8 October 2007
Opinion - Vehicles (Good)
50 Years and Counting
(And 65 years and 10 years)
by Patrick Collins
by Dr. Patrick Collins

2007 is a special year in the history of humans' activities aimed at spreading our civilisation out into space. October 4th was the 50th anniversary of the first man-made satellite, Sputnik 1, which led to the first "space race" between the governments of the USA and USSR. In response, the US government set up a monopoly organisation to manage a national "space program" to compete with the Soviet Union's. Much has been written in the mainstream media about this history, with many opinions offered about the next 50 years.

Unfortunately, most such writers' vision about the next 50 years is that they will be very similar to the last 50 years, with government space agencies spending another trillion Euro-equivalents to do such things as building a base on the Moon and even perhaps on Mars, with ever more surveillance satellites to keep track of what's happening on Earth, both environmentally and politically/militarily.

As discussed elsewhere on the Spacefuture website (here) , one fact which is not often pointed out, although it is of vital importance, is that the rocket used to launch Sputnik - the R-7 missile developed to deliver warheads to the USA - is essentially the present-day Soyuz rocket, which is still, STILL the cheapest and most reliable vehicle for traveling to orbit today - despite OECD governments having spent 1 trillion Euro-equivalents since then on a range of "civilian space activities".

This shocking fact should be front-page newspaper headlines worldwide - because just a fraction of 1% of this amount, invested well, could have led to the development of a booming orbital travel industry by now. Millions of people each year could have been making short visits to orbiting resorts. Numerous other commercial activities in space could have been enabled by low launch costs, stimulated by the demand for orbital services.

2030 Scenario

That is, had just 1% of OECD governments' civilian space investment been used to reduce the cost of passenger space travel, this scenario for orbital travel using a reusable passenger vehicle could have already been achieved today.

This would have created millions of jobs worldwide, helping to solve the worldwide unemployment crisis due to the lack of new industries. It could also have contributed greatly to solving global environmental problems, particularly global warming. Governments' massive spending on civilian space activities has therefore achieved only a tiny fraction of the benefits which it could have, had better policies been followed.

It is one of the tragedies of the era we live in that pointing out this evidence of extraordinary failure in government policy has not lead to correction of this error, but merely to evasion of the issue and proposals to spend even more taxpayers' money on anything except reducing the cost of traveling to space. Why is this?

Luckily, so far mostly in the USA, and thanks to the US government officials responsible for civil aviation rather than those responsible for space, activities are growing to realise sub-orbital space tourism within the next few years, hopefully leading to orbital services. However, the total investment involved in these activities - almost all private - is still barely 1% of space agencies' annual spending. And it is far from clear that economical orbital passenger vehicles will be developed as soon as possible. This is NOT a good way for our governments to be investing our societies' limited economic and technological resources. Engineers, scientists, economists, journalists and the general public should keep saying this repeatedly in public until this situation improves.

65 Years and Counting

As it happens, October 3rd 2007 was the 65th anniversary of an equally important event in space history - the first successful, controlled flight to, through and from space, at Peenemünde, Germany. After a number of failures, the team developing the V2 rocket finally solved the last technical problems (in the control system, like the Wright brothers) and finalised the V2 missile which was thereafter used to pound London. It is fascinating that General Walter Dornberger who was in charge of the project, was entirely aware of the historic significance of the event, and made a speech about it to his team (including Werner Von Braun) the same evening.

"We have invaded space with our rocket and for the first time ... we have proved rocket propulsion practicable for space travel. This third day of October 1942 is the first of a new era in transportation, that of space travel ... The development of possibilities we cannot yet envisage will be a peacetime task." (Thom Burnett "Who Really Won the Space Race?" p. 16; Collins & Brown; 2005.)

The Soyuz rocket, of which more than 1,700 have been made and flown - the indisputable "DC-3" of ELVs - is a worthy follow-on to the V-2. But we have made shockingly little progress towards passenger space travel, as noted above. A number of other interesting rockets, and a great deal of spacecraft engineering know-how have been developed with the 1 trillion Euro-equivalents used. But investment to achieve low-cost passenger space travel has been almost zero. Luckily it is becoming ever more widely understood that this is the only way to unlock the commercial potential of space development.

10 Years and Counting

2007 is also the 10th anniversary of Space Future Consulting, and our www.spacefuture.com website. It has been very satisfactory to see one of our main arguments widely accepted - that passenger space travel alone offers a potentially large enough market to enable the cost of space travel to be reduced very substantially (about 99%) below the costs maintained for 50 years by government space agencies. A look at the space tourism timeline will show how few people were saying this 10 years ago. So this has been a major success.

However, it has been very unsatisfactory to see how little space agencies have achieved with the more than $200 billion they have spent during this same decade! Imagine if they had permitted the use of even just one half of one thousandth of this - $100 million - to help develop sub-orbital passenger travel.

Even the British government has spent 2 billion pounds - more than 3 billion Euros - over this decade on "civilian space activities." If they had permitted the use of even 3% of this to develop a prototype sub-orbital passenger vehicle like "Ascender," the space industry could now be creating jobs rapidly rather than living off taxpayers.

Space Future Consulting will continue to spread valuable information about the true potential of space development as effectively as we can. We hope that after the next decade, in 2017, we will see at least a factor of 10 times more investment pouring into realising passenger space travel - say 1 billion Euro-equivalents/year. That would still be only just 5% of what taxpayers have to pay for space agencies' activities - but plenty to set the ball rolling unstoppably towards large-scale passenger space travel and on and on.

Roll on, roll on!
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Patrick Collins 8 October 2007
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