After all the technological promises, has the 21st century really lived up to the hype? Russ Swan is not so sure, and now the rolling one-upmanship of rich guys playing with space toys might just be the last straw…
I freely admit to being something of a space cadet. I thought by now we'd all be taking holidays on the moon, commuting to work at orbiting laboratories, and exploring deep into the cosmos with actual human people rather than automata.
It's fair to say, then, that the 21st century is turning out to be a bit of a disappointment. We've been promised the democratisation of space, with the private sector showing a clean pair of heels to the sluggish established agencies. Better technologies, more innovation, and renewed vigour should finally make a reality of the vision of a spacefaring future.
But what do we get? A curious mix of entrepreneurial zeal, unmet promises, and daft stunts.
Virgin Galactic, the spaceflight toy of billionaire Richard Branson, has been promising to take private passengers on short but expensive sub-orbital flights since 2009. 2018 should finally see his first flights, just like 2017 was supposed to... and 2016, 2015, and... you get the picture.
It took eight years between Yuri Gagarin's first spaceflight and Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon. It is now 14 years since SpaceShipOne claimed the X-prize, but SpaceShipTwo has yet to leave the atmosphere
It took eight years between Yuri Gagarin's first spaceflight and Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon. It is now 14 years since SpaceShipOne claimed the X-prize, but SpaceShipTwo has yet to leave the atmosphere. Meanwhile Blue Origin, the spaceflight toy of billionaire Jeff Bezos, is quietly scaling-up rocket designs with ambitions for both sub-orbital and orbital missions. It's taking a cautious step-by-step approach, which is sensible but curiously unsatisfying.
SpaceX, the spaceflight toy of billionaire Elon Musk, has at least got a business up and running. Re-supply missions to the International Space Station and a host of satellite launches give this operation the credibility others lack, but I fear that Musk may have started to believe his own mythology. His latest wheeze, launching one of his Tesla sports cars into space, is just a bit deranged. Musk inspires a substantial fan base, who see him as a kind of technological saviour. They probably call themselves Musketeers, or Muskovites, but they might as well be musk oxen for all I care.
He is something of Marmite, love him or hate him, character. I forgave him for the excrescence that was PayPal, from which he made his first billions. I enthused when he showed he could land and re-use rockets. Now this onanistic orbital ego trip nudges me towards contempt. Surely that payload could have been used for something, you know, useful?
A blinking waste of time…
But this is nothing to another self-indulgent stunt currently polluting our skies. In late January a group of New Zealanders with more money than sense and, apparently, zero concern for the consequences of their actions, launched a disco ball into low-Earth orbit. Its purpose? Well, there isn't one – except some woolly and sanctimonious platitudes about giving us people down here some sense of our place in the universe.
Called Humanity Star, it is the not only the most pointless of exercises but also needlessly damaging. It is almost literally a disco ball – a metre diameter reflective silver polyhedron in polar orbit, designed to do nothing except be visible. The project's website is hilarious. "No matter where you are in the world, rich or in poverty, in conflict or at peace, everyone will be able to see the bright, blinking Humanity Star orbiting Earth..."
There is no suggestion of perhaps doing something to actually help those people in poverty or conflict. Nor is there any recognition of the environmental cost of an unnecessary rocket launch (how many tonnes of CO2 did that release?) or the damage caused to astronomy by this purposeless light pollution. They call it the blinking Humanity Star, but I can think of other adjectives.
Now get this. The disco ball was launched by a company called Rocket Labs. Lots of firms call themselves something-labs these days, and for a space company that seems like a straightforward choice. But it's not called that because it makes rockets, even though it does. It is called that because it was founded by a chap called Mark Rocket. Nominative determinism, anyone?
Mr Rocket proudly tells us that he is also the first New Zealander to book a flight on Virgin Galactic. Perhaps the disco ball was simply a way to cope with the frustration of being continually promised a spaceflight that has never materialised.