Last year on July the 21st NASA’s Space Shuttle programme officially came to end when Atlantis returned to Earth after completing its final voyage. Since then the US government has withdrawn from manned space flights, relying on the Russians and Chinese to ferry American astronauts to and from the international space station. Western governments are slowly abandoning space exploration and turning their attention towards more Earth-bound problems. In the age of austerity and economic stagnation, space exploration seems like a past excess we can no longer afford (along with public sector pensions and healthcare it appears). The space shuttles stand as a towering monument to the optimism of a by-gone age, when we thought the white heat of technology and Keynesian demand management could have saved us from ourselves. Many hold the same opinions of space exploration as they do of the welfare state, that it was a costly mistake fuelled by optimism and good intentions but ultimately lacking a grounding in the reality. With the space shuttles sent to museums and with no government plan in place to replace them, private companies such as Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic are vying to be the dominant powers in our upper atmosphere. Some see this as an indication of the way the western world is heading with more and more of what we thought could only be handled by the government being taken over by private companies.
While America is already being nostalgic about the days of space exploration, on the other side of the world government space programs are very much alive and well. China and India are currently engaged in a space race of their own with the former launching their Tiangong-1 space laboratory in September last year and the later aiming to be the first nation to return the moon since Apollo 17 in 1972. In these countries their space programs are a source of enormous national pride, especially as they take over the arena previously dominated by the globe’s fading powers. As the age of US, Britain and Russia ends and their space programs are discontinued and new generation of super powers are aiming not only to conquer the world but also the space above it. Even North Korea maintains its sights on the stars with an attempt earlier this year to put a satellite into lower Earth orbit. This attempt was unsuccessful but it was unprecedented in the level of access foreign media was given to the launch, indicating how confident the famously isolationist state is in their rocket scientists. In these countries space exploration is not considered to be an extravagance of an overly confident super-power but part of the global coming of age process and vital arm of both industry and government.
However, space exploration is not just for rival super powers or a way for newly emerging economies to show off. In Nigeria firms are partnering with western experts to develop a national space industry with satellites already successful launched. These industries (supported by the government) are seen as a way of training workers in important 21st century skills of computer programming, engineering and micro-electronics. The space industry also has a positive economic effect in fostering a high tech support industry that offers well-paying jobs and boosts national income. Creating a space industry is seen as a wage to develop the national infrastructure with the aim of growing the economy and lifting people out of poverty.
Western economies showing sluggish growth could learn from these countries who are investing in an advanced technological industries and enjoying strong growth. Investing in space technology for Nigeria and China is having a positive effect on people on the ground by developing industries and training workers. It would be reprehensible to let the west’s flaunted competitive advantage in high tech industries slide to other countries because we were unwilling to spend the money needed to support it. Space exploration creates growth in in all manner of industries from software design to metal casting. Through government investment in large scale projects like space travel, money will pass to the industries needed to support space exploration and from them to the industries which provide the basic components and raw materials for these high tech firms causing the economy as whole grow. Something western governments are crying out for.
In order for the industry to progress, technical innovation is necessary. The old vertical take-off model used by the space shuttle and Apollo program might have to be replaced by the more efficient horizontal take off model favoured by Virgin Galactic and other private space ventures. Also for the industry to reach its full potential corporation is needed to spread the costs and ensure that the economic benefits reach all the denizens of Earth.
The strongest argument for global co-operation in space exploration is that the space industry is unlike any other industry in the world in its unique ability to inspire people and capture their imagination. The draw of the stars is irresistible to many and space exploration has given us the world’s most frequently used image (the Earth from orbit) as well as the iconic moon landing footage. There is no greater symbol in thawing of the cold war than a Russian Cosmonaut and an American Astronaut shaking hands in orbit in 1975. Great deeds inspire people on the ground to reach further and accomplish more, it is a symbol of how far we have come as a civilisation since we first discovered fire and a reminder of how far we still have to go to reach the heavens.
If Nigeria and China can find the economic argument for space exploration than surely it remains relevant in the west as well. In an age of tempered ambitions and cut backs we need the symbol of stirring accomplishment to inspire us. Not to mention the economic and scientific benefits that space exploration can bring. The space shuttle was an ambitious programme, much like the New Deal’s program of public works which lifted America out of the great depression. It seems our leaders are keen to remind us that we live in a time where we can no longer afford ambition and we should fix our sights lower on what we can accomplish. No wonder disillusionment has replaced the white heat of optimism. I believe there is still an argument for space exploration just as there is still an argument for ambitious government projects whether they come in the form of the space shuttle or the welfare state.