We should be there already. To anyone born between 1955 and 1980, it was a given that our tomorrow would be weightless. Moon bases, space hotels, orbital research facilities, everything in that gorgeous, clean-white 2001 looks like a giant floating fridge... Space was where we were all going to live and work: all of us floating in a tin can, high above the world in a Stanley Kubrick future. We’re already on the Moon, we thought. Where next?
And then… it didn’t happen. The political rivalry of the Cold War and its race to “claim” the Moon melted away. Space exploration receded from the headlines. The New Frontier became a realm of increasingly abstruse technological research – vital, but incomprehensible to the many. “There are two reasons we’re not in space the way we thought we would be yet,” says Andrew Kuh, national exploration and microgravity programme manager at the UK Space Agency. “One is really boring: money and politics. The other is that space is just so bloody complex – far more complex than we thought in the Sixties.”
Instead of the space revolution we expected, we got a communications revolution that transformed human life. Now some of the people who made fortunes from that paradigm shift are putting their billions into bringing the dream of space exploration alive again. Consider, too, the fact that space technology has quietly woven itself into our everyday lives – not just satellite TV, meteorology and GPS, but disaster management; agriculture and energy regulation based on orbital observations; “microgravity” experiments in biotechnology and metallurgy; or satellite-synced timestamps for trading on the stock market. In Britain, the space industry kept growing despite the recession. Outside the Solar System, we’re discovering exoplanets – some similar to Earth – not in their ones or twos but hundreds. We’re standing on the threshold of a new space age; one where the old impulse to explore combines with quantum leaps in technology and the defining force of the modern world – private wealth.
Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo
Everyone knows about the plans by Richard Branson (wealth: $4.6bn) to make sub-orbital space tourism accessible with Virgin Galactic. Though some disparage the venture as just a ruinously costly $250,000 “fun ride”, it’s still a proving ground for Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo technology. It's “the first commercially viable reusable space ship,” according to Galactic's CEO George Whitesides. SpaceShipTwo will be lifted to 15,000ft by a conventional aeroplane, then fire its own boosters to reach the edge of space and come back to Earth under its own power, like the Space Shuttle. “If you had to throw away a 747 every time you went from London to New York, even transatlantic travel would be pretty expensive.”
There are potential spin-offs from SpaceShipTwo for science and “space hop” point-to-point travel, which could shorten a flight from London to New York to an hour -and-a-half at Mach 5. In typical showman style, Branson promises he’ll be on SpaceShipTwo’s as-yet unconfirmed maiden flight with his children, while Justin Bieber will go into orbit at some point, too. Virgin Galactic has signed a deal with NBC to find someone who doesn’t have a quarter of a million to hand and put them in space via – what else? – a reality TV show. Let’s say you win it. Is this really space travel, or just a quick excursion?
SpaceShipTwo is designed to travel above 100km, and the US standard for where space “begins” is approximately 50 miles. At the apogee of its two-and-a-half-hour flight, its passengers will be able to see the classic astronaut’s-eye view of the curvature of the Earth and the blue ribbon of the planet’s atmospheric shell – everybody gets two-window seats. They will experience a few minutes of weightlessness, get out of their seats and float around.
“We’ve designed our seats for space, just like Virgin Atlantic,” Whitesides says. “The guy [behind] our interior played a key role in designing the Virgin Atlantic flat beds.” It is, he admits, an expensive treat. “But all of these things are expensive when they start, and then the price comes down as you hone your technology. We want to make space tourism accessible to the most people possible. The market is huge.”
PayPal's Elon Musk fronts private space agency SpaceX
Other magnates are thinking beyond tourism. In 2002, PayPal billionaire Elon Musk (wealth: $6.9bn) founded the SpaceX company to develop a commercial rocket programme with the ultimate aim of putting a human on Mars by 2020. He envisages a colony of 80,000 there, and sees space exploration as no less than a matter of our survival. “There’s no rush in the sense that humanity’s doom is imminent; I don’t think the end is nigh,” he told The Guardian last year. “Given that this is the first time in 4.5bn years where it’s been possible for humanity to extend life beyond Earth, it seems like we’d be wise to act while the window was open and not count on the fact it will be open a long time.”
Meanwhile, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (wealth: $35.4bn) has his own space programme, Blue Origin, which plans suborbital space tourism and commercial orbital flight by mixing traditional vertical launches with reusable vehicles. There’s a germ of a new space rivalry here, too. Blue Origin and SpaceX are fighting over the lease on Nasa launch facilities in Florida, and Elon Musk recently told Space News Magazine that “unicorns will dance” before Bezos makes it into space.
The force behind all of this is price. Space is getting cheaper, partly because collapsing national budgets – and Nasa’s need for post-Space Shuttle partnerships to stop them relying on the Russians – mean that private enterprise has become more important. “In the future, we’ll probably see less public money going into space – it will be seen as a very rich area for investment,” says Richard Crowther, chief engineer at the UK Space Agency, “be it space tourism or mining exotic resources from the moon or asteroids. Private investment is driving down the cost of getting matter into space.”
