(This is the last in a series of four related essays; they’re all here.)
Britain stands tall among the world’s nations for many reasons. Think of British generals and heroes, of British scientists, of British artists. But it should be world famous for one other reason: the U.K. is the only country in history to develop a space program with orbital-class launch capability and then abandon it.
The details about this sordid tale are too sad to dwell on them. I personally feel physically sick when I read that a country then in steady decline, with ever-shrinking budgets and about to beg the International Monetary Fund for aid money, had the talent and gumption and grit to build a cheap, successful rocket and develop a series of highly promising prototypes and plans; and then let itself be tricked by its supposed ally, the U.S., into abandoning the plan in exchange for vague promises of collaboration — and even a fake NASA offer, later rescinded, to put British payloads on orbit for free — that were the thinnest of excuses to put down a potential rival.
The takeaway from that sorry occasion in history is that no matter how much effort and skill you put into a space program, political decisions can very easily kill it. The U.K. at the time (the program was launched in 1964, and conducted four launches between 1969 and 1971) saw the retirement of the political generation that fought World War II and fell under the control of a succession of spineless men who just didn’t have it in them to argue for an expensive space program while driving their country’s economy into the ground.
In 2020, we all have heard about economies being driven into the ground, haven’t we? What makes us think the current crop of politicians is any more principled or pro-space exploration than British elites circa 1970?
“Titan,” a 1997 novel by the brilliant Stephen Baxter, is perhaps the most realistic depiction of the current state of space exploration (23 years later!) and the politics around it. In the novel, a Trump-like American idiot becomes president and shuts down the wasteful space program. A small group of smart liberals find a way to make one final launch, of a Space Shuttle, all the way to Titan, a one-way trip that goes… well, read the novel. It’s excellent.
Just remember that Stephen Baxter is British.
In part two of this essay, I wrote about how asteroid mining, long seen as a serious possibility to incentivize space exploration, is still an expensive fantasy that is probably not going to happen any time soon. There’s a novel for that, too: “Delta-V,” in which Daniel Suarez depicts a pretty realistic plan to mine asteroid Ryugu — which hinges on a “space baron” committing gigantic fraud, lying and cheating everyone because his own investors think that asteroid mining is just an insane waste of money, and then on a brave crew surviving all sorts of dangers.
That a massive, lucky conspiracy is the only way to push space exploration forward gives you an accurate gauge of our current predicament. Radical thinking is required.
Over the thousands of words I have so far written in this series, I hope I have convinced you that the situation is very, very dire. Much worse than people believe. If I have failed to give you a sense of urgency, that’s my bad. So I will pass on the baton to Robert Zubrin. He’s much more famous than me: he founded the Mars Society in 1998, and has been an advocate of space exploration for decades.
A man like Zubrin is very worried. He’s worried that manned space exploration is at risk of being completely defunded.
(Read the rest here)