All Astronautical Evolution posts in 2014:
The SpaceShipTwo Crash (Nov.)
To the Rt Hon Greg Clark (Oct.)
A Four-Point Plan for ESA (April)
New in 2015:
Short story The Marchioness
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…
Index to essays – including:
The Great Sociology Debate (2011)
Building Selenopolis (2008)
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:
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.
Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society