Friday, 2 February 2018

Ticket to Ride

A favourite ‘golden age’ sci-fi story of mine is Robert Heinlein’s ‘The Man Who Sold The Moon’. It’s a story of an entrepreneur called D.D. Harriman who creates his own spaceflight company and ultimately lands the first man on the moon, though he is ultimately denied the chance of fulfilling his dream of going himself. It was published in 1951 and its prediction of a first moon landing in 1978 seemed wildly optimistic at the time. 

As it turned out of course it was the idea of commercial spaceflight that Heinlein was being optimistic about. He was hardly alone in that respect,  in the science fiction of the 50’s and 60’s the idea that spaceflight would follow a similar trajectory to airline travel was almost a given. When the Space Shuttle emerged in the 70’s with its promise of slashing the cost of spaceflight it looked like we might be on the road to opening space up to more than a select few government agencies. 

That promise fizzled out as the Shuttle proved to be complex and expensive to operate. Every plan to improve or replace it fizzled out (Shuttle-C, Venturestar and HL-20 are just a few of casualties) and spaceflight seemed moribund and indeed may even have gone backwards in some respects as with the Shuttle retired the USA faced a long period with no manned spaceflight capability. Yes the various space agencies have done wonderful things with space telescopes and probes to other planets, but for those of us who had grown up with the idea that one day be able to buy a ticket and go out there ourselves it was just a little disappointing. There were occasional flurries of media interest as some company emerged claiming they would open up commercial spaceflight but they were all better at PR than rocket science, D.D. Harriman remained pure fantasy, and then the Internet happened...  

What I really mean is the internet stopped being a niche thing for the computer literate and became part of the mainstream, people started buying things, and paying for them, online. That created new companies and a number of wealthy tech entrepreneurs, some of whom had grown up with the dream of space travel and decided to do something about it. Right now the best known of the new commercial space companies is undoubtedly SpaceX and its founder Elon Musk. They didn’t invent new technology, what they did do was take ideas that had been explored, but never exploited and turn them into working space vehicles. Suddenly the ‘tail sitter’ rockets beloved of golden science fiction have become real (checkout this video of a SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage returning to base) and the idea of opening up manned spaceflight to more than a select few is back on the table. 

Maybe it will all turn out to be another false dawn, but right now the chances of buying that ticket to the moon are better than they’ve been since the heady days of Apollo. Time to start saving those pennies…

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