CANONICAL FOUNDER and technology entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth is no stranger to exploration. As the first South African to enter space when he launched aboard the Russian Soyuz TM-34 mission as the second spaceflight tourist in 2002, the man responsible for the Ubuntu Linux distribution has a love for the deep unknown. And he's convinced we're not alone in the universe.
"The fact we are just getting to the point where we can sample the atmospheres of planets around other stars is incredible," Shuttleworth observes. "This is extraordinary. In our lifetimes I think we are going to see what will turn out to be absolute proof of life elsewhere the universe. I'm certain of it, and I think that's enormously important."
Shuttleworth foresees that this discovery will tear away our obsession with inconsequential things and force us to think more carefully about our roles as humans in the universe, not restricted to "just this little patch", as he refers to planet Earth.
Although he has only visited space once, Shuttleworth says he'd be delighted to go back again, because travelling the world just isn't enough.
"I love explorers and exploration. One of the great things about the UK is that it had this tremendous tradition of exploration: Captain Cook and the like," he says.
This love for epic explorations and discovery springs from what Shuttleworth describes as our "disaffected" society where there is no longer "the great unknown", thanks to developments in technologies such as Google Earth.
"It's an amazing world that we live in where a teenager can pull up a high resolution picture of any part of the world that they care to, that's extraordinary. But that does leave us feeling a little trapped," Shuttleworth adds, justifying his urge to explore domains that are deep in science. "You have to go to space if you want to explore these days."
He compares "popping up into space" to scuba diving, highlighting the similarities in how the opening up of another, concealed world can put life into perspective. But in space it's a little different, as he makes clear. "You suddenly realise that all of human history is in this tiny little film of life in this tiny planet in this vast universe."
Shuttleworth's fascination with space is tied up with his belief that we have only scratched the surface of the universe and he is desperate for everyone to realise this too.
"We are all space man on a little space ship that we are polluting furiously. It's the only space ship we have and it's a very big, very wide, very unexplored universe out there, so I want to be part of drawing people's attention to that."
Though he recognises the upcoming Virgin Galactic suborbital spaceflight launch is a wonderful project as it aims to help people discover a place outside our planet's atmosphere, it's not really one for him, describing it as what would be "a rollercoaster ride" compared to what he experienced in his expedition into space.
Instead, Shuttleworth has other plans: Mars. "I'd go in a heartbeat," he says. But for now, plans to step foot on the dusty red planet are on the back burner.
"In life you take on projects out of love and interest and I think it's good to have projects that are deep and interesting, but you focus your energy on things that are appropriate for the time, and right now I'm having an absolute blast."
For the moment, Shuttleworth is keeping his feet firmly on the ground, and has tied himself up in a new project. Laughing off the inaccurate reports online that he bought an island, Shuttleworth confirmed that he is spending his time on a new project, which does involve an island, just not buying one.
Shuttleworth has bought some leases in a tropical country named Príncipe, which is one of the two major islands of the country of São Tomé and Príncipe in the Gulf of Guinea, off the western equatorial coast of Central Africa.
"I find Príncipe rather magnificent," Shuttleworth beams. "A place that is good for rough travel. It's in the GMT [time zone], has no tropical diseases, and is completely underdeveloped. It's beautiful and the people are wonderful.
"I found my way there because I like to go to places that are difficult to get to and I fell in love with it."
Príncipe is a very poor part of the world. Shuttleworth's love for the country has meant that he has taken on responsibility there to help the country create an eco-tourism industry.
Right now, there is no industrial activity in Príncipe, which Shuttleworth says is part of the charm and beauty of the place.
"It's a very difficult thing because what we're trying to do is figure out how we can bring people here, how we can give them a great tourism experience, how that can create great economic activity, but how that economic activity doesn't turn around and then destroy the quality of life, the environment."
For Shuttleworth, Príncipe has no relation to Canonical. For him, it's completely separate, perhaps as an escape from technology, which he says is very easy to do there because it's not on the grid.
"It's a very humbling thing that when you got to a place that on paper is so poor, and yet in a very real sense it's so rich," Shutleworth adds. "People live very healthy lives. They treat each other with tremendous respect. They have a very clean environment because it's so isolated and there's no industrial activity, so for all of those reasons you know it's a very challenging thing to take on."
A challenge it might be, but after he ventured out to space and expressed the desire to visit another planet altogether, it's hard to doubt him. It might be imagined that Shuttleworth isn't far from a real-life superhero. Though he denies it and laughs at the idea, it's been said that he's the basis for the fictional ingenious engineer and Iron Man Tony Stark, the comic book superhero and airborne crusader keen on exploring space. And it's not hard to see why. µ
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