So, SpaceShipOne won $10 million for getting into space twice in two weeks. Let joy be unconfined. Lots of people are asking what took Nasa so long, and why we don’t have colonies on the Moon and Mars already. Because after all, we landed there 35 years ago.
I’ll admit to being something of a sceptic about these ideas – despite or perhaps because of having consumed enormous amounts of SF in my youth. Some was good, some was bad, but generally it all assumed that we would be out there long since. One of the most impressive films I saw when I was young was 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s still a fantastic film. Yet I think that plans for Moon and Mars colonies are premature, at best. I’m rather with the satirical take of glossynews.com: SpaceShipOne achieves historic first, few care. “Yeah, I guess it’s great for them Star Trek geeks, but I don’t see why I should have to care,” explained Deedee Wilson of Nashville, Tennessee. “I ain’t gonna be going into space anytime soon, you know? They want $100 grand just for a ride. That’s like three double-wides and a nice pickup truck.”
Why? Because space is inhospitable. It’s really not friendly to life. That’s why you don’t find life there. It’s also very expensive to get out of our gravity well. Perhaps we haven’t found the right propulsion systems yet (and maybe they aren’t there to be found). And if you’re going to set up a colony on the Moon it’ll be a race against time before your air runs out. With Mars you have a little longer – you could extract some oxygen from the air – but you have to judge everything precisely, because you’ll have a tiny window to get off the planet and safely home if you fail.
But let’s assume, for argument, that we set up Moon and Mars colonies which suddenly manage to mine some amazing mineral that can cure world hunger and bring peace, etc. All of a sudden, you have something which can hold people on Earth to ransom. If we became in some way dependent on those colonies, it could turn very ugly: there would be a mutual distrust, and need, that could quickly turn to conflict.
It’s the sort of scenario that was a subplot (at least) of Philip K Dick’s Time Out Of Joint. Between the problems of getting there and the cost and the implications even if it actually went well, I don’t like the possibilities. At the same time I can see that getting into space easily and regularly is very important to our truly long-term future. However, solve religious idiocy first, then let’s work on the spacecraft, hmm?
One thing for sure though. If Virgin is the first to offer commercial space flights, I’m really not queueing up. For American readers, who seem to revere Richard Branson, Virgin’s reputation in the UK is mud, due to the appalling record of Virgin Trains – seemingly always late or broken down. No, really, Richard, after you in the spacesuit.