Space Ltd

In the run-up to the fortieth anniversary of the first lunar landing plenty has been written about mankind’s failure to use the Apollo missions as a springboard for manned space exploration.

But while the technical challenges cracked by America’s space pioneers might not have led to a sustained human presence beyond the Earth’s orbit, the race to put man on the moon has led directly to the development of technology that’s influenced society in less dramatic, but no less fundamental ways.

Back in 1969 those watching Armstrong and Aldrin take their historic steps did so largely on small black and white TVs. Here in the UK – where it was the early hours of the morning – word of the exploits spread, Chinese whisper-like, round slumbering neighbourhoods caught off-guard by the astronauts’ early exit from the lunar-lander. How different it would be today, with 24 hour news broadcasting and instant communications ensuring that no-one would miss a moment.

Tantalisingly far-off as a modern multimedia lunar extravaganza may be, the key point here is that the communication and broadcast technologies that would make it possible do exist, and are themselves underpinned by space technology.

While we may not be back on the moon, space science is a constant and unobtrusive presence in most of our lives. Silence the hundreds of operational satellites currently orbiting the earth and our channels of communication would be severed, our ability to navigate hampered and our weather forecasters reduced to checking whether the cows are sitting down or not.

With this in mind there’s a strong argument to be made that the Space race has more than fulfilled its early promise; it’s just that rather than propel us on holidays to Mars its applications are more mundane, less visible, and far more useful.

Tellingly, post-Apollo, much of this development has been driven by commercial interest. Indeed, while the various national space programmes play an invaluable role in pushing out the boundaries of exploration, it’s arguably the telecoms industry – and its insatiable demand for satellites – that has done most to drive down the cost of launching payloads into to space.

As discussed in our recent feature ‘Open Space’ , commercial interests, in the form of the fledgling space tourism industry, could now be on course to course to play an even more fundamental role in driving the development of space technology. It’s an interesting industry – funded by the whim and fancy of multi-millionaire thrill seekers but developing technology that promises to launch payloads – be they human or otherwise – into space at a fraction of today’s cost.

The credibility of this new industry is reinforced by the fact that NASA – the embodiment of what space tourism firms somewhat disparagingly refer to as “old space” has awarded a $1.6bn contract to Elon Musk’s SpaceX to develop a series of launchers and capsules to supply the ISS when the space shuttle retires.

Plenty has been made of the lunar ambitions of China, India, Japan, Europe and the US. But given the big strides being made by those involved in the private space business, would it really be such a surprise if the next flag to grace the lunar surface features not the emblem of a superpower but the corporate logo of a private space pioneer?

Jon Excell, Deputy Editor