15 January 2005
- General (Good)
2004, One Great Year...
...to Be Followed by an Even Better 2005?
by Patrick Collins
For advocates of space tourism, the year 2004 can be conveniently summed up in one word: "SpaceShipOne". That project could hardly have gone better: after just three powered test-flights, starting on the centenary of the Wright brothers' first flight, SpaceShipOne reached space three times in 2004, thereby winning the Ansari X-Prize of $10 million.

Space Future wrote about the project's importance at the time. By actually starting to prove the truth of what Space Future has been saying since its foundation - that travel to space and back can be done at a tiny fraction of government space agencies' costs and so can grow into a transforming new industry - the flights have had great influence, and have caused spreading ripples.

News media throughout the world gave it front page coverage, recognising both its importance and the potential popularity of passenger space travel. However, that recognition has yet to lead to the media questioning why governments spend so much money on space activities with such little economic value - more than $1 trillion to date, without reducing the cost of space travel at all below what it was for Gagarin - while spending nothing whatever on the most economically vauable activity. But it's a start.

One useful effect of the flights was to clarify that it is to the FAA and not to NASA that the U.S. public should look to help realise passenger space travel. Another effect was to trigger Richard Branson, who had set up Virgin Galactic during the 1990s with the pledge "You fly and we'll buy," into agreeing to pay for the production of "SpaceShipTwo" to start passenger flight services as soon as possible - probably within a few years. This is useful because in aviation there are distinct roles to be played by different organisations: manufacturing, operating, and safety regulation. Although quite a number of companies are offering to build sub-orbital vehicles if they receive funding, Virgin was only the second company - after Intergalactic Spacelines, set up by the late Pete Conrad - planning to operate these vehicles.

Another good effect was that Robert Bigelow announced the "American Space Prize" of $50 million for the first private flights to orbit - an excellent follow-up to the X-Prize which could be a great stimulus. To win, competitors must fly 5 people to orbit twice by January 10 2010 - a difficult goal, to be sure, but one that could well be won if a few more wealthy people show a bit of spirit. One of the sadder aspects of the history of the X-Prize is that despite a good half-dozen teams having seriously viable plans, only one was able to raise substantial funding. Hats off to Paul Allen - and shame on all the other multi-millionaires who make no such interesting contribution to human progress.

We should also remember the Canadian team - and hope they do get to reach 100 kilometres altitude - with their costs of just 1/10 of SpaceShipOne. That will be further useful public education that the 50 years we have gone through with no reduction whatever in the cost of space travel despite government space agencies' having used $1 trillion has been madness. The truth is that space travel can be performed at very low cost.

Another related piece of progress was the last-minute passage of HR 5382 through the U.S. senate. Although some of the details in the legislation remain controversial, the sight of the U.S. government taking time to frame laws specifically to aid the growth of space tourism sends a strong message that the years of ignorant ridicule of the idea are over. In its own way this activity in the regulatory field was almost as significant a step as the flight of SpaceShipOne, and was a last-minute cliff-hanger for those involved.

Partly stimulated by the above activities, there are rumours of space tourism-related activities in a number of other countries; for example Sergio Gaudenzi, current president of Brazil's space agency is quoted in Space News (Jan 10, p 20) as saying: "We want to create a great international space tourism and scientific centre at Alcantara. . ." The head of a national space agency would never have used such words even a couple of years ago; but now he can see that this is simply the most likely way that they could earn a profit from their equatorial launch centre. We look forward to seeing such aspirations turned into reality in the near future.

Closer to home, www.spacefuturejapan.com (aka www.uchumirai.com) opened in 2004, following its sister site www.uchumaru.com which opened in 2003 to support the plan to build a sub-orbital demonstrator vehicle for " Kankoh-maru", the orbital passenger vehicle designed in the Japanese Rocket Society's 1993-2002 space tourism study programme. Encouragingly, the "Uchumaru" project is gradually accumulating support, including from politicians.

As another sign of how far understanding has spread that space tourism is the activity most likely to pay for the investment needed in low-cost access to space, and a small feather in Space Future's cap, our illustration of where space tourism could reach by 2030 was chosen by the Space Frontier Foundation to illustrate the "Greater Earth" concept.

And on January 20 Space Future's Patrick Collins is the guest on the 300th "Space Show" - as he was on the 1st show and the 100th show. The show's producer David Livingstone has tapped a rich seam, and, as well as producing fascinating radio programmes, has created a historic archive of material. This records the enormous potential for growth of space activities once the current "cold war" paradigm of government monopoly is replaced by a more normal approach - ie investment in providing services that the public wish to buy. It is increasingly being understood that only this "extraordinary" (!) approach to space development can reduce launch costs sufficiently to open "the space option". This promises to unblock the cul-de-sac in which world-wide economic growth is currently stuck, with unemployment worldwide at the highest levels for decades as described at greater length here and to which the decades-long stagnation of the space industry has greatly contributed.

We confidently look forward to a genuine "New Renaissance" arising from the growth of this new industry. Such a cultural revival is greatly needed today when the rich countries seem to have little to offer the rest of the world beyond the brutal greed of large corporations exploiting countries and people poorer and weaker than themselves.

In contrast to all this lively activity towards realising space tourism, could any spectacle be more like the dinosaurs before an asteroid strike wiped them out than the simultaneous struggles of all three space agencies in USA, Europe and Japan to return their historic and irredeemably loss-making launch vehicles to flight? While these lumbering dinosaurs crash through the trees, terrifying taxpayers, the tiny mammals of SS1 and its cohorts-to-be playing in the branches are pooh-poohed by space agency officials who have billion-dollar budgets to play with. But guess what? The asteroid is coming. Not in 2005 - but it's on its way, unstoppably and bringing revolution in its wake. And then mammals - that's us - are going to inherit space from which the dinosaurs have kept us excluded for 40 years, while using 1 Trillion of our dollars. Enough. More than enough. Let's get on with the future, at last - the real future, humans' space future. On, on, on!

Space Future wishes all our readers the best of success in 2005.
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Patrick Collins 15 January 2005
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