When you’re trying to get your new business off the blocks, keeping costs low is important. When that business is space flight, keeping to technology that has a proven track record is also important. Excalibur Almaz are combining that business wisdom with a bit of large-scale recycling, and are buying up old Soviet space modules and vehicles as part of their bid to grab a slice of the commercial space-truckin’ pie.
As elegant and sleek as the Space Shuttle is, I have an aesthetic affection for the more utilitarian approach to space – possibly born of the knowledge that, once you’re out of the atmosphere, you don’t need things like wings or an aerodynamic body. Indeed, probably the most redeeming feature of Stephen Donaldson’s Gap Cycle space opera series (not so well known as the inexplicably popular and interminable Thomas Covenant bore-fests) was the way his fictional spacecraft were ugly, practical things, built for function rather than form.
I’m also reminded of a number of Stephen Baxter’s novels, where gutsy defiers-of-bureaucracy blast themselves up the gravity well in vehicles so crude they’re little more than an unpressurised metal box bolted on to the top of a giant rocket, and the time-worn undermaintained habitats and vehicles of Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix. Safety and elegance are fine things, but they’re prohibitive obstructions when you’re breaking a new frontier.