-- Happy birthday, Sputnik 1 (4 Oct 1957--4 Jan 1958)! --
Just some comments which may surprise you, but hopefully encourage.
The report from the Select Committee was not so bad. It was in "Government speak", but it did leave open a lot of useful and active doors. I feel they had a difficult job because they were dealing with the legacy of a BNSC which is very remote from the one we now have.
Reaction Engines is getting tremendous support from the current BNSC. It is helpful, communicative and proactive in getting us the best assistance it can. We find ourselves in circumstances of support not seen for about 35 years! I do not want to discuss details at this time, but if the progress made to date continues and spreads to other Government departments I think the UK could become a meaningful contributor again to the exploitation of space.
In the past I have, with no regrets, been very vocal publicly about the shortcomings of the BNSC and Government. I must now be equally vocal with praise for the changes they are bringing. It will take them time. They are following a regime which has been unbelievably destructive.
I hope you find solace in these few comments,
Very best regards,
3 September 2007
A half century is a reasonable time to assess the progress of a new technology.
The first general-purpose digital computer able to store instructions was built in 1948 at Manchester University by a team headed by Dr Freddie Williams. The British government seized on this success and commissioned Ferranti to build an operational version. Rival teams at Cambridge University and in America built similar prototypes in 1949. (James Dyson's History of Great Inventions, p.165.)
50 years on, and the personal computer and internet revolution is in full swing. Machines are being manufactured and sold in their millions, and the internet is beginning to transform society.
50 years after Sputnik 1, artificial Earth satellites have brought about a similar transformation, through telecomms, satnav and Earth observation, while deep-space probes have revolutionised our scientific understanding of the Solar System and our place in the cosmos. The Case 4 Space report estimates that the global space industry is currently worth $115 billion, and that the indirect benefits to the UK economy in transport and the environment are running at $15 billion per annum.
But this year also saw the 46th anniversary of Yury Gagarin's flight in Vostok 1. In the realm of manned spaceflight, close to half a century of progress has given us considerably less to celebrate.
In the late 1940s, 45 years after the first aeroplane flights by Orville and Wilbur Wright, the world's airlines carried over 20 million passengers per year, equivalent to at least a million passenger days in the air per year. But in 2006, 45 years after Yury Gagarin, spaceflight was experienced by exactly 28 people, who collectively spent a total time of 1,210 man days in space. Space travel has therefore developed over its first near half century between a thousand and a million times slower than air transport.
Nor is there any mystery about why this difference exists. Air travel has from the outset been of obvious and immediate economic and military value. But manned space travel has been afflicted by an aura of otherworldliness.
Space travel has been monopolised by governmental space agencies, who clearly view space as a magical or forbidden zone, a sacred realm which can only be accessed by their highly trained elite brotherhood of astronauts after they have been purged of the base earthly motives of greed, profit or enjoyment, and anointed instead to carry out selfless missions devoted to serving pure science and national glory. (The astronauts who died on Columbia were "carrying out their nation's business in space" -- a consolation unavailable to, say, the relatives of the German tourists who died in the Concorde crash.)
An interesting sidelight on this is cast by astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman in a recent issue of New Scientist. In an article entitled "Ride of a lifetime", he describes the sensations of launch in the Space Shuttle: "The noise and vibration are overpowering. One astronaut described the feeling as 'driving down a railroad track in a car with no shock absorbers'. [...] About 45 seconds after lift-off [...] the vibration gets much stronger as sonic shock waves play all over the outside of the vehicle. It is hard to believe that we can shake harder than at lift-off, but we do, so much so that during my first flight I wondered if the wings were going to fall off. [...] After solid booster separation [...] the vibration ceases, and the cockpit becomes quiet. The rest of the ride is so smooth that we call it 'electric drive'." (8 Sept 2007, p.36-37.)
Wow! Exciting! Dangerous! Ride of a lifetime! ... but this is no way to run a railway. If it is remotely interested in affordable and sustainable access to space, the first thing that NASA needs to do is obvious: get rid of those pesky solid rocket boosters.
Time was when government agencies like NASA's predecessor NACA or the UK's Royal Aircraft Establishment focused on developing and refining technologies that other people could put to profitable use -- air-cooling, the jet engine. So far as manned spaceflight is concerned, however, the modern space agency prefers to generate technologies which others cannot use. When Richard Branson wanted to carry passengers into space, did he go to NASA for a spaceplane? When Robert Bigelow wanted a building block for a space hotel, did he start by taking an ISS module?
