Mark Shuttleworth, South Africa's first man to journey into space came back to earth last weekend - and Gary S* and his parents got back from Pietersburg in the province of Limpopo. To my mind Mark and Gary's journeys are comparable because they both had to take their own supplies of oxygen along.
Mark Shuttleworth could undertake his dream journey partly because he is particularly healthy and fit. Gary, on the other hand had to take his oxygen cylinders along because he is very ill. For the last four years he has suffered the consequences of HIV infection.
Mark spent as many hours in space as Gary has spent days in hospital in the course of his short life. Gary was first admitted to our children's ward at the age of two. In the course of his third and fourth years of life he required numerous recurrent admissions to the ward for chest infections. He was always discharged well, but in the course of time his lungs and eventually also his heart became so damaged that he could not survive without continuous oxygen therapy - in hospital and at home.
The newspapers have described the detailed planning necessary for a successful trip into space. From the time Gary's parents decided on their trip to the North, they had to do a fair amount of careful planning themselves. They had arranged to leave Cape Town with three full oxygen cylinders. They calculated how long each would last and received directions to local oxygen depots on their approach into Bloemfontein, Pretoria and Pietersburg.
Mrs S had told me about their intentions to visit Pietersburg and I had written a letter to the local health care services to inform them of his condition, had he fallen ill while on holiday. I thought they would be flying and had not given any thought to the possibility that they would be travelling by road. Had they told me of their plan, I would have rated their chance of a successful trip about as likely as Mark Shuttleworth going into space - when I first heard of that idea. Gary speaks Tswana at home and so Mrs S had to tell me how he had enjoyed the trip. It was pretty clear that he had enjoyed the long trek about as much as any other reasonable six year old would have. Mostly, he slept. Occasionally woke up to ask: 'Are we there yet, Dad?' In reply to my question about what he had enjoyed most, the answer was: 'Coming home again'.
Interesting that despite all the excitement of a visit to the space station, coming home to earth was also Mark Shuttleworth's best moment.
Not much has changed since I was a child. At the age of six, long journeys by road are utterly, bone-chillingly, boring. One spends hours sleeping on the back seat - brothers and sisters permitting - hopefully only to regain consciousness once the family has made it to the other end. And the law of families decrees that children go where dad wants to go, until he gets wheels of his own.
Mark Shuttleworth must have covered a whole lot of kilometres in space. According to my road atlas, Gary and his family drove seventeen hundred and ten kilometres to Pietersburg and as many back again. That's about as long a return trip as one can make in South Africa. The family S spent two thousand six hundred rand on oxygen alone. Mark Shuttleworth, so we are told, spent more than twenty million dollar to get to the international space station. There will be those who would say that both journeys were simply a waste of money. But one must admire the fact that Mark could make his dreams come true - and marvel that even in the shadow of AIDS ordinary family life goes on. Even the boring bits, like long journeys by road.
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