether we give in to the mounting doom and gloom at so many levels in our societies (and it can be a very compelling draw) or whether we see this as a painful but necessary period where slowly but surely the desires of ordinary people; for a fairer, more truthful, more integrous world are gaining power.

And I’m going to use Richard Branson to voice it for me!

(Now this is an unusually long Post so I’ve inserted the Read More divider to prevent the Post visually swamping your browser.)

The last time I flew from London to Phoenix to be back with Jean, I looked for a book to read on the flight.  I purchased Branson’s semi-autobiographical book Reach for the Skies.

As a private pilot, the fact that the book was much about the history of aviation was probably the tipping point for me passing across my credit card.

It turned out to be a good book but for reasons nothing to do with aviation.  It was the theme from the last 10 pages that grabbed me and seems so appropriate for this anniversary Post.

I am going to quote extensively from those last pages and am indebted to the Permissions Manager of Random House Group, publishers, for giving me written permission to so do. (See my P.S. and the end of this article if you wish to purchase the book.)

Please bear with me to the end to see where this is heading.  I start the extract on Page 301 where Branson is reflecting on the future, a future flight in one of Virgin Galatic’s spaceships.

Here is the Earth – see it through that porthole.  It is vast.  It is not the mere marble in space that so awed the Apollo astronauts.  We have barely left our mother planet’s arms.

These, make no mistake, are the shallows.  Enjoy them.  Your next flight will take you further still.  One day you will travel …. and visit the Moon – not for pleasure, this time, but for business: you have helium 3 to mine, Mars voyagers to build, cities to survey.

It all depends, I suppose, on how young you are.  It all depends how much of a lifetime you’ve got left, and how you want to spend it.  Because this is beyond doubt: there are wonders for the talking up here – if not for us, then for our children.

Picture a world recovering from blight and pollution, its feverish climate cooled by solar shields, its cities and industries powered by solar energy gathered by collecting-surfaces in orbit.  Imagine taking heavy industry off the planet entirely and into orbit.  Imagine never having to launch another rocket; imagine dangling cables from orbit instead – great ropes of artificial spider-silk, or carbon nanotubes.  Imagine catching an elevator into space!

Why, anyway, do we always end up talking about the future of space?  Our present uses of space are extraordinary enough, and we don’t celebrate them nearly as much as we should.

But industries other than telecommunications rely much more profoundly upon satellite technology.  Take the always vexed business of how we feed ourselves.  The world’s population has tripled since I was born [RB born in 1950, Ed].  There are three times as many mouths to feed now than there were at the end of the Second World War.  We rely on satellite images of the earth to grow food for ourselves.  We use good local weather forecasts to improve our yields.

Global food supplies are managed using data from space.  You hardly need me to tell you that this management is imperfect.  The system is riddled with terrible inequities.  Without data from space, however, things would be unimaginably worse: about one in ten of us would starve.

How did we get ourselves into this bind, where pictures from space are all that stand between us and mass starvation?  The answer is in the numbers: when 2001: A Space Odyssey hit cinema screens in 1968, there were under four billion people on the planet.  Now there are nearly seven billion.  When my children get to my age, the earth will be expected to feed around 10 billion people.

Images from space have helped us sustain our rising numbers for years.  They have helped feed us, and they have helped us save what little of the natural world we can.  Most important of all, though, they have given us – for the first time in our history – an accurate measure of just how much damage we are doing to the planet.

The truth is this: the earth cannot provide enough food and fresh water for 10 billion people …..

But soon – within our children’s lifetime – there will have to be change.  Human numbers will be brought under control, one way or another.  Either way, billions of human beings will vanish from the Earth’s books.

The trouble is, whether you religiously recycle your cornflakes packet every week, or campaign vigorously to establish solar power stations, none of the good work is going to do anything to solve the underlying problem, which is that the planet cannot comfortably sustain more than about five billion people.  Don’t get me wrong: global warming is a real crisis and it needs to be addressed now.  But it’s nothing like as big a crisis as the one behind it: the prospect of 10 billion inhabitants who survive (and have survived, for around 1.8 million years) mostly by burning stuff.

Whatever we do, though, the numbers will always be at our back.  Our planet is not going to grow any bigger.

Branson then goes on to talk about his investments in Virgin Galatic and Virgin Oceanic – demonstrating that even as he


approaches his 60th birthday in three days time (Happy Birthday, Sir Richard) as a successful and prosperous industrialist, he still has a huge commitment to a better future.

Back to this future spaceflight.

Our period of weightlessness is almost up.  Mother Earth begins to tug at us, urging us back into our seats.  SpaceShipTwo prepares to whirl its way, like a sycamore seed, back down into the thick, flyable regions of the Earth’s atmosphere.  Set against our visions of the future, Virgin Galatic’s ride seems modest.  But we should never be embarrassed out of our dreams.

To achieve anything at all in this world, your reach has to exceed your grasp.

We’re heading home now, falling slowly towards the earth, spinning like that sycamore seed through the stratosphere.  There are no storms here – no warm fronts or cold fronts; no weather.  In the stratosphere, warm air rides over cold air, and the temperature drops steadily, down to a bitter minimum of around minus 60 degrees Celsius.  At this cold distance, it’s easy to imagine that life on Earth is equally calm, constant and predictable.

Between five and ten miles from the ground, however, something odd happens.  The further down through the air we go, the hotter is gets.  The bottom-most layers of the atmosphere are warmed by the earth.  Heated from below like water on a stove, they tumble and spin.  Bodies of warm air thump their way through layers of cold air, while great sinks of cold air plug-hole towards the planet’s surface.  The rolling winds rub against each other, charging the atmosphere.  The night side of the Earth sparkles with lightning.  This boisterous bottom part of the atmosphere is the troposphere.  It’s where the weather lives – and so, most of the time, do we.  In this thick and boisterous air, our wings unfold: SpaceShipTwo becomes a regular glider

Back in the weather, steeped in the rain, fog and ice of the uncertain, everyday world, you can’t help but wonder: what will happen?  Will any of our dreams come true?  Will we truly map other worlds, mine asteroids, tap unlimited power from the Sun?  Forecasting the future is a fool’s errand. The weather itself is hard enough to fathom.  The meteorologist Bob Rice can remember a time – as recently as the 1970s – when the weatherman could little more than predict the next day’s forecast. “It took us so long to build a twenty-four hour forecast that we almost didn’t have time to do a forty-eight-hour forecast,” he remembers. “By the time we got to the seventy-two-hour forecast we might just as well have been throwing darts at a board.”

Predicting the air has come on a little way since then.  Human weather, though – for all our thought and study and science, we’re no closer to understanding its workings.  We remain magnificently mysterious to ourselves.

The world does not pull its punches.  If we get the next 100 years wrong, we will crash, as surely as this spacecraft would crash, were our pilot not clever, committed and awake; were the landing strip not laid out below us, well lit, well maintained and well prepared.

The spaceport is like a great blue unblinking eye below us.  Day and night, it stares up at the stars.

In a hundred years, what will it see?

Of all the sentences that jump off the page for me, this one is it:

“To achieve anything at all in this world, your reach has to exceed your grasp.”


Because Sir Richard has shown so clearly that reaching out for a better future is the only way forward for mankind.

There are so many ills, so much corruption and fraud in the world that however loudly we scream and shout ‘that’s not right’ we run the risk of tiring and giving up.

There’s no choice –  we have to work for a better future with the joy and enthusiasm that comes over so strongly from the book.  And if you fancy getting your own copy, here’s the relevant link.

By Paul Handover

P.S. If you fancy getting your own copy, here’s the relevant link.

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