In the latest (April 2004 – paper only so far as I can tell) issue of Prospect, there is an excellent letter about private investment in space exploration, from Stephen Ashworth of Oxford, in response to this article by Oliver Morton in the March issue:
Oliver Morton (March) is misleading Prospect readers with his implication that Nasa spaceflight is the only kind that matters. His statement that Nasa’s new direction “marks the end of the era in which the goal of spaceflight is to become routine” will be seen in retrospect as the exact opposite of the truth.
The government space agencies’ monopoly on manned spaceflight is about to be broken. Twenty-seven industrial teams, mostly in North America and Britain, are competing to be the first to fly private passengers to the edge of space in a commercially-operated reusable spacecraft. Their immediate goal is to win the $10m X prize (see www.xprize.org). In America, 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 mainland Britain.
If our civilisation is to make the leap from a one-planet to a multi-planet one, then, just as when it 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). Progress will rather depend upon commercial enterprises which serve public demand (the East India company, the Cunard line, the embryonic space tourist companies).
It would not surprise me if the first astronaut on Mars were not a government employee, but a visionary entrepreneur like Burt Rutan or Steve Bennett, a CEO of a space tourism company with a string of orbital and lunar hotels. That outcome would take much longer than a focused Apollo-style push. But, unlike any past or future Nasa programme, it would not run ahead of the market or the technology in the way that Apollo did.
This letter was worth reproducing in its entirely here not just because it is a good letter, but also because it appeared in Prospect. I like Prospect. It is often leftism, but it is not nearly so often knee-jerk leftism, and often, as here, it is not leftism at all.
I particularly like the comparison between NASA and its political paymasters, and Henry the Navigator and Ferdinand and Isabella. We are told with wearisome frequency nowadays that “technology is moving so much faster these days”, but even the time scales of space exploration have an early navigation feel about them.
It will be interesting to read what Dale Amon has to say about this.