********(1) The Political Aspect of Spaceflight
********(2) The Current Situation in Space Development
********(3) What Should We Campaign For?
********(4) Why Not Spend All Our Money Helping the Poor Instead?
Ideas do not sell themselves. They need people to argue for them, to breathe life into them, otherwise they suffocate.
The most fundamental ideas in politics and society concern one's sense of identity. An identity forged in the light of our true place in the universe must necessarily be different from those derived from the traditional beliefs and customs of pre-scientific peoples living in pre-astronautical societies.
Our civilisation is threatened by numerous conflicts among competing national and religious groups. These base their sense of identity on an intellectually stunted micro-environment -- a fixed set of traditional ideas arising from historical accident, or a region of space which only looks large when one is within a millionth of an astronomical unit of it. The dangers range from terrorist attacks to all-out nuclear war. More subtle threats include economic stagnation, and they include both natural and artificially induced climate change.
In every case the view from space is essential to seeing the problem in its proper perspective and cultivating the patience to deal with it effectively. This is because it is a long-term view, and one grounded in the most basic facts of astronomy and biology.
Our true identity is that of inhabitants of a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam (Carl Sagan's words, inspired by the photo of Earth taken from Voyager 1 when it was beyond the orbit of Pluto, 14 February 1990). Yet our potential future is that of emissaries of life to the rest of the universe.
This view, the view from space, is both humbling and ennobling. Small and apparently insignificant as we are, the weakest of glimmers of consciousness lost in infinities of cosmic space and evolutionary time, yet we are also the only part of this immensity which can begin to understand the nature of the stars over our heads and the rocks beneath our feet. Amongst billions of species that have lived and died on Earth, we are the only kind of creature that can begin to cross the cosmic abyss to populate the universe and turn its raw substances and energies to the purposes of life.
This view of the astronautical evolution of life out into the universe motivates us to treat our fellow humans kindly and to endure the inevitable trials ahead with patience and optimism.
Let us be in no doubt: space is one of the big ideas of human history. It is bigger than utopian socialism, bigoted nationalism, militant religionism, pessimistic environmentalism or the angry anti-establishment protest movement. It is the first big motivating idea about our place in the unverse which begins to address reality, as revealed by the past two centuries of scientific exploration.
When we send a probe to scratch in the martian dust for signs of life, when we allow a member of our species to gaze down at the beauty of Earth from orbit, when we stop on a clear evening to look up in wonder at the night sky -- in all these cases, we are participating personally in this revolution in human consciousness.
That is why we support the mission of Beagle 2 and its successors. That is why we greet the prospect of commercial passenger spaceflight with excitement.
Some people argue that the money would be better spent on more schools and hospitals. Yet what should be taught in those schools, if not the glory of mankind's place in the universe? Why should those hospitals bother to heal us, if not so that we can return with renewed vigour to the business of making the universe a better place for life?
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I believe that the space enterprise has now arrived at a crucial moment in its development.
It is easy to be overawed by the big government space agencies' current monopoly on manned spaceflight, and their dramatic history. Yet that monopoly is now about to be broken.
As of March 2004 there are 27 industrial teams, mostly in the U.S.A., the U.K. and Canada, competing for the distinction of being the first to fly private passengers to the edge of space in a commercially built and operated reusable spacecraft. Their immediate goal is to win the 10 million dollar X-Prize. In America, famed aircraft designer Burt Rutan is almost ready to claim the prize. In Britain, Steve Bennett's Starchaser Industries has been building and test-firing large rocket engines and test-flying a reusable piloted capsule, as well as touring schools with Starchaser 4, which in 2001 became the largest rocket ever flown from the mainland U.K.
If just one X-Prize team can succeed in making passenger spaceflight a commercial success, the whole business will no longer be dependent upon the fluctuations of political support. The market can take over and drive the settlement of space, just as 400 years ago it did with the foundation of the East India Company and similar commercial ventures. It will be much slower than a focused government push like that of Apollo, but, unlike Apollo, it will not run ahead of the economy and the capabilities created will therefore be enduring.
In comparison with even the flawed shuttle and space station system, let alone the grandiose missions to the Moon and Mars now on NASA's drawing-boards, a simple hop up to the fringe of space (100 km altitude) and back down again looks like pretty small beer. But this would be a serious misjudgement. The reason is that, with very few exceptions, only professional astronauts can fly on government space programmes. The X-Prize teams, by contrast, are aiming to make money by flying anybody who can afford to buy a ticket.
It is well known that space tourism could be a profitable business, at the right price. Of course it would be easy to sneer. Future space tourists will go into space for frivolous reasons: they want to see the view, they want to have been there. Astronauts, on the other hand, have a worthy reason to be in space: they are doing science, and serving their country, and exploring the universe.
