Fifty years ago yesterday, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. For most of us, that seems a very long time ago, another era, but, in another sense, it seems not long enough, because it still feels as if the “Space Age” has only just begun.
By way of comparison, it was almost exactly fifty years from the first manned flight under power by the Wright Brothers to the introduction of commercial passenger jet services – a remarkably short period of time. Gagarin’s achievement followed within another decade, and within another decade of that men were on the Moon.
There have been other achievements since then, but nothing so spectacular, and if you compare the First Fifty Years of Space Travel with the First Fifty Years of Air Travel, it can look as if human progress is running out of energy.
The reason for this is that the huge sums of money needed for space travel mean that it has been, for the most part, a government monopoly. The development of the aeroplane, on the other hand, was a triumph of private enterprise – sometimes helped by government, sometimes hindered.
For example, it was immense government funding in World War One that enabled private manufacturers, like Sir Tommy Sopwith, to make enormous improvements in aeroplane technology at a time when the whole sector was only just into the second decade of its existence. It was also government taxation that forced Sopwith out of business once the war was over.
Space travel is now moribund because that it what always happens to nationalised industries. The current Administration in the United States has none of the passion for space that motivated some of its predecessors. NASA is near the bottom of the list of priorities at a time of tight budgets. Most other countries share those priorities.
The only hope for space travel, as for so many other things, is if the private sector is allowed to fill the gaps being left by the public sector.
There are plenty of commercial opportunities. Satellite technology is well established. Space tourism is now a fact. The exploitation of mineral reserves elsewhere in the solar system may soon become a necessity. Zero gravity offers some intriguing possibilities for technology. Space based solar power avoids many of the drawbacks of its terrestrial equivalents. The spin-off technologies from space exploration have impacted on every aspect of our lives already.
The Universe awaits us – if we want it.