SMOKE: A New Space Race
Originally published: 13 October 2003
You may have read in the press recently that China are preparing to launch a manned space flight sometime soon (rumour has it that it will be Wednesday this week, although that is unconfirmed), which will make them only the third nation after Russia and the USA to do so.
There have been plenty of international folks in space (including one South African, as you may recall), but no countries other than America and Russia have actually sent their own manned flight to orbit the Earth.
China has poured billions of dollars into their space race, yet another indicator of how badly they want to be considered a superpower, and knowing the dedication of the Chinese to their own technological advancement I'm sure their space programme will bear fruit.
They have stated their intent to be the first country to set a human on Mars and with the stunted growth of the US space programme, and the non-existent Russian one, a manned flight will be a big step forward to their rather lofty ambitions.
They have unlimited resources to put into their programme, and with money comes advancement. I'm sure some people are watching their efforts very closely indeed.
On thinking about all this I realised that there is nowhere near enough space exploration for my liking. I was watching Independence Day again on the weekend, and cheesy and unrealistic as the movie is it did get me pining for an alien or two.
It's always the aliens who come to Earth and act like complete bastards, but it could be us going and being bastards to a planet of harmless midgets, if only someone could get it together to make space travel affordable and efficient.
If you believe in the theory of evolution then you have to believe that life exists beyond the boundaries of our knowledge, as ours cannot be the only solar system capable of sustaining it.
Then again - it's possible that life can exist in conditions that we don't believe possible - freezing temperatures, extreme heat, oxygen-less atmospheres, etc.
The truth is that we simply don't know, and we're never going to find out unless we put a little effort in.
The 60s were brilliant - they had Area 51, a man on the moon, a space race - the excitement over space development was at an unprecedented and never-since-experienced high, but it became apparent that a sustained assault on the stars by man would cost far too many billions of dollars to seriously pursue.
Since Russia was no longer competing in a cold war with the US, America could afford to hang back and direct their attentions on the International Space Station (ISS) and a couple of Mars rovers.
I wonder what they will do if the Chinese are successful? Can they really afford to let the Chinese be the first to land a man on Mars, as far away as that goal seems? And if not, will this put pressure on the lads who I hope are working on a Mars landing as an ultimate achievement for their life's work?
The pressure is not only coming from the Chinese, however - it has become apparent to one and all that space tourism could be very big business, following the successful flights of Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth, and numerous private enterprises are springing up to try and take the only option of space travel out of the hands of NASA, and into the grubby paws of Big Business.
Leading the charge is a company called Starchaser Industries, a private rocket company which is currently in a race to be the first private company to send a man into space and bring him down safely.
Run by a mad Brit called Steve Bennett - who made his millions from his own toothpaste industry - the company sees space tourism as an eminently possible and viable business option, and while it would only cater to the super rich there are more than enough millionaires the world over who would no doubt jump at the chance to see our Earth from orbit, or at the very least in a weightless atmosphere.
Nobody could want Bennett to succeed more than I do. The concept of a rocket man - some nutty geezer from Manchester who has an insatiable desire to build and fire rockets into space - is very appealing to me, and ties in nicely with my desire to see more humans in space and less multicultural displays of intercontinental co-operation aboard the ISS, doing experiments for science and medicine and no doubt the little children.
I've known about Bennett for a couple of years now, but the other night I watched an entire programme on him on Discovery, which was the first chance I have had to assess the guy in the flesh, and he seems entirely genuine about the whole affair.
I know that he has pumped millions into building Starchaser Industries - even his entire work premises look like a set from some futuristic movie.He appears dead serious about making the whole thing work.
I don't know how legal things like liability work - I'm sure he can't simply get a mate to hop into one of his rockets and send him into space.
But space itself is still one great, unexplored vastness of possibility, and nobody has dibs on it. Which I guess means that should Steve Bennett - or indeed the Chinese - stick their flag down into the dust of Mars, surely the planet will belong to them? It should.
Ultimately neither China nor Steve Bennett are going to solve the problems of travelling across vast tracts of space in very short periods of time, which means that for the time being we're not going to be going and bullying aliens.
Let's hope they come and bully us. In a good way.
All Smoked Out,