There is no doubting mankind's obsession with space. Humans have long gazed starward and created stories to explain our origins and place in the universe. As we have evolved, we have increasingly wondered about the substance of that universe, including whether there is any other life "out there".

Our music, movies and literature are full of such ponderings. From epics such as The War of the Worlds, the confounding 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the ever-expanding Star Wars and Star Trek series, to comic creations such as Red Dwarf and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, to David Bowie's alter ego Ziggy Stardust, artists have sought to investigate, interpret and imagine.

But the stuff of popular culture and science fiction is now firmly science fact.

The Soviet Union put the first satellite - Sputnik 1 - into orbit in 1957, and the first human - Yuri Gagarin - in 1961. When the US caught up, we were treated to Earthrise, the now iconic colour photograph of our partial planet floating bold, blue and brilliant in a sea of black, with part of the lunar surface in the foreground, taken by astronauts on the Apollo 8 mission in 1968, the first manned orbit of the moon. Since the Apollo 11 moon landing the next year, the space race has continued at a dizzying pace.


No longer, it seems, can space be deemed the final frontier.

Who can forget Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield's powerful rendition of Bowie's Space Oddity from aboard the International Space Station, which has now been inhabited continuously since 2000.

Where once Bowie mused whether there was Life on Mars?, unmanned rovers now dare to tread.

Where Pink Floyd explored the Dark Side of the Moon in all its musical magnificence, the Chinese this year landed an unmanned rover on the lunar surface's far side, thus making their own "giant leap" in space exploration and firmly asserting their part in the "conquering of the universe".

Also this year and (relatively) "fresh" from its 2015 encounter with Pluto, Nasa has revealed photographs taken from its New Horizons spacecraft of a distant world - Ultima Thule, some 6.5 billion km from Earth. Its mission is now described as "the farthest exploration in the history of humankind".

If this is only the start of 2019, what other space odysseys could the year hold?

Will it be the year of the private starship enterprisers? The Richard Bransons, Elon Musks and Jeff Bezoses of this world - and the next. Billionaires with the money to turn their visions into reality and shoot their own satellites, rockets, spaceships and cars and (no doubt, soon) paying customers into space? What will be the next move of our own homegrown player, Rocket Lab?

The sky is no longer the limit and that is hugely exciting. But what about the "dark side"? The billions - if not trillions - of dollars that could make life-changing differences to millions of earthlings. The proliferation of space junk (machinery, and now possibly flora and fauna for lunar experiments, too) as our own fragile planet groans under the weight of myriad forms of pollution.

We should certainly dare to dream, but not let all common sense get lost in the space race.