Tuesday, May 22, 2012
SpaceX launched the first commercial spaceship to the International Space Station at 8.44 BST today, after a number of delays. I have sent this letter out to a wide range of newspapers but this is far to important to hold back merely because one or more of them might be interested.
Space industrialisation is the most important extension of the humanity since we left Africa and arguably since we came down from the trees. It is certainly far more important than Columbus, who merely extended the European world to a single new continent.
Sir,Ref - SpaceX costings http://www.spacex.com/usa.php
The first commercial true spaceship is on its way to resupply the International Space Station. With the shuttle programme over NASA with its $20 billion a year budget, was embarrassingly expecting to have to rely on the Russians to get Americans there for many years. But Elon Musk's company SpaceX promises to be able to do it commercially, for under £90 million.
It seems certain that if politics does not interfere and that is unlikely in every country he could base himself in, that Mr Musk has ushered in the era of space industrialisation. I trust he will get filthy rich out of it - he is earning it.
"The sky's the limit" considerably understates the potential for human settlement and development beyond Earth. At these prices space tourism is merely the start. Solar power satellites can give us unlimited power with, once established, almost zero cost. A group of billionaires are investing in asteroid mining. They would not require to mine the gold, platinum and other precious metals from many asteroids to become trillionaires.
All of this could have been done decades ago (see the movie 2001 to see how it was expected to) but politics intervened. The effective way for government to support space development is through prizes, such as the $10 million X-Prize given for the first suborbital flight won by Virgin's Spaceship One. Such prizes, when they work have a record of being at least 33 times more cost effective than conventional funding (when they don't they are infinitely more cost effective as they cost nothing).
But governments are more interested in using popular enthusiasm for space to build massive bureaucracies that waste so many billions - like NASA. It does give them personal patronage for friends and supporters - the only way in which prizes cannot compete.
However even NASA has always looked good compared to the European Space Agency. Its total budget is half of NASA's but what have they ever done with it?
Well, a few days ago they did issue a report, along with the WWF, saying we should give up modern technology and start to experience the joys of life as a medieval peasant. This is the European idea of the purpose of a Space Agency?
For such pearls of wisdom the British taxpayer pays them £280 million annually, in the fond belief that it is going for space research. I know of no engineer, economist or even politician who doubts that if that money had been put into a British X-Prize Foundation rather than to another unproductive European bureaucracy, Britain would long ago have attracted Mr Musk (born in South Africa not America) or one of his competitors to build that spacecraft here.
To be fair I also don't know of any main party British politician, & I have asked a few over the years, who didn't prefer to waste that money on technophobic Luddite European bureaucracy. Perhaps that will change now and we will get the British X-Prize Foundation that would give us at least a share in an economic boom far greater than Columbus ever produced.
ESA/WWF report on how we should be medieval peasants http://www.theregister.co.uk/2012/05/16/wwf_living_planet_report/nt.
Here is an article from the estimable Register taking apart Britain's space industry pretensions and the Institute of Directors Report claiming it. The conclusion is that we don't do enough to justify a grandiose spaceport and that Britain, not being on the equator, isn't a suitable venue.
I accept the basic argument but think that we should do something to promote a more grandiose industry if we are ever to have one. That is why I, years ago, promoted the idea of a British and potentially world leading spaceport on Ascension Island, in the mid Atlantic just south of the equator.
Everyone knows about Britain's soaraway space sector. It turns over £8bn a year – the same sort of money as the remaining automotive industry – it employs tens of thousands of people, and it's growing faster than the Chinese economy. And, famously, it has done all this without any significant government help.....
Of the 25,000 directly employed in UK space, just over 7,000 work in "upstream" businesses like SSTL, actually building and operating spacecraft. The other 17,000+ work in "downstream" space business.
What's "downstream" space?
The short answer is, it's Sky TV, accounting for two-thirds of the downstream jobs and turnover. BSkyB, the IoD report tells us, is "the biggest player in the UK space economy ... without BSkyB it [UK space] would be half the size, probably less."
....it certainly doesn't seem to call for a spaceport. Nonetheless the IoD is full of enthusiasm, alluding to the new "Spaceport America" now being built in New Mexico as a base for Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic space tourism venture....
In any case, for actual serious space endeavour as opposed to up-and-down joyrides, you need to be able to achieve orbit - and orbit is a matter of velocity more than altitude. For most space applications, it helps a lot if you can take off from a piece of ground, and ascend through a piece of atmosphere, which is already moving fast through the Earth's gravitational field, as is the case near the Equator... not somewhere in the high latitudes like Canada or Scotland.