Virgin Galactic SS2 – c/o virgingalactic.com
Written by Justine Chamberlain
Space programmes are finding their way into the public consciousness again, but how much does it matter?
Early in November, NBCUniversal announced that it was partnering with Virgin Galactic to ‘televise the inaugural commercial space flight of SpaceShipTwo’, that, rather oddly, being the name of the first spaceship that will be the vehicle for Sir Richard Branson and his family’s trip to space. Sir Richard and his children will be the first passengers of Virgin Galactic next year. Sharon Scott of Peacock Productions, the associated production company, said,
“Without a doubt, Sir Richard and his children taking the first commercial flight into space will go down in history as one of the most memorable events on television”.
A commercial organisation is bound to use any bit of advertising to boost its profits and Virgin has, for a long time, been showing off its brand on hot air balloons, aeroplanes and Formula 1 cars. I’ve only got online text, pictures and videos to look at, but I’m fairly confident Sputnik 1’s radio transmitter didn’t blaze out an advert asking if we’d suffered an accident at work. But I can see a giant Virgin logo on the artist’s impression of SpaceShipTwo’s underbelly in flight. If the Branson family’s show of wealth becomes one of the most memorable events I’ve seen on TV, I will be both ashamed and jealous. For a few moments. It won’t be long until it is forgotten, and the reason is simple. It won’t inspire people the way non-commercial achievements inspire people. It’s not a brand or company that makes us pick up pens and paint to record life in creativity. We don’t take those things into our hearts – we can’t possibly.
“’Moon!’ you cry suddenly, ‘Moon! Moon!’” (Ted Hughes, Full Moon and Little Frieda)
There was some guy who jumped off something earlier this year. I remember that he had some logos on him, stitched onto a finely made spacesuit, you can watch him on YouTube. I watched a programme about it. The budget holder was angry about the delay. They were worried what impact a failure would have on the brand. I remember the anxiety. But I can’t remember what to put into the search engine, other than the brand puncturing every camera shot. I go directly to the Red Bull website, and there’s no clue about this jump. Why is this? The answer is clear: because a commercial firm is only about current advertising, and not about past achievements. It displays pictures of snowboarders and Formula 1 drivers because it’s current.
“Ground control have sworn allegiance / to gravity and the laws of motion” (Lavinia Greenlaw, For the First Dog in Space)
Apart from a few of the workers, I don’t think there are many people who can be proud to work for a commercial organisation. It is difficult to even like the organisation you work for. A commercial company’s achievement simply isn’t taken to the heart as warmly as a nation’s. But many people have pride in their country’s achievements because they feel a part of them.
Scientific research is funded by taxes and from commercialising discoveries and research, but its costs are debatable during times of economic pressure. Indian and British governments were criticised this year when the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched Mangalyaan, an unmanned spacecraft headed to Mars. The $73m budget, as part of ISRO’s $700m annual budget, was deemed too much when there is so much poverty in India, a country which has received over £1 billion in aid from the UK since the formation of the coalition government.
The UK’s engagement with space is mostly part of international agreements, such as with the European Space Agency (ESA), which has recently launched its trio of satellites ‘Swarm’. Swarm aims to collect data about the magnetic field inside Earth, how the perceived weakening is progressing, and what the impact of this might be. NASA (with an approximate budget of $17.8b) will be helping NORAD track Santa again this Christmas, among other things.
Space exploration in government is very much science weighed against economics.
“-We come in peace from the third planet. / Would you take us to your leader?” (Edwin Morgan, The First Men on Mercury)
It’s manned missions to Mars that are hitting the headlines now, with billionaire Dennis Tito confidently (but rather unscientifically) saying he plans a launch on Christmas Day 2017. Valentina Tereshkova, (the first woman in space, now 73) wants to apply for the Mars One mission, due to launch in 2022. Its aims are something else: ‘Mars One should be exciting, inspiring and beautiful, just like the Olympics’, says Bas Lansdorp, CEO of Mars One. On the other hand, Virgin Galactic ‘aims for making sub-orbital space accessible to anyone with a dream to view the Earth and experience microgravity’. However, with $250,000 per ticket for a 30-minute float in space, not just anyone will be able to do that.
In other commercial sectors, mining in space made the news earlier this year in combination with the breakthroughs in 3D printing. New Scientist magazine reported research was underway to mine meteors for precious and useful materials. 3D printers and initial raw materials would be sent up, able to create the necessary mining tools from harvested materials from the meteors. A self-perpetuating industrial space revolution could start in the next 20 years.
“and the glass breaks without a single sound / and becomes the crystals of unnumbered stars.” (Iain Mac A’Ghobainn)
Soon, when space travel ceases to be just for scientists and researchers, commercialism will lift its head. Until space travel becomes the domain of people who are not scientists, business leaders, or rich, it will simply not become part of our world. It will not matter as much as it should. Our world is built on familiarity, and familiarity is based on what we see, hear, smell, touch, taste and can emote with. Space, near or far, will not become part of our world until a penniless poet can get a one-way ticket. It’s not the science, the technology and the money that makes space something to be excited about – it’s what will happen to the heart and soul of literature and the arts – an enlightenment without earthly constraint that could be within our own time. It’s only then that space will become a part of our world; when it starts to really matter to the average person. Science and exploration has outraced culture, as it always should, but until the arts shuffle out of the atmosphere, our next and greatest arts revolution will be dormant on the other side of the moon.