The space age isn’t over. It hasn’t yet begun

Forty years after man stepped on the moon, Mary Wakefield says that the technology now exists for truly astonishing space travel and a new era fusing commerce and romance

15 July 2009

The evening is laid out above the houses, behind Mr X’s head. Pinkish clouds collide then slide apart, exposing jigsaw shapes of darkening sky. A thumb smudge of moon appears over Westminster as Mr X gets to the point: ‘A new space age is about to begin,’ he says. ‘The question is not “will it happen?” — it will. The question is whether we want to be part of it.’ The light fades. The shadows on Mr X’s face deepen and his mood swings between elation and resignation. Mr X is a brilliant rocket scientist, excited about the dawning of a new era. But he also knows that there’s only a brief window of opportunity for us to get involved. ‘It’ll soon be too late,’ he says sadly. But we all love the moon landings, I say. Look at all the fuss about the anniversary of Apollo 11 (the Eagle touched down exactly 40 years ago this Saturday). Mr X gives a tired half-smile. ‘Apollo 11 has a lot to answer for,’ he says.

What he means, I later learn, is that if we believed all the hype surrounding July 1969, it’s not surprising that we’ve become a little disillusioned with the idea of manned expeditions into space. Apollo 11 was supposed to mark the start of a new era of discovery pioneered by Armstrong, our orbital Columbus. By 2009 we assumed we would be sipping tea in space cafés by the Sea of Serenity, gawping at photos of Lindsay Lohan in Lunar Vogue, getting wrecked in zero gravity. But with each appalling shuttle disaster, the public lost a little more of its faith, and by the late 1990s, especially after the end of the cold war, a curious notion had begun to spread that the cosmos was somehow a bit dated, old hat. I have a usually clever colleague who often says: ‘Well, I don’t really see the point of space.’ And sometimes: ‘I just don’t believe in it.’ Which I think might literally be true.

Is it ok not to see the point of space? Well, only if we’re prepared for future generations to point at us and laugh. Space is where we are and who we are. The carbon in our bodies, the iron in our blood, every bit of us was cooked up in the nuclear fire at the heart of a star. To stop wanting to explore our solar system is to lose interest in both where we came from and what we could be. More to X’s point: space now pays. The old argument about it being a waste of cash has never been true. Space always paid off in the long run: before the moon mission, for instance, computers were the size of houses and in the hands of the government. The astronauts’ needs forced Nasa to think small and gave us the home computer and the unfathomable billions generated by that industry. But soon space missions themselves — not just the spin-off technology — will be lucrative.

But Britain won’t be part of the 21st-century space race until we regain our space-faith. And the first step, according to X, is to realise that Apollo 11 mission is analogous not to Columbus’s but to the Viking discovery of America. In the 10th century Leif Eriksson, son of Erik the Red, landed with 35 men on the coast of North America. But Leif’s boats were too cumbersome for trade and his people unprepared for the ruthless ‘skraelings’, so their community soon died out. So too the Apollo programme was doomed by rushed decisions and cumbersome craft. JFK and LBJ chose their mission at random and their ship with a single thought in mind: beat Russia. No thought for our space-faring future. The current shuttle (due to retire next year) is known as ‘Rosemary’s baby’ by Nasa, on the grounds that it is a satanic entity that will eventually destroy its maker.

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Once you’ve realised that the space age isn’t over — that it hasn’t even begun yet — the second step to understanding the point of space is to realise that like Columbus, we now have the right vehicles for proper exploration. All around the world right now light, cheap space planes (launched and landed horizontally) are rolling from the drawing-board to runway. Whereas a rocket-launched shuttle needs battalions of keepers to brush it up again ready for flight, space planes are more modest. They might even be as easy to maintain as jet planes and able to launch with a few days’ or hours’ notice, at the whim of an impetuous cosmonaut. Most of a rocket’s weight is taken up by the oxidiser, but clever space planes can suck in oxygen from the atmosphere to burn fuel at least part of the way to orbit. Space planes will offer a relatively cheap way of delivering cargo into orbit, and once that begins to happen, our universe begins to unfurl.

The first payload will be people. Perhaps, like me, you’d pay not to be trapped in a claustrophobic cylinder going at 25,000 mph into a vast expanding radioactive vacuum. But Charles Simonyi, a software billionaire, just paid $60 million for his second mission with Russian cosmonauts to the International Space Station; and according to Sir Richard Branson, his planned sub-orbital flights (into very near space) are in hot demand. When Virgin Galactic gets going, it is expected to fly 3,000 new astronauts in its first five years, at roughly $200,000 a pop.

Then there’s satellites, not just the military spying kind, but the ones that save lives worldwide; the ones that measure global warming and find ships lost at sea. Do we need more? The short answer is yes. The long answer starts with another question. Have you ever wondered why modern planes seem to go missing so easily? It’s because we still track them with radar, which means they must fly over fixed points at fixed times, and that they spend untraceable hours over oceans. Does it scare you that your Blackberry has a more sophisticated tracking system than a Boeing? Then start cheering for a British space programme.

