Four thousand tonnes – a cathedral-sized force, but upwards. An earthquake in your ears, a thunder rolling and heaving against the windows twenty miles away, and rattling the walls of Politburos even farther afield. You might not want the life of Hamlet or Kennedy, but we can all agree that Government can supply drama.
In a few gloriously unsustainable years the world trembled closer to 1970, a new mission completed every few months. Taxes paid for technology that both threatened Armageddon in hours – and delivered a truer type of shock and awe. Afterwards, we never thought the same way again.
But nor will people ever think the way they did in 1969. Russia’s Soyuz system has been in service for 50 years; will these aging designs still be competitive in ten more? China’s space programme can flex its muscles, still growing in scale and ambition; but ultimately this type of propaganda will run its course, the same way as any subsidised state airline. Profits can beat political will.
The once-mighty NASA are replacing the Space Shuttle with competitive bidding. A cornucopia of companies and imaginative designs are more than filling these contracts, but that’s just the beginning. True private space travel is now a reality.
The old order is rapidly fading – and this is no mad prophecy; you’ll watch it on TV very soon. Now, as in so many other fields, space exploration is re-stocking with both cash and glamour without burdening taxpayers. Last month, Virgin Galactic’s Space Ship II was approved for powered test flights to sub-orbital space, with fare-paying passengers expected within a year. Where Paris Hilton and Steven Hawking go, others will want to follow.
Nobody expects these projects will ever compare to a Saturn V. Probably none will ever use millions of dollars of fuel each second, never cost 1% of GDP, and I sincerely hope they will never cost lives. That’s progress.
In the United Kingdom, besides the poetry there’s the maths: an industry currently generating £5.9 billion in turnover a year and supporting 68,000 jobs. If our government can’t lend a hand it should decisively and consistently get out the way. Not every company will be a success, but in terms of outcomes, the question is no longer ‘if’ or even ‘when’ – but more like ‘how soon?’
As a particularly collaborative and international industry, success will rely as much as ever on the environment where good business always thrives: free trade, free movement and free minds.
How often do you use GPS, satellite TV, or weather forecasts? Putting people up there is just another step, but an important one because it offers a very obvious comparison with government projects; this will be demonstrably cheaper, more inclusive and less polluting.
While the UK squabbles over runways and tax codes other countries are looking to the future. But we have the brains, the finance and the existing technology. In this arena we are, for once, well placed. Let’s light the fuse and stand well back.