And one of the key developments bringing down the cost of space travel is happening in the UK. Like the internal combustion engine, rocket technology has not fundamentally progressed much since its inception in the Forties – it’s been optimised, sure, but the basic physics remain the same. But a UK company called Reaction Engines has developed a new engine based on different principles. Unlike conventional rockets, which carry lots of heavy liquid oxygen, the Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine (Sabre) uses oxygen from the atmosphere in its early post-launch flight. To counteract the temperatures that air reaches when it is compressed to 140 atmospheres for burning, Reaction Engines’ unit uses a revolutionary pre-cooler, which chills the air from 1,000°C to a semi-liquid “almost cryogenic” -150°C in 100th of a second. The Sabre is planned for use in a space plane called – with a nod to the Festival of Britain and the golden age of British rocketry – Skylon. It reduces Skylon’s liquid oxygen requirement by 250 tons, a massive leap in efficiency.
Britain's proposed Skylon rocket
“When I heard that, my reaction was wow,” says Fabio Favata, head of science planning for the European Space Agency. “The price per kilo of getting material into space could fall by an order of magnitude. It could be a game changer.”
With reusable space planes powered by Sabre or its equivalent, the whole world of space-age dreams come closer to our reach: residential space stations, asteroid mining, trips to the Moon. If the cost of bringing material and people out of Earth’s gravity well falls, then we are also nearer to using the Moon or an asteroid as a way station for a mission to Mars or beyond. “Living off the land” becomes a realistic proposition. You can use the lunar regolith – the “soil” of the Moon – to build space stations and synthesise fuel, water and oxygen; or capture and repurpose an asteroid and “fly” it to Mars. Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the Moon, has proposed a system of ships called cyclers that remain in permanent orbit between Earth and Mars, ferrying crew and people back and forth on a two-year ellipse.
Add the consequences of another innovation – 3D printing – and perhaps we’ll need to prise even less heavy material out of Earth’s sullen grasp in future. Why send Earth-made components up, when you can fly a large 3D printer or matter compiler into orbit, supply it with lunar regolith and let it fabricate the building blocks for spacecraft using solar power as energy? Parts assembled in microgravity can be lighter and more space-ready than Earth-made kit. Ikea spacecraft, assembled in orbit. Look for the stamp: “MADE IN SPACE”.
None of which answers the question: why do we want to go there anyway?
Why bother? What’s out there? What’s the return on investment? Isn’t the notion that space exploration inspires people to greater endeavour just the space industry’s self-interested tautology? Let us do amazing things in your name, and it will inspire you to continue supporting us.
All of the experts respond in the same bullish way: space exploration isn’t a luxury, but a necessity for Earth’s short-term economy as well as its long-term future. “The buzzwords of innovation and growth are used as if they are synonymous, but they aren’t,” says Fabio Favata of the ESA. “Growth is a consequence of innovation. Space exploration achieves innovation, and if you achieve innovation, growth will come by itself.”
Beyond that there is the pure science. The Moon, for instance, is effectively a museum of the Solar System because, lacking an atmosphere, its environment doesn’t degrade the stuff that lands there. Meteorites and space debris remain mostly pristine. In the polar regions, there are craters so deep that the sun never reaches them; held within are comets of frozen material, waiting to be investigated. They may contain clues to the ultimate purpose to space exploration; a question more existential than scientific.
“Space exploration is more about the search for life, or the conditions for life, than it is about colonisation,” Richard Crowther says. “That matters because understanding our place in the cosmos is important. The potential societal effects of discovering life on other planets could be significant for our ideas of ourselves. I’m sure people would find ways of fitting it into their own religious or political narratives, but it’s quite a [that phrase again] game changer.”
It’s highly unlikely we’ll explore outside our solar system in person, based on today’s technology. The distances are just too mind-blowingly vast. The Voyager probe, for instance, was launched in 1977 and only left our solar system in August 2012. Even at its current speed of 37,000mph, the nearest star Proxima Centauri is 80,000 years’ travel away. Instead, we’ll explore deeper space with ever-more sensitive imaging devices like the James Webb Telescope, successor to Hubble, which is due in operation in 2018. It will look back more than 12 billion years in time to see the first light from the first stars that formed in the 200 million years after the Big Bang – stars that no longer exist.
India's Mars Orbiter Mission rocket, which launched last November and will reach its destination this Spetember
China is building a second space station in the next five years, and the first people on Mars may well be Chinese. India has a massive space programme. The UK is building a rover for a European Mars mission in 2018. In 2020, the European space probe Euclid will try to solve the question of the invisible dark energy that surrounds and penetrates us and binds the galaxy together. In 2022, Europe will send a probe around Jupiter’s moons Europa and Ganymede, the first time any probe has ever orbited a satellite around a giant planet.
As Esquire went to press, the ESA Gaia mission – 25 per cent UK-built – was due to blast off, set to measure the positions and motions of one billion stars in our solar system. That’s just 0.5 per cent of the stars in our galaxy. Just our galaxy. It will turn this data into animation enabling the user to go back in time and see where everything was in the past, or forward to where it will be in the future. We’ll be able to reconstruct our galaxy before our eyes. It’s all happening. Watch the skies.
To read the full feature 'The Esquire Guide To Space', check out our February issue, on newsstands now.