One giant leap for private citizenry

Tuesday, 22 June 2004 — 10:36am | Science, Television

First of all, hats off to the many minds behind SpaceShipOne for being the ones to finally do something that is, in many ways, decades overdue – and outdoing NASA in the process. To that end I refer to the launch system, which for a change, did not require dumping a Saturn V in the ocean. NASA has been talking about a rocket-free, reusable launch system for decades – I am personally in possession of a colouring book that predicted a target date of 1997 – but funding cuts and massive organizational problems have left the NASA-driven development of manned spaceflight completely stagnant for the past twenty years. We should be nothing short of ashamed that we are four years into the once-heralded and ever so futuristic-sounding “twenty-first century”, and we don’t even have moon colonies. It’s about time we saw the results of some actual initiative, and my, are they ever results. Space.com has some excellent coverage, including a thorough feature debating the implications of this monumental event.

What does this mean for humanity? Well, aside from the fact that one of the biggest obstacles to the proliferation of manned spaceflight is a government trapped by the reluctance of taxpayers to act as financiers, it means that we may be hurtling towards a different future than the one envisioned by the likes of Gene Roddenberry. It always struck me as odd that space traffic was under such tight governmental control after the formation of the United Federation of Planets. Now, before anybody brings up the counterexample of how Zefram Cochrane’s landmark warp flight in 2061 was a private initiative, or how socio-political factors like a war against an external common enemy (in this case, the Romulan Empire) tends to bring everybody under a single flag, my point here is that under the Federation, private spaceflight all but disappeared. One would think that the private citizens of Earth would have more than just the occasional cargo freighter to call their own.

So maybe even the Paul Allens of the world can’t quite afford a Galaxy-class NCC-1701-D, but Cochrane demonstrated that warp-capable spacecraft were more than achievable – and similar to the method of SpaceShipOne’s launch, it actually beat the government to doing it first. Either the commercial crafts and routes are sparse to non-existent, or we just never see them. Of course, given the little we know about Trekonomics – what, with Federation credits as some sort of abstract currency replacement – I suspect the former is closer to the truth, as far as truth goes in works of fiction. This is not to say that big government is not a solution once the human race reaches a point where a UFP equivalent is possible, but it is certainly not how we’ll get there.

Enterprise, by the way, is a surprisingly good show. I’m a little behind, having not followed it very regularly since the first season (it is now entering its fourth), but it is the only television drama of any interest this day and age. The fact that television generally sucks is a matter worthy of separate examination, and has to do with yucky political stuff like what to do with the CBC. Look forward to it.

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