Space may be the “last frontier” but it is one that’s open for business and achievable, says Alan Peaford.
Fifty years ago, when the last heat of the Great Space Race was won, there were only two serious competitors.
Russia had taken the lead in the first round eight years before when Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, on the Soviet spacecraft Vostok 1, became the first human being to travel into space and orbit the Earth in just under 90 minutes.
The frustrated runner-up, the United States, upped its game in resources and national commitment and set out to win the next battle.
As we all know (unless you have been hiding under a rock or in your bedroom cooking up conspiracy theories) on July 20, 1969, at 20:17 UTC, Commander Neil Armstrong and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin left the Apollo 11 spacecraft and successfully took the giant leap for mankind and stepped onto the Moon.
Six Apollo missions went on to explore the Moon over the next three years before the US declared victory, its public and politicians turned their backs on space exploration and the bean counters turned the lights off.
They always say that great events can inspire a new generation, and there is no question that the Apollo programme did that.
While some of America’s finest minds turned their thoughts to developing things like personal computers, iPhones, burgers and the MRI scanner, other countries tentatively took small steps for man and began setting up their own space programmes. Universities around the world, casting politics aside, would begin thinking, planning and developing space experiments.
NASA bravely battled on and, of course, achieved some new milestones. Orbiting communications and navigation satellites were making a practical difference helping to give us GPS and global TV stations, and exploration quietly continued with the Mariner spacecraft orbiting and mapping the surface of Mars and Voyager sending back detailed images of Jupiter and Saturn, their rings, and their moons.
Sharing budgets helped and the Apollo Soyuz Test Project became the world’s first internationally crewed (American and Russian) space mission. This was followed by the low Earth-orbiting International Space Station (ISS) which has become a symbol of cooperation in space exploration, with former competitors now working together.
Some 236 people from 18 countries have visited or worked on the Space Station since 2000 and as each new country sends an astronaut to space, excitement in that country rises and the space industry gets a boost.
Wandering around the Paris Air Show last month, it was incredible to see the sheer breadth of organisations with a focus on space.
Of course, the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing was a platform to celebrate the importance of space and it was great to see the affection that surrounds Apollo astronauts like Al Worden, Commander of Apollo 15, who led a delegation of astronauts and space professionals to present “Apollo 50: America’s Invitation to Partnership” at the Le Bourget event.
The week-long programme of high-profile activities and events was set to engage, educate and excite the global aerospace community to invest more time and money in innovation, as well as help position the US industry as every investor’s top-of-mind partner.
And that investment really is stretching wider.
Here in the UK, one of the more economically stretched regions of the country, Cornwall in the south-west corner, is celebrating the news that the UK Space Agency and Cornwall Council intend to make around £20 million available for Spaceport Cornwall and US launch operator Virgin Orbit to develop facilities and operational capabilities for small satellite launches from there in the early 2020s.
Spaceport Cornwall could create 150 jobs and enable the UK to compete for a share of the global market for launching small satellites worth a potential £3.9 billion to 2030.
Launch from the UK will be an opportunity to inspire children and young people to take up careers in science, engineering or even as space entrepreneurs.
In the whole scheme of things, this is a small investment for a great return (another small step/giant leap scenario) and it is happening all over the world.
In the Middle East, countries like the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have launched their own space agencies. This month the UAE celebrated its fifth anniversary and Space Agency director-general, Mohammed Nasser Al Ahbabi, said already more than 50 Emirati companies, institutions and establishments are involved in the country’s space sector, employing some 1,500 people.
It plans to have its Hope spacecraft make a Mars landing in 2021 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the UAE.
If they succeed it will be a triumph for the Space For All movement,
So far, only Russia, USA, China, the European Union, India and Japan have truly broken into the space market with only the first three having led manned missions to space.
China, with its own space station and the successful launch of the Chang’e 3 lunar lander and rover, has inspired America to focus on space potential, in the same way the Soviets did in the early 1960s,
At Paris, I had the chance to meet Tim Kopra, former Commander of International Space Station, and Arturo Machuca, the general manager of Houston Spaceport, where the new Moonlander craft which will take cargo to the moon is being built.
We talked about space tourism and space work – two very different thing according to Kopra – but recognised that both have a role to play ensuring we continue to invest in the industry.
Several nations now have their own launch systems, and there is strong competition in the commercial market to develop the next generation of launch systems to meet the growing need to reach planets like Mars where so much can be learned about our future for Earth – if you have any doubts, listen to Dr Adriana Marais talk about the importance of human settlements in space.
Maintaining the investment in satellites – already so important for our day-to-day living and security – is also progressing.
Virgin Orbit this month completed a progression of test flights with its “flying launch pad” Cosmic Girl and LauncherOne vehicle — releasing a fully built, fully loaded rocket from Cosmic Girl, a modified Boeing 747 that serves as the rocket’s carrier aircraft.
And space tourism? It could happen soon – despite many false starts and promises over the past decade.
At the front of the field is Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. Some 700 people have bought tickets for around $250,000 each to experience several minutes of weightlessness and get incredible views of Earth for a short hop into space with five other passengers.
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has the Blue Origin programme with the reusable Shepard rocket (named after the first American in space, Alan Shepard), which has flown to space ten times and is now opening the way for passengers at a similar price to the Virgin programme.
Open for business
Some may sniff at the suggestion that this is important but as history has shown us, the more we believe something is possible or achievable, the more we work harder to succeed.
Space may be the “last frontier” but it is one that’s open for business and achievable.
As we develop artificial intelligence, improve remote manufacturing processes such as 3D printing then space dream becomes more like reality.
Only politics and protectionism can get in the way.