There’s much vicious debate online between geeks about the efficacy of asteroid mining, but spaced-based solar panels are a given. Because there are no clouds in space (the sun always shines on ET) the panels will soak up more and more powerful rays, then they’d beam the energy back to earth. This isn’t science fiction, it’s future fact.

In April this year a company called Solaren signed a contract with the Pacific Gas and Electric Company in northern California. They plan to hoick a kilometre-wide panel into orbit in 2016 and beam back 200MW of energy.

Whereas resources on earth are finite, in space they are infinite; and greed being the stepmother of invention, once we can escape earth’s atmosphere with relative ease, we’ll find a way to exploit them. Maybe space will help us kick our carbon habit altogether.

It’s not just for cash, remember. Like the old Elizabethan era, this new one is a fusion of commerce and romance, the pursuit of both knowledge and profit. But unlike the old age of discovery, it might save our planet. When (not if) the next asteroid threatens to destroy Earth, we’ll need a space-based system to shove it off course.

China knows we’re on the verge of a new space age: it plans to launch a manned space laboratory late next year and has been making a fleet of Shenzhou taxi spacecraft. Russia knows it: Roscosmos, the Russian space agency has announced plans for a next-generation manned spacecraft, and Roscosmos gossips have been hinting at Russian plans for a permanently occupied lunar orbital station. If the American government doesn’t quite know it (it’ll be four years after the shuttle retires before Ares, its equally ropey-looking successor gets off the ground), American entrepreneurs are set to take advantage of Nasa’s weakness. Darpa, the Pentagon agency that created the internet and stealth technology, is ha
rd at work developing its own space planes.

Lord Drayson, our excellent science minister, knows it too. He’s called this year a ‘pivotal’ one and hinted at the creation of a British Space Agency. Like Mr X, he seems convinced that for all our lack of political interest, there’s just a chance that perhaps the coming space age won’t have to leave us entirely behind. He’s encouraged Richard Branson to set up a spaceport in Scotland, and championed perhaps the most exciting space plane idea in the world, a British design, Skylon, conceived in the 1980s by the MoD, cancelled by Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine but now back on track.

In February this year Skylon was awarded E1 million grant from the European Space Agency and an enthusiastic Lord Drayson announced that it could be at the heart of a new British space programme. He knows, as X knows, that beneath the surface frost, the old spirit of British innovation, the spirit of Barnes Wallis, is waiting in the wings.

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Show comments
  • Kevin Dunn

    You really expecta great daring enterprise like this from the decadent, worthless, broken society that Britain has become? The best of British luck to you!

  • N

    I disagree. “Truly astonishing space travel”? Not so much. If we were able to fly to the moon or somewhere else than maybe it would be incredible and astonishing. Also, who but the rich and famous have an extra $200,000 lying around for a space ride?

    Space is indeed a new frontier, but do you remember what happened when North America was a new frontier? Wars broke out. Already the US, Russia, and China have programs in operation for future mining on the moon, how long until we start shooting ships out of the sky to protect our moon interests? How long until we go to war on the moon?

  • MoonBaseASAP

    Excellent article – we need the spirit of Barnes Wallis NOW to get us out of the hole we’re in.

  • Hawkeye

    Something not mentioned is the “inspiration factor”.

    Big science and technology projects such as space exploration inspire many children to take an interest in science and technology – it really engages their interest. Although few of them wind up in the space program, society benefits from a steady stream of technically minded people. It is something we need a lot more of.

    At the minute the “gateway to science” is astronomy. There is a general interest in the wonders of the universe and astronomy pushes a lot of buttons for a lot of people. Even the govt is afraid to cut astronomical programs because it generates a public backlash whenever they attempt it.

    The revitalisation of the space program would lead to a general revitalisation of science & engineering and we all would benefit from that. In the article Mary Wakefield mentioned a colleague who “couldn’t see the point of it all” but that is because he was thinking in very narrow terms. Space related technology has a lot more to give us than Teflon and Papermate pens.

    The comparison with Columbus can be taken one stage further. Columbus and others opened up the New World with a small band of people – a mere fraction of a percentage of those alive at the time – and it took a considerable period before any real benefits flowed from the exploration and exploitation of the Americas. Space will not be any different in that respect but the resources are there to be tapped and this time there are no locals to be abused by the explorers.

  • Martin C

    fantastic news – but still only a start. Alan Bond and Richard Varvell reckon that it’ll take a couple of billion to make the Skylon a reality. That may be less money than, for example, the amount lost in overpayment by Brown’s too-complex taxcredits scheme, but still hard to justify in these austere times.

  • Kevin Dunn

    Thank you “N”, for reinforcing my point – go on snivelling that it’s all too difficult But let me be wrong!).

  • amanfromMars

    Crikey, that earlier English translation left a lot to be desired. IT should read ….And we haven’t even Ventured into CyberSpace yet. But there are Launched AIMissions Running….. Preparing Virtual Seeds for Live Feeds.

    Now it makes more Sense.

    And who’s Master Piloting the Controls of the UK Office of Cyber Security, I wonder. Are they XXXXPerienced Flight Officers or Representative Officials ….. Wannabes?

