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Features

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

12:00 AM

15 July 2009

12:00 AM

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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