Africa to join the space race?

Paul Raven @ 06-09-2010

Well, maybe not just yet, but the African Union has approved a feasibility study to examine the possibility of putting together an African Space Agency.

(I always smile when I see that some group or another has “approved a feasibility study”; it always makes me wonder whether they did an earlier feasibility study to determine whether the newly-approved feasibility study was feasible or not.)


Space Jockeys

Brenda Cooper @ 21-10-2009

I was interviewed twice last week, and both times the topic of space flight came up.  One of the questions one of the interviewers, Annie Tupek, asked me was, “You write about mankind’s future in space.  What do you think is the largest obstacle opposing space colonization today?”

Here’s the short form of my answer to that question:  “…it’s expensive and difficult to get heavy stuff from here out into space. The distances are long and the travel hard. …  We tend to think it’s taking a long time to explore space.  The Wright Brother’s first flight was in 1903.  So in a little over a hundred years we’ve gone from being stuck fact to the surface of the planet to flying all over it all the time with hardly a worry except the TSA search indignities.  We’ve flown past almost every planet and moon in the solar system, landed rovers on Mars, and men on the moon.”

So I decided I’d write this month’s column about what’s happening as private companies compete to get to space. In fact, there’s so much happening, I could write a book about it.  Instead, I’m going to survey the news from LEO, give a little futuristic spin, and discuss one book. Continue reading “Space Jockeys”


Forty years since Armstrong’s one small step – where next?

Paul Raven @ 20-07-2009

Buzz Aldrin begins his moonwalkI’m too young to join in the first-hand reminiscences of the Moon landings, but it’s still an event that played a huge role in my imaginative development – as it doubtless did for many other geeks and science fiction fans. [image courtesy NASA]

I think the Apollo project’s biggest symbolism for me is that of the bitter ironies of human technological achievement: to have sent a man into space, had him walk on the Moon and come back safely is quite simply a staggering achievement by whatever metric you choose to use; to have only found the motivation and political will to do so because of a geopolitical/ideological pissing match is rather sad. And it’s that very motivation that ensured us never returning to Luna, as Tom Wolfe points out:

Everybody, including Congress, was caught up in the adrenal rush of it all. But then, on the morning after, congressmen began to wonder about something that hadn’t dawned on them since Kennedy’s oration. What was this single combat stuff — they didn’t use the actual term — really all about? It had been a battle for morale at home and image abroad. Fine, O.K., we won, but it had no tactical military meaning whatsoever. And it had cost a fortune, $150 billion or so. And this business of sending a man to Mars and whatnot? Just more of the same, when you got right down to it. How laudable … how far-seeing … but why don’t we just do a Scarlett O’Hara and think about it tomorrow?

And that NASA budget! Now there was some prime pork you could really sink your teeth into! And they don’t need it anymore! Game’s over, NASA won, congratulations. Who couldn’t use some of that juicy meat to make the people happy? It had an ambrosial aroma … made you think of re-election …

But hey – this site’s about the future, so let’s look forwards, eh? Former NASA administrator Alan Stern reckons that private industry is the future of spaceflight, and that sub-orbital tourism might be ubiquitous in another decade or so:

I think that when anyone can fly in space, rather than just those that governments choose to send in to space, it’s going to really revolutionize, not only how we look at it, but it’s going to be an accelerant to the desires to have even more of that.

The prices start off pretty high – it’s tens of millions of dollars to fly in space, but those prices will come down, and fly sub-orbitally, ticket prices are in the range of a couple hundred thousand dollars, but those are going to come down a lot to I think over time. I expect that 10 years from now, they’ll be a fraction of that.

And it turns out there may be another motivational force to pull us back to the Moon – if we ever manage to crack commercial fusion power generation, we’d be able to rake up a whole lot of fuel up there:

… the Moon’s soil is rich in helium-3, which comes from the outer layer of the Sun and is blown around the Solar System by solar winds. The element is rarely found on Earth, unlike on the Moon, where it is heavily accumulated because it is pushed away by the Earth’s magnetic poles.

