There’s a lot of excited talk about spaceflight these days. The successful completion of the X-prize challenge by SpaceX and the subsequent launch of Virgin Galactic has a put lot of space geeks in a very optimistic mood about the future of private, civilian space-flight. Perhaps within you or your children’s lifetime, it will be both possible to visit an orbital or lunar hotel. Even if that is beyond your price range, you might still wind up using quick orbital hops to make trans-continental business trips in a fraction of the time taken by a jet airliner. The technology is all there, say the space-age optimists. It just has to come down in price.
Of course, if “It just has to come down in price” suspiciously like somebody’s famous last words. The path from an effective technology to mass use by society is far from a simple one. While I am very excited by the prospect of commercial spaceflight (I want to play golf on the moon), the history of technology suggests a critical perspective towards the possibility.
What we essentially have with space-flight is a completely new technological function which allows forms of consumption that are completely impossible without it. On the one hand, this helps space entrepreneurs, because what they offer is so completely different from any other consumer product that they will have to compete with any existing industries. On the other hand, it also means that they will have to build a customer base from scratch, which is not always an easy thing to do with an unproven technology. To understand better how this process occurs, it would be worthwhile to look at another example of a radically new technology that was successfully introduced to the market.
To that end, I want to draw your attention to the Silver Dart, which was basically Canada’s answer to the Wright Flyer. It flew for just half a mile in 1909. That same year, it was able to complete a circular flight of around 35 kilometers, and shortly afterwards it successfully flew with a passenger. These accomplishments are impressive, but the Silver Dart, like most aircraft of the time, was more novelty project than business venture. It was never intended to fly with paying customers. In fact, the only way that pilots ever managed to make any money in Canada before the First World War was by performing acrobatics at fairs. Flight at this time was a technological novelty used mainly by the rich.
Things became very different very quickly after the First World War. Bush flying became a commercial pursuit, with pilots reaching places in the Canadian hinterland that could previously could only be reached by canoe and dogsled. Government and corporate surveyors began to use planes to document the natural resource wealth of the Canadian North, and during the depression a series of airstrips was built to link the country from coast to coast. Air services were also being established in Britain, Australia, and the United States. And those are just the countries I have researched. Planes had, in short, became a profitable proposition in a very short time.
So what happened? Well, in Canada, at least, this happened:
The Curtiss HS-2L flying boat was ubiquitous in the early years of Canadian bush flying. While it was designed for practical use and was therefore an improvement over the Silver Dart, the specific practical use it was was designed for was submarine hunting. This meant that it had some major drawbacks when it was pressed into civilian use. Its large wingspan made docking difficult, and it had to be periodically lifted out of the water or its hull would get waterlogged. Despite these problems, however, the HS-2L is commonly thought of as the aircraft that kick-started commercial flight in Canada. This had nothing to do with the technological sophistication of the aircraft, and everything to do with the fact that hundreds had been built for a war effort that was now over. This meant that an aspiring commercial pilot could get his hands on a surplus flying boat for very cheap. The glut of unemployed pilots returning from the war created a class of entrepreneurs ready to take advantage of this opportunity, and so Canadian air industry was born. This dynamic was not limited to Canada: surplus war aircraft and pilots were similarly central in the creation of the American, Australian, and British air industries. This was strengthened even further after the Second World War and its more advanced aircraft opened space for the air industry as we know it today.
Let’s return to space, then. Each of the two examples above shows that a major global event, namely war, was necessary in order for a new consumer technology to become attractive to the private sector. I suspect that the large-scale commercialization of space might require something similar. While Virgin Galactic might show promise , I think that in its current form it fills the same role that was filled by air and car travel around the turn of the century: that of a recreational novelty for the rich. In order for a new commercial space industry to take hold, something will need to spur the construction of large numbers of manned spacecraft, the development of inexpensive launch facilities, and the training of space pilots. Whatever that is will then have to end abruptly, so as to create a surplus of vehicles, infrastructure, and manpower that can be used in a new commercial space industry.
Does this mean that I won’t get to play moon-golf until there is a war in space? Hopefully not. In this case, a war might not even be sufficient, due to the fact that most realistic visions of space warfare don’t involve very many manned craft. There needs to be some other massive, publicly-funded push to get large numbers of human beings into Earth’s orbit, and it has to produce surplus, reusable, manned spacecraft. Perhaps this is a justification for Neil Degrasse-Tyson’s one penny proposal, or an international mission to Mars. Honestly, I don’t know what it will take. Maybe the unique economics of space flight will mean that all but the rich will just have to stay in the atmosphere. If you don’t like that, then start thinking of ways to get massive investment in manned space-flight from the public purse.
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Blee, Jill., 2007. Aviation in Australia. Wollombi: Exisle Publishing Ltd.
Fortier, Rénald and Masters, Don., 1996. Flight into History: Canadian Vignettes. Ottawa: National Aviation Museum.
Hutchison, Iain., 1987. The Story of Loganair. Isle of Lewis: Western Isles Publishing Company.
McCaffery, Dan., 2002. Bush Planes and Bush Pilots. Toronto: James Lorimer and Company.
Piggott, Peter., 1997a. Flying Canucks II: Pioneers of Canadian Aviation. Toronto: Hounslow Press.
Piggott, Peter., 2002. Wings Across Canada: An Illustrated History of Canadian Aviation. Toronto: Anthony Hawke.