Custom Search

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Future is Now

My friends, as I sat here today in front of my computer, tracing the progress of the SpaceX Dragon as it approached the ISS, I sensed... something. A presence I hadn't felt since... it's been too long to remember. So long has it been, in fact, that it took some time to identify.

I was excited about the future.

Call this a blinkered and slavish adherence to one tiny aspect of the future if you will. Certainly, for those fortunate enough to have been born in the right spots on the globe, technology has brought us true wonders in recent decades. The fact that the phone in your pocket is so far ahead of anything Captain Kirk could dream of back in the 60s is but one example. Look at any science fiction film from before about 2005. If it's got future tech, the chances are that future tech is laughable. Sure, they had their fancy ray guns and their teleporters. But the computers? Pah!

Of course, they did have one thing that we don't; one thing that we should have. A space programme. Captain Kirk may have a crappy communicator, but he works in outer space.

Oh, we have NASA doing its bit; no one can deny that Hubble and Cassini, to name but two, have done more than their fair share. They've given us just not data that are incalculably valuable in terms of understanding the universe, but images that are just astonishing. I say this without hyperbole: the Hubble Deep Field is the greatest photograph of the twentieth century.

For all NASA have done, though, there is one inescapable fact hanging over them: the high point for manned exploration is now decades in the past. It's been forty years since we went to the moon. We've never been to Mars. We've never been to the asteroid belt. Even those of us who can't have remembered the first - or the last - moon landing, there was the knowledge that such things were possible, that the twenty-first century would be the century in which humanity moved from being a one-planet species. As the years went by, though, that dream drifted ever farther away. In many ways I envied the youth; they didn't grow up thinking that this could be done. For these lucky, callow children, the space shuttle is the height of rocket technology, and the ISS a shining example of what can be done if nations work together. Never mind that the station is but a shadow of what it could have been; that budget cut after budget cut have stripped it of all meaning except the symbolic.

But now we have Dragon which, as I type, has just docked with the ISS.

In and of itself, I suppose, one could argue that it's not a big deal. ESA's ATV  has been doing a fine job, both as a technology test and as a delivery vehicle. Spaceship One has claimed the X Prize. But this is different.

It was the accomplishments of Gagarin and Armstrong that originally gave us hope. In recent times we've had Yang Liwei raise a flutter of excitement but the Chinese programme is, like those of Russia and the US, subject to the whims and caprices of government and budgetary committees. One should also consider that no government project is ever going to result in anything more than a small temporary outpost, ready to be abandoned at the next budget review. If we're to take the next giant leap, it's up to the citizens of the world to do it themselves.

With the docking of Dragon, that glorious next step is underway. SpaceX have shown us that it can be done. For the first time since the 1970s we can look forward, in the couple of decades or so, to humans whizzing around the solar system. The asteroids are just sitting there ripe for the plucking, and now that google lad has another option for getting his mining equipment out there.

Yes, I know. This is just an unmanned tin can docking with something that's barely outside the atmosphere. Sending a crews to Mars is on a completely different scale. But that doesn't matter. What matters is we have multiple companies and individuals trying to get into space. Spaceship One has made it into space twice, and now Dragon has proved itself. It's a genuinely useful, much less expensive alternative something that ESA and NASA need to keep the ISS supplied. It's not unreasonable to extrapolate, to say that this time we won't just give up. The opportunities resulting from - and created by - these technologies have the potential to send us further and further afield. A radio telescope on the far side of the moon. An orbital fuelling station. We can now say that we might - just might - live long enough to see a child born on Mars.

Some time, whether years from now or tens of thousands of years, humanity will suffer an extinction crisis. Be it through war, disease, supervolcano or just plain old-fashioned big huge rock from the sky, the human race could disappear from the face of the planet. If the species is to survive, it must have people somewhere else. We need to live in the Future; the future promised by Clarke, Asimov and Heinlein. A future where the spaceports are busy with traffic to and from Earth's colonies. If we're supremely lucky, a future in which space pirates sail the asteroid belt.

Today feels like the beginning of that future.