Just as a stopped clock is right twice a day, Gordon Brown’s government has finally done something worth celebrating. Britain is launching an executive space agency that will take control of the money spent on space by the different government departments and science funding bodies. It is a belated response to the surprising success of the UK space industry, which is growing at an average of 9 per cent per annum. At present, it employs 68,000 people and generates revenues of approximately £6.5 billion a year.
My late father, Michael Young, would have welcomed the creation of this agency, not least because he proposed it himself over 25 years ago. He is best known for having come up with the ideas for the Open University and the Consumers’ Association, but he was also a passionate space enthusiast and I’ve just finished making a Radio 4 documentary about his efforts to set up, among other things, a simulated Martian colony in Southwark. Dubbed the Argo Venture, the plan was to build a giant dome on the site of the Bankside power station that would eventually become a national space museum. Volunteers would be recruited from all over the world and the BBC would film their adventures, selling the programme internationally. Michael’s hope was that this would stimulate global interest in space exploration and lead to a real colony being established on the Red Planet.
It sounds ludicrously ambitious, but he managed to assemble an impressive team of fellow enthusiasts to back the venture, including James Lovelock, Heinz Wolff, Nigel Calder and Martin Rees, now the president of the Royal Society. John Percival, the producer of the BBC TV series Living in the Past, was also on board. He even persuaded the chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board to donate the Bankside power station, and he put together a deal with Southwark Council whereby a property tycoon would build the dome for free in return for planning permission to develop the surrounding land. It was Thunderbirds Are Go on the South Bank of the Thames.
One of the reasons he wanted to do this is because he disapproved of the militarisation of space. This was the era of the Strategic Defence Initiative and Michael wanted to recapture space on behalf of liberal humanitarianism. In his imagination, the colony that would be established on Mars would be peopled by left-wing intellectuals who, after a long discussion about the rights of man, would sign a declaration of independence. The planet would then become a beacon of hope for free thinkers around the world in much the same way that America was and continues to be.
In the speech he gave to the British Association that launched the Argo Venture in 1985, he sounded uncannily like Obama:
‘Outer space is as much full of terror as that other new world was; and as much full of hope. The pioneers risked their lives, not just for their own individual sakes, but because they had a vision of a better way of living for mankind: and so it will be again. The pioneers in space will be braving the new elements for all our sakes, in the hope of building better when they build from nothing; in the hope of avoiding some of the more grievous mistakes made by mankind in the first phase of its evolution on Earth; in the hope of cherishing hope, and making its foundations good.’
Beneath all these fine sentiments was a boyish enthusiasm for space travel. Michael had grown up reading H.G. Wells and dreamt of a universe characterised by inter-planetary federations. He wanted Britain to play a role in that future, not as a military power, but as a cultural force. Hence the call for a British space agency. One by-product of starting what he hoped would be the first Martian colony in Southwark was that English would become the language of Mars and eventually the galaxy, just as it has become the lingua franca of Earth.
The Argo Venture foundered when the property deal unravelled. Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation of the CEGB meant the chairman was no longer free to dispose of its assets and my father couldn’t find an alternative site. The Bankside power station is now Tate Modern, and Britain’s national space museum is in Leicester. Nevertheless, one component of the overall vision was to set up a space agency and he would have been delighted to see that happen. Perhaps Britain can play a role in space exploration once again.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 27, 2010