Throughout history human progress has been tightly linked to increased mobility. The isolation imposed by the limited endurance of human legs was broken by enlisting the help of donkey, mule and horse, and as a result tribe could reach out to tribes farther away. The invention of the wheel permitted increased movement of goods and led to the convenience of the cart and ultimately the coach. And the stagecoach allowed, as the name implies, journeys to be organized in stages and thus enabled greater reach. Cars followed. Ships made it possible to traverse lakes, bays and ultimately oceans. New technologies made this faster and faster, yet ultimately ships were seen as snails compared to planes, jet planes and the iconic manifestation of supersonic speed, the Concorde.
In our time we also see progress in mobility. The advent of the artificial exoskeleton will be lessening the hardship of the stricken, self-driving cars will rationalize road traffic and make individualized transportation much more comfortable, and we have broken gravity’s spell by moving into space with greater and greater ease. On 21 December Elon Musk and SpaceX managed to launch a payload into space whilst bringing back the spent first stage of the rocket and land it vertically. This followed a similar feat of Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin a month ago, albeit without the launch of a payload and therefore slightly less complicated. Yet, fact is that both the achievement of Elon Musk and of Jeff Bezos are paradigm-breaking successes. An era of re-useable launchers is upon us, and the economics of space will be radically changed. How radically nobody knows, but very significantly, without a doubt. Competitors will now scramble to catch up and the effect of the new paradigm will be the increased and even more varied use of space. This we must welcome.
Bezos and Musk are men of big dreams! They do not only want to change the economics of space fundamentally, they invest in space transportation because they ultimately want to make it possible to colonize Mars. Yet, the ultimate prize cannot be that. The ultimate prize must be that their generation makes possible travel without limits and at greatest speed. The epitome of mobility is ultra-fast, easy and safe travel to the destination of your choice, be it on Earth or in the heavens!
Bezos and Musk concentrate on space flight, and this is obviously very respectable. But point-to-point travel to destinations on Earth at hypersonic speeds, and possibly even through space, should not be forgotten, and Messrs. Bezos and Musk may have a critical contribution to make there as well. Same ground-breaking technologies could be involved in both undertakings.
The dream of ultra-fast flight for terrestrial purposes is not new, of course. Already in the 1920s Herman Potocnik Noordung, an unsung genius, imagined an aerospace plane able to go from Berlin to Tokyo in less than one morning, even making prescriptions for how such hypersonic/space travel could be achieved. Not unreasonably, preoccupation with jet propulsion, Apollo and the space shuttle put ultrafast point-to-point flight on the backburner for a long time, but in 1986 Ronald Reagan revived the idea in the State-of-the-Union address, where he conjured up images of the hypersonic/space plane as a modern-day Orient Express. After ten years of half-hearted effort this came to nothing, however, partly because it could not be agreed whether the dream was indeed increasing the speed of terrestrial travel or easing the access to space. But, of course, it should have been both. It should have been both because both dreams require the same technology breakthroughs.
During the same period one focus of radical innovation in Europe was single-stage-to-orbit vehicles, and although the related project was ultimately discontinued an offspring lives and prospers today. The Skylon project recently attracted a 50 million Pounds grant from the UK government and shows a lot of promise, ultimately perhaps not only as a safer and cheaper way to get to space, but even as a precursor to finally being able to hit the beaches of Australia in less than two hours when New York weather would so invite.
The dream of limitless and ultrafast travel to whatever destination you may desire is unlikely to be realized by entrepreneurs alone. Yes, Skylon and space tourism pioneers like Richard Branson may show the way. And yes, Bezos and Musk are changing the economics of space flight. But all this does not mean that an ambition of limitless and ultrafast travel can materialize without a heavy dose of involvement and funding by governments! The International Space Station has cost the five partner governments more than 100 billion dollars over the lifetime, and creating the technologies allowing to go effortlessly to space or to the Australian beach might cost even more. Yet, this should not deter us. A society is only as big as its dreams, and stopping the big dreams spell long-term disaster. Europe, India, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the US have taken a Euro 15 billion gamble on ITER and fusion energy and showed courage in embarking on such a high-risk project. The technologically most advanced countries must continue to show such daring, if for no other reason than this being a probate way to justify continued leadership and privilege!
For many decades now, the mobility of humankind to space has been limited by the immense cost of rocketry and the mobility on Earth limited by the limits of the jet engine. It is time for humans to free themselves of these constraints and realise the dream of being able to go wherever they want easily, safely and ultrafast! Let aerospace planes be one of the legacies we bestow on future generations!
