Monday, 29 July 2013

Why I am travelling into space on Virgin Galactic

Recently I took the decision to reserve a seat on Virgin Galactic's spaceship. At some point in the next few years, all being well, I am going to travel in space.

At this point, if you are like my wife you will be speechless. Literally. No words will come out of your mouth. You will walk away slowly shaking your head. If you are like my son you will say "cool, can I go instead of you?". If you are like my brother, who I tried to impress by saying I was going to tell him something completely unexpected, you will say, with a shrug "yes, that's exactly the sort of thing I'd expect you to do." If you were like the chap in the bank who asked what the reason for the large funds transfer was you will have turn red, burst out laughing, stood up and shook my hand. If you are like my daughter, you will listen carefully to my reasons and then, understanding what drives me, thoughtfully give me permission to go.

For those who don't know, Virgin Galactic is Sir Richard Branson's venture to introduce space travel to folk like you and me. The spacecraft is carried high into the atmosphere by a mothership, and then when the mothership reaches maximum height it will release the small spaceship capable of carrying six passengers. The spaceship then blasts its rockets carrying it 100 km above sea level, which is the Karman Line, the commonly accepted definition of where space begins.

Did I mention that I am scared of heights? Really.

So why on earth (pun intended) have I decided to jump aboard and experience this journey?

Gosh, that's a hard question. But I think the answer lies in the word journey.

I am on a journey. From where, to where, I don't really know. But what I do know is that I can't seem to stop. I can't relax. Whatever I have done is just not good enough. I must do more. I must prove that I am "good enough". I don't know what happens if I stop and am judged to be not good enough, but hey, why take the risk? Better keep moving.

I've done quite a lot of things I suppose over the years. Built schools. Created companies. Run charities. Travelled from Hong Kong to Hawaii, Mumbai to Mauritius, London to Lagos, Albuquerque to Afuze and all sorts of places in between. I have had champagne breakfast at dawn in the wild Maasai Mara surrounded by wildebeest and I have had lunch in the Palace of Westminster surrounded by Royalty. I have presented alongside Bill Gates to a thousand strong audience and I have sat on the floor with young orphans in Kenya chatting about life. Yes, I've done a few things.

But it's not good enough. I must keep moving. Because if I stop, then what will happen? I don't know, but I'm not going to take the risk of stopping and finding out.

So, as I turned 50 this year, and after a very challenging year when I lost my Big Brother and my father within months of each other, I started to ponder. What next? What do I work towards? What can I do that I will find exciting and truly daunting for years to come? Something that will keep me driving forwards, even when the sadness of my losses tries to drag me down. Something that will really stretch me in all sorts of directions. Something that perhaps when I've done it, I will be able to sit down in my rocking chair, in the autumn, smile to myself and say "okay, that's enough. That's good enough. You tried, Tom. You can rest."

I'm a scientist. Not a very good one. But I did study Physics to degree level and I do know what quantum entanglement is (I think!). If someone said "all the writers go over there, economists over there, artists there and scientists there" I would go and stand with the scientists. I love science. The analytical scientific process. The vast body of scientific knowledge. The totally counterintuitive findings. The fact that, as Richard Feynman, my favourite physicist (and who has a favourite physicist?) explains you can't prove anything to be abosolutely true. Whatever you think is true just hasn't been proven wrong yet! So stop being so damn certain about everything and have a bit of intellectual humility.

As a scientist, I want to inspire others to engage with the great subjects too. Everyone needs a BIG project. What's your BIG project? My BIG project is education in Africa. I am interested in science education and particularly in seeking out the brightest young minds from across the Continent and engaging them in deeply challenging discussions and debates on the nature of the world we live in, the universe around us and the laws that govern it. My African Gifted Foundation is all about that and the iconic permanent Academy that we will go on to build on the continent will be a hot bed of scientific intellectual creativity for years to come.

So, this step into space is part of my personal scientific journey of exploration and discovery. In the future I am looking forward to visiting every single country in Africa and inspiring young people with the story of my own scientific journey. From a troublesome teenage scientist who battled with his teacher and was thrown out of class any number of times for being disruptive, to touching the edge of space and seeing the earth itself from the outside.

I hope what I do helps inspire young scientists to push their boundaries too. My father grew up as a farmer's son in Afuze, a tiny village in West Africa, in a level of poverty that you can barely imagine. I am going into space. What a wonderful world we live in, that such a thing is possible in one generation.

If I can do that, imagine what you can do! What are you going to do when you grow up? And what stories will you tell?

When I grow up, I am going to travel in space and when I've done it, I'm going to tell the story.


Olu Soji said...

Stay Safe!

Anonymous said...

I have heard you say these words 'I am not good enough'.... twice in the last month. Can I just publicly state now that yes you are! You have achieved more than anyone else I know BUT more importantly than that you've always brought others with you. Guided them, supported them, treated them, motivated them. I know countless amounts of people (some whom have only met you once! Or actually never!!) that talk of you and your achievements or suggest you as the go to man for guidance and wise words...Because you inspire them.

So please never again talk of not being good for others because that simply isn't true. And please feel free to stop at any given moment (and let the rest of us catch up with you!! :P )

However... if it has not been good enough for YOU then please, by all means carry on. And make sure you ENJOY the journey. Live it, breathe it, feel it... be happy in it.


june forbes said...

I agree with anonymous. Remember to stop and smell the roses(not that there are any in space).

Peter Robin said...

Oh Tom

You make me feel truly humble.

Kind regards

Anonymous said...

"I have had lunch in the Palace of Westminster surrounded by Royalty"

Before you get carried away, I assume by 'royalty' you mean peers? The royal family are not known to dine in parliament; virtually the only occasion they can be found there is at the state opening of parliament.

Tom Ilube said...

Hi Anonymous, not that it matters but as it happens I was invited to The Queen's Diamond Jubilee lunch at Westminster Palace last year. Princes Charles, William, Harry and Princess Catherine were all present. Prince Philip would have been there but he wasn't well. Yes there was a goodly smattering of peers too of course.