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Not going ballistic

by Howie Firth - 12:27 on 30 March 2009

The global banking crisis has taught us three things. First, it's not always true that big is beautiful. Second, that's true even if everyone around says so and is making money out of it. And three, it's true even if the government goes along with the current fashion.

It may be that this message is coming home to us in some areas of technology as well. The visionaries of fifty years ago looked to a growth of space travel which would take our generation to the Moon and Mars. But the steps have been costly and slow.

And that's because, say the new visionaries of today, it was locked into an outdated paradigm.

'The modern US space programme started after World War II with captured German V-2 ballistic missiles,' points out David Ashford of Bristol Spaceplanes.

'These were developed into progressively bigger and better ballistic missiles, further developments of which are still used to launch satellites. Due to the intense pressure of the Cold War, modified ballistic missiles sent the first men to space and enlarged developments were used for the race to the moon.'

Ballistic missile technology is always going to be costly, with huge booster rocket stages that fall away into the sea. Something that can fly up into orbit would be much cheaper.

And that technology has been around for a long time going back to the last war in fact. Several countries had developed rocket-powered aircraft by its close.

The US took the technology further with its experimental X-series. The North American X-15 was carried under the wings of a B-52 bomber and could travel at over 6 times the speed of sound. And in the summer of 1963, test pilot Joe Walker took it above the100-kilometre altitude that defines the edge of space.

So the technology was there for reusable spaceplanes, and for a time it seemed that the Space Shuttle would be just that. But budgetary cuts meant that NASA had to choose between payload capacity and reusability, and they went for a heavy payload.

So a flight of the Space Shuttle is quite an event, taking place only a few times a year, and costing an incredible half-billion pounds a time.

The Ansari X Prize and the flight of SpaceShipOne changed the paradigm in a way that's been likened to the flight of the Wright brothers. Various innovative companies are now coming forward with the kind of flair and adventure that marked the development of the jet engine.

We've seen from modern aviation how a growth in the market can reduce costs.

So now we're starting to hear once again predictions of bases on the Moon and Mars, of unmanned visits to other parts of the Solar System, and of space-based observatories able to carry large and highly sensitive instruments.

But it could all have started more than forty years ago, with the flight of the X-15.

It therefore should be no surprise to see the kind of people whose investment is enabling the new approach to succeed. They tend to be individuals who have made their money by going into an existing field of business, challenging the current paradigm, and showing that it's possible to do it better. And they have the ability to recognise talent and vision and support it.

So the deep underlying issue is about our collective ability to think afresh about the way we do things, and to be prepared to apply technology in innovative ways to meet the challenge. And in the present crises of finance, environment and resources, that's surely the type of thinking we need to bring to the fore.


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