We tend to associate this time of year with endings. The year comes to an end, the longest night is upon us, darkness seems to obscure any ray of sunshine. Yet, we light candles to fight the darkness and to remind us of the sunny days to come, and winter solstice brings not only the longest night, but the start of ever longer days. So in so many ways this season is about beginnings! In its own very modest way ESPI wants to contribute to this sense of renewal. What we want to do is to start a new blog on space.
If you read this blog you should not expect that it will keep you up-to-date with what is going on in our very dynamic environment - this will not be the place where you learn about the breaking news, other sites are available for that. What this blog will do is to reflect on what is going on in space, it will try to give an input to making sense of it all. Many professions leave little time for contemplation and for digesting all the developments and new ideas. Space is no different, and one of the great attractions of the space field is exactly its dynamism. Yet, contemplation and digestion are important, if we want to make the best of our endeavours. The new blog hopes to stimulate this process.
Most blogs convey personal opinions, and so will this one. When I write I will not be expressing the official opinions of ESPI or its staff and stakeholders, it will be my personal opinions. And these opinions might sometimes amuse you, sometimes make you change your mind, sometimes confirm your existing opinion. But, sometimes my opinions will also irritate you, make you angry, make you disagree completely. I ask leave for that. The job of a think tank, and its director, is to stimulate debate, and it goes with this territory that sometimes raw nerves will be hit! Sometimes, horror of horrors, I might even be wrong. You be the judge!
Below you will find my first contribution:
Money and the Mind
Money is a means, not an end. Money may be an enabler of happiness, but is not itself happiness. These are obvious truths, but truths we often forget.
Happiness is an end, but happiness is not a binary concept: so many ideals of happiness exist. Because happiness, in whatever form, is difficult to grasp and defies easy measurement, society prefers to measure money and material goods. Immaterial things, such as intellectual property rights, are assigned a monetary value, and we measure progress in GDP terms.
We laud Bhutan’s happiness index, but we are reluctant to abandon GDP as the defining measure, possibly because we believe that by measuring the means, indirectly we measure also the ends. Much talk takes place on socio-economic benefits of societal investments, but in truth the talk is more on ‘economic’ than on ‘socio’. Yet many social benefits are more directly linked to the idea of happiness.
These dilemmas also affect space. In many sub-domains space has no difficulty showing impact in economic terms. The effects of telecoms and navigation are relatively easy to quantify, and space can also more generally demonstrate its innovation effects even if already here it becomes more difficult to put economic figures.
Earth Observation obviously has direct, measurable economic impact, but the heated discussions on the Stern Report, and lately during the COP 21, show that even when discussing benefits in purely economic terms there is ample room for dissent. The more fundamental question is, however, whether it is wise, or enough, to try to just measure the impact of Earth Observation in terms of the effect on finances. We cannot put an economic value on beauty, on the freshness of the morning breeze, or a price against the extinction of a species. Yet, these are things we care deeply about, and which must have significance in our societal decision making. Earth Observation is also an insurance policy against future avertable disasters, but, as a society, we are not good at appreciating the significance of avoidance. It was, in fact, curious that after the avian flu outbreak the WHO was criticized for having advocated too radical measures. Yet, exactly these measures might have saved us from a pandemic. The success of COP 21 is an encouraging sign that we might start to understand how important it is to invest in the health of our planet, and that the measure is not only economic. It did not come easy!
When we invest in space infrastructure in order to assist developing countries and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals the effect can to some extent be measured in economic terms. Yet, the GDP effects will for the largest part not be on our GDPs, so how do you measure in money the compliance with ethical obligations, how do you measure the effects of geopolitical disasters being avoided, how do you measure the effect of us understanding that a life is of equal value no matter where it is lived?
An important element of happiness is understanding (although admittedly it can also bring unhappiness). Our lives evolve around making sense of what is going on around us, deciphering our environment, be it human or natural. Curiosity is the greatest gift given to humankind. But the value of the learning experience and of the learning that makes us happy cannot be truly measured. The flight of spirit felt when reading Wordsworth, the satisfaction of having been accompanied by Newton through Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, the awe we feel when we watch the starry universe and ponder its significance, these are feelings that cannot be reduced to any single measure, and least of all to an economic one.
The upshot of all this is that although we live in materialistic times we should be careful not to put everything in materialistic terms. When we ponder what we want to achieve as a society we must not think of bread alone! Within the space domain, space science (and exploration) often suffers from its benefits being measurable only imperfectly by economic means. Yet, space science addresses the big, eternal questions and our investment in space science is thus one in making us partake in the most profound knowledge. It seems to me that the richer we get materially the more we should invest in the immaterial!
Analysis of socio-economic benefits is necessary for guiding societal decision making, there is no doubt. But let us give more prominence to the social part of the equation, even if benefits to some extent can be described only by words and not measured numerically. After all, happiness is not a number!