  • KPar

    I grew up with the NASA space program, and I loved everything about it.

    (As you might notice from my spelling, I am an American.)

    After the Apollo missions ended, I awaited the next great steps- a permanent space station and a return to the moon- not just a reckless “crash program”, but a methodical, planned system that built inexorably to economic exploitation of the (literally) unlimited resources off planet.

    Instead, we withdrew, scaled back, lost the dream. Thank you, Richard Nixon.

    NASA was an efficient and effective government agency, but when the Germans retired, NASA lost the dream and the discipline. It became just another gold-plated bureaucracy, run by rent seeking politicians, avoiding any kind of risk, and not doing a good job of that, either.

    (I don’t mean to say that there aren’t good people there, but the good ones don’t run the place.)

    (I’ll spare you the trouble of coming up with your own joke, here, “Ve haff vays of dealing mit scheisskopfen like you!”

    So with what have we ended up? A Skylab that we couldn’t even keep up, two space shuttle disasters, a phenomenal cost in pounds-to-orbit, the ISS (described by Arthur C. Clarke as a ridiculous piece of “space junk”- Hell, it’s not even a wheel!”), and a space future that looks anything but rosy.

    The simple fact is, government will turn anything into a piece of crap- only free enterprise can resurrect our hopes and dreams.

    Will government give it up and get out of the way? I’m not holding my breath…

  • Mike Walsh

    Spaceflight will never be cost-effective (apart from some LEO apps); there is no extra-terrestrial El Dorado to make it worth our while. There’s no ‘there’ there. The basic motivation for space enthusiasts is essentially religious: the fallacy of misplaced transcendance.

  • GK

    The belief that space travel can be safe is false. It will always be a high risk enterprise.

  • Darkside of the Sun

    hello. bravo, the interest is looking up. travelling into space regularly and safely will develop living in space by people dissatisfied with human behavior on Earth. an industry similar to hotels in space being constructed from materials from the lunar surface will develop islands floating in space for occupation. human behavior will evolve to meet the requirements of space survival. not utopia, just people getting along.

  • Joan Vernikos

    A British Space Agency needs to exist as long as it facilitates the entrepreneurs rather than overregulates and hinders as bureaucracies are wont to do.Let British creativity and daring discovery flow exploring new horizons and taking life-threatening risks as they did in polar expeditions, climbing the highest peaks and crossing new continents. Let NASA be a lesson. Immobilized in bureaucratic cement, it is, short of a revolution, heading nowhere. A startling turnaround saved the Russian space program by dismantling it in 1989. Then a handful of dedicated government scientists, engineers and cosmonauts, all unpaid for six months, kept the programme alive while their space station Mir was orbiting away from political turmoil on the ground. They rebuilt today’s vibrant Russian space programme where necessity forced them to foster commercial enterprise. Yes, the Space Age is ready for another launch. Those who succeed will not imitate but rather build on the errors and successes of the first 50 years.

  • anothermanfromMars

    @ Hawkeye
    “…this time there are no locals to be abused by the explorers.”

    Are you quite sure about that?
    Where is your philosophical leap of faith? Life is very easy to form. But yes, it does take a while to evolve.

  • Dixon

    I endorse your enthusiasm Mary, but I think your examples are out of whack.

    “Spaceplanes” have been “coming off the drawing board” since 1938 ( the Sanger Bredt bomber project funded by Hitler ). Grants of a few million here or there have been keeping the fantasy alive throughout that period. From the EU as elsewhere. In the nineteen Sixties, every major European aircraft company had a spaceplane project, or several. remember the BAC “Mustard”? Yet it takes billions to go from drawing board to hardware and the only such project to cross that gap, the space shuttle, has been a disaster. Literally. Twice.The real disaster being that it costs an astonishing half a billion dollars each and every time to launch!

    Any prospect of a reusable replacement to the shuttle now looks EXCEEDINGLY REMOTE. Especially after the debacle of the X43 project. Billions down the drain.Again.

    The fact is, the engineering hinterland of spaceflight has actually gone into reverse. Hence the new American spacecraft, Orion, is a rehash of the 45 year old Apollo. Its engines will be…hard though this may seem to believe it is a fact, the FIFTY year old Pratt & Whitney J2″, updated as the “J2X”. It will be boosted by a vehicle, the Ares, which is a stretched version of a single Shuttle solid rocket booster.

    Everythings going backwards. Great hoopla about a six foot drone that flew at 5 times the speed of sound for less than a minute, but forty years earlier the X15 routinely flew into space with a man aboard at half as fast again.

    Yes, all the big projects COULD come to pass. But only if we can find a way of overcoming the biggest stumbling block. Not money. But the risk averse culture, the threat of liability lawyers and immense insurance and health and safety requirements. Dont take my word for it, Sir Martin Rees, astronomer Royal said exactly the same on TV recently. Space work is inherently dangerous. Unless this is accepted, we will pooter about with little phut-phut space capsules and robots doing sod all of real magnitude until the day a meteorite strikes and Humanity wakes up to the fact it squandered its opportunity to escape beforehand!

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