All Astronautical Evolution posts in 2014:

Future growth in space still not being taken seriously (Dec.)

The SpaceShipTwo Crash (Nov.)

To the Rt Hon Greg Clark (Oct.)

Exponential Growth for Another Thousand Years: Growing into an Interstellar Civilisation: Can It Be Done, and If So, How? (Sept.)

Down with the Fermi “Paradox”! (Aug.)

The Great Space Debate – Discussion and Vote (July)

The Great Space Debate: What Should Be the Strategic Goal for Astronautics over the Next 25 Years? (May)

A Four-Point Plan for ESA (April)

Britain’s Major Tim defends the ISS against its critics (March)

Neubrandenburg Thoughts (II): Space for Peace (Jan.)

Creating a Future with Skylon (Jan.)

New in 2015:

Short story The Marchioness

AE posts:

2017: Mars…

2016: Stragegic goal for manned spaceflight…

2015: The Pluto Controversy, Mars, SETI…

2014: Skylon, the Great Space Debate, exponential growth, the Fermi “paradox”…

2013: Manned spaceflight, sustainability, the Singularity, Voyager 1, philosophy, ET…

2012: Bulgakov vs. Clarke, starships, the Doomsday Argument…

2011: Manned spaceflight, evolution, worldships, battle for the future…

2010: Views on progress, the Great Sociology Dust-Up…

Chronological index

Subject index

General essays:

Index to essaysincluding:

Talk presented to students at the International Space University, May 2016

Basic concepts of Astronautical Evolution

Options for Growth and Sustainability

Mars on the Interstellar Roadmap (2015)

The Great Sociology Debate (2011)

Building Selenopolis (2008)


Issue 106, 1 October 2014 – 45th Apollo Anniversary Year

=============== AE ===============

To the Rt Hon Greg Clark

Stephen Ashworth, Oxford, UK

I have sent the following letter to Britain’s newly appointed Minister for Universities and Science, with responsibility for Britain’s space programme, in advance of the next meeting of the European Space Agency’s Ministerial Council, to be held in Luxembourg in December 2014. As per standard UK practice, I sent it via my local constituency MP, who very promptly sent a polite acknowledgement.

Time to challenge ESA’s priorities


2 September 2014

The greatest political dilemma of our age arises from the facts that a free, democratic society needs to be founded on a condition of continual economic growth, whereas planet Earth can only sustain a finite amount of material growth, and it is widely accepted that the limits to that growth are already being approached.

Since the beginning of the space age, however, new resources for growth have come within our reach, namely those found on the other planets of our Solar System and its asteroids and comets, as well as the full power output of the Sun. These resources are greater than those available to us on Earth by many orders of magnitude. It is easily shown that they could sustain economic and population growth at rates of 1 to 2% per annum for a full millennium into the future.

From a political point of view, therefore, the most important task of public space agencies is to develop the technologies that will enable human beings to live permanently and comfortably away from their planet of origin. It is likewise to assist private industry in ensuring a smooth and prompt transfer of exponential economic and population growth off Earth and out into the rest of the Solar System.

I trust that this policy is agreed by all parties across the political spectrum who share a commitment to Enlightenment values of liberty, prosperity, scientific knowledge and technological advancement?

This function of public agencies enabling the growth of a space economy served the world well so far as automatic satellites for communications, navigation and Earth observation were concerned. But in recent decades the process has stalled. It is easily shown that the cost of access to space still remains around one thousand times higher per tonne than is required by the physics of flight alone. America’s flawed attempt to develop an economical reusable Space Shuttle ended with cancellation, and Europe has not yet begun seriously to address the problem. With the exception of a handful of visionary private enterprises, most prominently SpaceX and Bigelow Aerospace in the USA, and Reaction Engines in the UK, the space business worldwide accepts that the current grotesquely high costs of access to space will continue into the indefinite future.

The consequence of this faint-hearted approach is that the mass markets essential for driving exponential growth in space passenger transport and in-space infrastructure – notably for tourism and energy – have so far remained stuck at the early development stage.

The European Space Agency, like its equivalents worldwide, is focused mainly on continuation of existing markets for satellite services, and on pure scientific research. While in themselves these are praiseworthy objectives, their application as drivers of exponential growth in our space capabilities is remote at best. Large sums are wasted, especially in America, on studies and development which aim to repeat the Apollo Moon missions of the 1960s on the Moon or Mars, despite the lessons of history that those politically driven missions were the result of a unique set of international conditions, and that when the conditions changed the programme suffered cancellation.

I therefore urge the British space minister to ask the following questions at the ESA Ministerial Council in December 2014:

  1. It is currently expected that the International Space Station (ISS), representing an investment of public funds in excess of 100 billion dollars, will nevertheless be deliberately abandoned and destroyed in the mid 2020s. What is Europe doing to ensure that other manned orbiting stations will be in operation well before then in order to expand the continuous human presence in orbit in a regime of falling costs and rising activity?
  2. The question of a successor European launch vehicle to Ariane 5 will be on the agenda. Which candidate vehicles are able to support growth markets, particularly in space tourism and energy? What is the justification for squandering resources on an expendable Ariane 6 based on old technologies, when it is critically important that innovative, fully reusable spaceplanes such as Britain’s SKYLON are given sufficient support to enter into service no later than the mid 2020s?
  3. The Rosetta mission to comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko has been highly successful so far. What is ESA doing to assist European industry to compete in the development of the resources of asteroids and comets in Earth’s neighbourhood? When is it planned that water and minerals from them will begin to be supplied to Earth orbit in industrial quantities as feedstocks for the new industries of space which follow logically from points 1 and 2 above?
  4. Europe’s fifth ATV resupply ship recently docked with the ISS, and should still be there in December. How is the ATV programme contributing to exponential growth in the ability of ESA and European companies to move cargo from Earth to orbit and back?
  5. In about a year’s time Britain’s Major Tim Peake is scheduled to fly to the ISS for a six-month stay. The last British astronaut who did not need US citizenship in order to fly was Helen Sharman in 1991. Is it the plan that a British citizen will continue to visit space just once every quarter century, thus sending a message to young people that they will never be able to participate personally in spaceflight? What is Europe doing to ensure exponential growth in the numbers of people from its member states visiting space year on year?
  6. Industrial energy supply has been a hot topic for more than a decade, due both to fears of peak oil and to the climate change controversy. One option for sustainable clean power, known since the 1970s, is solar power harvested by satellites in space and beamed down to the ground as microwaves. Given that evaluation of all options for future energy supply is arguably more urgent than exploring Mars or setting up a European satnav system, and given that solar power from space is technically less demanding than harnessing nuclear fusion, why has ESA not yet launched a prototype solar power satellite in order to test this concept?

If ESA officials are unable to give satisfactory answers to these questions, then I respectfully submit that Britain should call for them to be removed from their posts in order to make way for people with more energy, strategic vision and sense of purpose. ESA should be stimulating innovation in European high-technology companies, and focusing that innovation on practical applications with the greatest growth potential, rather than passively waiting for game-changing innovations to appear elsewhere while they dream of taking part in a martian replay of Apollo.

The key disruptive innovation required at this stage is economic access to space, and here the SKYLON project is Britain’s and Europe’s greatest asset.

Industrial development of the space frontier is now a matter of priority. Industrial society cannot stabilise at its current level, therefore the options are continued growth, or decline. The new opportunities for sustainable growth in space must be seized as soon as possible in order to refute the dangerous pessimism so often prevalent in discussions of the human future, and thus to secure the long-term expansion of our civilisation, the survival of its enlightened values and fulfilment of its creative potential.

Yours sincerely,

Stephen Ashworth
Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society