Nevertheless, if our civilisation is to make the leap from a one-planet to a multi-planet one, then, just as when it formerly made the leap from a European to a global civilisation, the ultimate drivers will not be government programmes (of Prince Henry the Navigator, Ferdinand and Isabella, Kennedy and Khrushchev), however efficient such state-sponsored programmes may be at grabbing the headlines. Rather, progress will depend upon commercial enterprises which serve public demand (the East India Company, the Cunard line, the mobile phone networks and now the embryonic space tourist companies).
The next few years will therefore see a paradigm shift -- away from space as the exclusive preserve of "right-stuff" astronauts who are necessarily either employees or guests of a government, and towards space travel as a luxury branch of civil aviation.
The economic fundamentals in the longer-term view are plain to see: the foundation of our civilisation is the doctrine of growth and progress, but almost all the matter and energy in the universe is extraterrestrial. Therefore, providing that the economy remains healthy, sooner or later that drive for growth will certainly start to use those resources, as soon as it becomes technically feasible to do so at an attractive price.
Since space resources are greater than those on Earth, and since space provides effectively an infinite pollution sink, once space industrial growth takes root it must necessarily lead to an explosive transformation of human society, like that of the past 500 years, but on a far broader canvas.
We have already passed the first threshold in terms of the communications satellite industry. The next threshold, which we are already upon, this year or next, is that of private passenger spaceflight. Once that becomes established, the revenue generated by brief suborbital trips will fund the maturing of the technology needed for private orbital spaceflight, which in turn will create the conditions for the next threshold to be crossed.
Governments can show what is possible, and they can develop crucial enabling technologies. But it is the will of the people, through market demand, which creates a permanent transformation of civilisation.
We are living through just such a time of change now, and it is not being driven forward by NASA. I now think it very likely that the first astronaut on Mars will not be a government employee at all, but rather a visionary entrepreneur like Burt Rutan or Steve Bennett, someone who is also managing director of a space tourism company with a string of orbital and lunar hotels. This will take longer than a focused Apollo-style push. But, unlike any past or future NASA programme or its Russian or Chinese counterparts, it will not run ahead of the market or the technology in the way that Apollo did, and so when it comes it will mark a permanent advance in human progress.
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Our problem lies with the large number of projects at an early stage of gestation.
The space advocate keen to support a visionary project in Britain has rather too much choice. The list looks something like this:
Of these, so far as I am aware only three have got off the ground in any meaningful sense so far: Starchaser (industrial-scale production and testing of hardware in progress), Beagle 2 (one probe launched and crashed on Mars, Xmas 2003), and Spaceguard (established at the former Powys Observatory in Knighton, Wales). And to a lesser extent Skylon (in terms of research carried out at the University of Bristol, and contacts with the BNSC). And the Concorde campaign has the advantage that everyone knows what Concorde actually is -- while not space-oriented in the usual sense, the supersonic airliner is halfway to what Bristol Spaceplanes wants to build, and is emphatically part of the forward-looking culture we wish to promote.
With so many different ideas and approaches, one has to make a difficult choice of what to support and what not to.
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The short answer is that, at home, we already do; while abroad, money is not really the point.
In the year 2003/04, British government spending on the police and the courts was £27 billion, on the NHS was £72 billion, and on social security (plus tax credits) was £133 billion (source: HM Treasury summary leaflet "Budget 2003"). Total public spending was about £456 billion, or £7,700 for every man, woman and child in the UK.
Meanwhile, in 2000 Robert Zubrin estimated the cost of his Mars Direct programme of manned Mars exploration at about $25 billion (£15 billion) over ten years (Scientific American, March 2000, p.34-37). Supposing it were to cost five times more than his estimate, this would still only be equivalent to a tenth of what Britain spends on the NHS. (Of course, Mars exploration in the hands of an entrenched government bureaucracy could cost an arbitrarily large sum. That I why I have come around to the view that the first astronaut to walk on Mars will be wearing a company logo, not a national one.)
Third-world poverty is caused by unfair trading practices on the part of minority producer lobbies in the developed world (see Kevin Watkins, "Countdown to Cancun", Prospect, August 2003, p.28-33), local ethnic conflict, especially between economically successful minorities and poor indigenous majorities (see Amy Chua, "Vengeful majorities", Prospect, December 2003, p.26-32), and local tribal ideologies. Interventions by the rich outside world have very often been deeply ambiguous -- Somalia (1992-93), Iraq (1991--2003), Israel/Palestine (1096 onwards). The fundamental problems are political -- arising from perverse incentives and tribal narrowmindedness -- and require statesmanship to resolve more than money (with the inevitable attached strings).
The greatest threat to world development is human conflict, and one of the best ways to wean humans off their violent ways is to show them what it really is that they are fighting for -- a corner of land on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
Space development offers a future in which conferences on peace and the environment are held where the participants can block out the entire planet Earth just by holding up their hand. This vision of humanity's true place in the universe is the space age's big idea, and it will come to condition our culture more and more over the forthcoming decades.
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Last revised 28 March 2004 / 35th Apollo Anniversary Year
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