[…]

Reserves of helium-3 on the Moon are in the order of a million tonnes, according to some estimates, and just 25 tonnes could serve to power the European Union and United States for a year.

That’s a whole lot of fuel… but it’s still a finite resource, and historically those tend to lead to trouble and strife of some sort as the world’s powers jostle for the biggest slice of the pie. At least if colonialism reaches the Moon there won’t be any natives to exploit introduce to civilisation…

… none that we know of, anyway.


Price wars… in spaaaaaace

Paul Raven @ 26-02-2009

A man floating in zero-gravity yesterday (no, not really)Proof, if such were needed, that one should always shop around to ensure you’re getting the best value deal: RocketShip Tours are entering the space tourism market with a bargain price tag.

Upstarts RocketShip Tours and XCOR Aerospace say that the price of their flights, slated to begin as soon as 2010, will be $95,000, about half that of the ones being offered by Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which also hopes to launch as early as 2010.

“Our goal is to make space travel accessible and affordable to those who aspire to experience the ultimate adventure,’’ said Jules Klar, CEO and chairman of RocketShip in a statement.

I hadn’t expected to hear much out of the space tourism outfits in the current economic climate, but beating one’s own drum as the cheaper option is probably the only announcement that won’t gather a lynch mob outside your HQ. The Boston Globe article is painting RocketShip’s announcement as the start of a ‘price war’, but given that neither outfit has actually completed one of their proposed tourism flights yet I suspect it’s more of a PR war than anything else.

Assuming that flights to and from orbit become commonplace (come on, allow me some optimism here, it’s been a long week), can we assume that there’ll be a similar spread of service suppliers as there currently is in the air travel market? Would you really want to take a jaunt to LEO with the aerospace equivalent of Aeroflot?

All of a sudden, I have a vision of space hobos jagging free rides on orbital freighters to see the sights and maybe find a few month’s work… and I find myself rather liking the idea of being the Jack Kerouac of the space generation. Time to ease up on the Dexedrine, maybe. [image by markjsebastien]


The battle to build the definitive virtual London

Paul Raven @ 17-01-2009

composite virtual LondonHere comes the latest iteration of the land-grab. Given that the metaverse offers theoretically infinite space in all four dimensions, no one need fight over lebensraum… but Victor Keegan points out the business value of having the definitive virtual version of a city like London:

Build a 3D London and you can rent out apartments and shops, get advertising, boost heritage sites and familiarise tourists with the capital before they arrive. And, of course, go out clubbing and meeting people.

During a recession, won’t people want to stay at home using broadband, already paid for, rather than going out? Won’t they want to shop without the hassle and parking problems of Oxford Street?

Keegan’s not the first to realise this – five different organisations are building or have already built a 3D version of the UK capital. The Second Life iteration of London is already up, running and renting out properties, but the proprietary versions (which will doubtless be bigger money-makers in the long run, and hopefully less frustratingly bug-ridden) are hot on its heels, including a yet-to-be-unveiled Microsoft offering that is apparently described by a rival as “phenomenal”. [image by *spud*]

What isn’t mentioned is what the City of London itself thinks about all this (although the Ordnance Survey people have already delayed one project by a few years by claiming exclusive rights on their maps, despite their bill being footed by the taxpayer). If there’s money to be made from a virtual London, I’m certain that the real London will feel it deserves a cut of the action; it’s no less ridiculous than a lot of current intellectual property lawsuits.

So, will the famous (and not-so-famous) cities of the world start selling exclusive licenses to metaverse developers? Will developers with less scruples build unlicensed replicas anyway? Will there be a panoply of Londons, Amsterdams, New Yorks or Belgrades – the X-rated versions, the Christianised or Islamicised versions, the simplified versions for school trips?

And once the bandwidth and bit-rates get high enough, will we ever want to trudge around the originals?


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