Issue 50, 1 October 2009 -- 40th Apollo Anniversary Year

  1. ESA chief gives a shocking interview, by Stephen Ashworth
  2. An alternative view of prosperity in space, by Andy Nimmo

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(1) ESA chief gives a shocking interview

Stephen Ashworth

Jean-Jacques Dordain, Director-General of the European Space Agency, is interviewed by the BBC’s Stephen Sackur in the “Hard Talk” series, online on YouTube. (Thanks to Jacqueline Myrrhe for the reference.)

It is a shockingly bad performance by Europe’s top space bureaucrat. Sackur attacks ESA with savage criticism, and Dordain reels from one body blow after another.

Everyone knows what NASA is, what it does. Why does the average European know so little about ESA? This question offers Dordain an ideal opportunity to describe ESA’s outreach to schools and to the public, and to urge European governments to put up more money for projects that might capture the public imagination. Instead we get bumbling and bluster, appeals to science and international cooperation.

Sackur slams ESA’s record on robotic space probes, which have been hit by enormous delays and cost overruns. The Galileo satnav system is condemned, citing the conclusion of a study by the British parliament: that Galileo is a textbook example of how not to run a large-scale infrastructure project. The benefits are far outweighed by the costs -- everybody’s already using the American GPS by now. In defence of Galileo, Dordain is reduced to arguing that the Americans are our close allies, and yet at the same time in any crisis they might easily cut off the GPS signal to European users.

Both ExoMars and the planned Mercury mission have grossly escalated in cost. At one point Sackur even asks Dordain whether he has considered his position, after such bad project management under his leadership. Dordain defends the status quo by telling us that there is a rule that any member state can leave any programme if the budget over-runs by more than an extra 20%, and yet this has not been happening. In the end he is reduced to saying: “We are taking risks to make progress.”

Sackur is not impressed by such a vision of progress: is it really important -- especially in a recession -- to spend a billion Euros to send a spacecraft to take pictures of Mercury? Dordain: “We are speaking about the future. Earth is not isolated, it is part of the Solar System. We need to know how the Solar System has evolved. The greenhouse effect was discovered on Venus. We are speaking of the future of planet Earth.”

Manned spaceflight is next up for the Sackur treatment: “There are people who say that manned spaceflight has become a terrible distraction. It is very expensive, achieving very little. Why put European astronauts into space?”

Dordain has an answer for this: “Because this is part of the history of humanity.” Er, yes... And in case anyone is not convinced by such unanswerable logic, he adds that in any case manned spaceflight only takes up 15% of ESA’s budget, so that’s hardly worth worrying about, is it?

But Sackur will not let the matter lie there, for it is such a terrible waste of resources. To which Dordain replies that to put astronauts on the Moon we have to solve a lot of problems, including for example developing recycling technologies.

But why do we even need a base on the Moon? What’s the point? Dordain answers sagely: “To prepare the future.” And under further prodding, he adds: “Do you know where we shall be in two million years?” Since Sackur clearly does not, Dordain wins this round.

But what on Earth (or the Moon) is he thinking of? Is he implying that we are going to colonise space? Then why not say so? Perhaps because he would then lay himself open to the charge that ESA is not noticeably proceeding towards colonising space at all?

Sackur is quickly back on the offensive with a quote from Professor James Van Allen, who has written: “Human spaceflight has no realistic objective that is remotely commensurate with its cost. Almost all of the space programme’s important advances come from robotic spacecraft discovery. The only surviving motivation for continuing human spaceflight is the ideology of adventure.” And he adds: “Are we prepared to pay so much for that, for continuing the adventure?”

This is an excellent opening for a lecture on space tourism or space energy. But Dordain opts for a different tack: “But I don’t agree. It was the astronauts who saw Earth as a small golf ball floating in the Universe from lunar flights who first said Earth is so fragile, our future is global. Not politicians.” The message they brought back to Earth: “So you’d better take care of the future of planet Earth as a global planet.”

Is this really why Rachel Carson wrote her influential book about the fragility of the environment, Silent Spring?

When asked how he feels about the UK not putting any money into manned spaceflight, Dordain responds: “I am convinced that it’s a good investment ... because of the progress of science, because of the short-term services to the citizens, but also including human spaceflight.” But human spaceflight is, however, “a very long-term investment”. There won’t be much difference, whether astronauts go back to the Moon in 2020 or 2030. But an investment towards what? Jean-Jacques Dordain does not tell us.

Here we have a man who is clearly happy to use the ideology of progress in space to justify his job, and yet who does not take it seriously himself. He is able to repeat vague platitudes about “progress” and “the future”, but not to convert them into solid convincing arguments.

Since the journalist does not believe in progress in space either -- or at least adopts the skeptical view in order to set up a challenging interview -- the result is that Dordain comes out of it as a man who is prepared to waste billions of Euros on his pursuit of an unrealistic fantasy.

Now compare that with how a clear-sighted space visionary might have responded ... “ESA’s top priority is to reduce the cost of access to space, so that the opportunities it offers to add to the wealth of mankind can be grasped. That is why we are putting up large sums in seedcorn funding to help entrepreneurs in the UK and Germany to build reusable spaceplanes. By 2020 we envisage that there will be at least a thousand private visitors to space per year, paying their own way and creating new high-tech jobs in Europe. As the cost comes down, so solar power satellites become financially feasible, and our next priority is to set up a demonstration of this clean, sustainable energy source, using also the results from our dynamic robotic exploration programme directed towards harvesting the resources of the near-Earth asteroids, which would otherwise represent a threat to Earth’s security ...”

But that would be a very different ESA from the one we have today.

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(2) An alternative view of prosperity in space

Andy Nimmo

There is one clear way that we could suddenly soon enter not just a decade but several decades of apparently unbounded prosperity and great advances with money for funding seemingly of little object. It would require three things:

(1) An international agreement providing for ownership of extraterrestrial property. This is presently illegal for all nations that have signed and ratified the UN Moon Treaty, though the US, Russia, China and UK didn’t sign. But many others, including ESA nations, did, and the earlier Outer Space Treaty which we did sign and ratify legally says more or less the same thing.

(2) The realization that, as governments frequently do for other reasons, it is possible to borrow against future earnings, resources and profits expectations, and that the resources of eight planets, four dwarf planets, hundreds of moons, thousands of asteroids and billions of comets and other objects will inevitably be far greater than those of our present one small planet, whereby technically at least new money could be invented to the tune of several times the whole Earth’s economic resources backed by future access to the resources of the rest of our solar system, especially for the creation of means to obtain such access.

(3) The formalization of an internationally available means of borrowing against at least near-Earth future solar system resources and profits for such purposes.

If provision (1) involved allocation of shares in ownership of the Moon and NEOs to nations according to population or some such, whereby exploiting nations or companies would have to purchase necessary shares or at least do deals with their owner governments prior to implementing their business plans, that last could easily be obtained by an agreement to a small (10% or so) tax on all such profits for the next 50 years or so to some international organization such as the UN, World Bank or IMF which could then distribute loans from invented new money for any space project they believed to be economically viable.

If the message could be got across to governments that, due to that equable allocation of ownership of near future resources, all the loans they have had to make to sort the banks out in the present credit crunch could easily be repaid from such funds and that no cutting back would really be necessary to accomplish this, I reckon they’d jump at agreeing to the funding of space flight. In the immediate long run for the coming five decades it would be the answer to all their financial problems.

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