Actually, I'm currently researching architectures for affordable and sustainable Earth-Moon transport. The results of my studies so far are that, if NASA is serious about returning to the Moon, then it needs to:
What is it actually doing? Pulling out of the ISS by the end of 2015, retiring the Shuttle with no prospect of a Shuttle Mark II, and launching future astronauts exclusively on solids.
"The UK must play an active and central role in future human space missions to the Moon and Mars, a report concludes. It has proposed a plan in which two British astronauts could go into space by 2015 at a cost of £50-75m. The UK Space Exploration Working Group (SEWG) said British participation in manned and unmanned missions was vital for both UK science and the economy."
Read full report here.
Virgin Galactic have announced: "as far as we are concerned, 2008 will be 'The Year of the SpaceShip'. We are planning a couple of spectacular events to unveil WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo and to herald the start of test flights -- more details nearer the time."
Meanwhile, VG have appointed Accredited Space Agents (ASAs) in Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, the United Kingdom, Israel, Europe and the UAE to deal with flight reservations. They now have over 80 ASAs in 17 countries.
The development of Spaceport America has produced a winning design for the main terminal and hangar building by URS/Foster + Partners, an Anglo-American partnership, each partner having an impressive track record on landmark projects. VG describe the URS/F+P design concept as "iconic, well thought out, highly energy efficient, considerate of the valley site and the view from the nearby El Camino Real and -- as we all hoped it would -- it looks like a spaceport!"
Full text of Virgin Galactic Newsletter, Issue 8, here.
NASA's attitude to failure:
Before the Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) landed a few days into 2004, NASA's success rate was not even 50%: only three spacecraft headed for Mars had achieved their goal out of the last eight attempts. To succeed with the roving vehicles Spirit and Opportunity, NASA learned some hard lessons from previous failures, as indeed NASA always does. And that is the point about failure: it is the essential ingredient of learning. NASA always gets back on the metaphorical horse before it loses its nerve -- but it does so whilst trying to work out why it fell off in the first place. The MER rovers have worked flawlessly on Mars for nearly three years during which time they have returned data of untold value.
The Entrepreneurial attitude to failure:
Read any book about a successful entrepreneur and you will find quotes like "Success is 99% failure", attributed to Soichiro Honda. Bill Gates, Stelios Haji-Ioannou, Richard Branson and co probably thought themselves lucky with a 10% success rate for their business ideas.
History's attitude to failure:
Scientists and engineers should be more comfortable with risk. Sir Humphrey Davy said: "The most important of my discoveries have been suggested by my failures." [...]
(Source: House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, 2007: A Space Policy, vol.2, p.224, submission from Professor Colin Pillinger.)
In its 29 September 2007 issue the New Scientist prints the following letter:
====== From Mary Midgley ======
Won't your readers on Alpha Centauri giggle at the title you gave your special "Conquest of Space" issue (8 September)? As they will know, the idea of humans colonising space, as opposed to just exploring it, has turned out to be a pipe dream.
It was a hangover from the colonial age, essentially from the notion of the American West as a refuge where people who had messed up their lives could always get a second chance.
But consider the practicalities. On colonising Mars, for instance, Richard Gott remarked that it "could start with just eight people ... if couples had four children on average, the colony could double in size every 30 years" (p.54).
Has Gott tried bringing up 16 children in a space station?
Ms Mary Midgley was for many years Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. She is a well known author and moral philosopher, and has famously argued against Professor Richard Dawkins's worldview.
The following reply to her letter has just been e-mailed to (letters--at--newscientist.com):
====== From Stephen Ashworth ======
Mary Midgley's letter makes a telling point by comparing space colonisation with America (29 Sept. 2007).
American colonies indeed "turned out to be a pipe dream", in her phrase. More than 90 years after Columbus launched European exploration of the Americas, Sir Walter Raleigh's Virginia colonies were a disaster. Bringing up children there was out of the question.
But does Midgley have any knowledge of the subsequent history of America?
Stephen Ashworth (Mr)
Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society
30 September 2007
Astronautical Evolution is an e-mail forum devoted to debate and comment from an astronautical evolutionist perspective. To subscribe / unsubscribe / contribute / comment, please e-mail Stephen Ashworth, sa--at--astronist.demon.co.uk.
Back to AE home page