The new space odyssey

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Updated: Sep 12 2013, 02:53am hrs
When Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, he was apparently welcomed with a glass of masala chai by a pioneering Punjabi who had already set up a tea stall there. So goes an old joke. In regional variants, Malayalees, Gujaratis and other sub-nationalities which travel well and are appreciated for their industry stand in for the Punjabi. It is now revealed that like most long-running jokes, theres a bit of truth here. On Monday, the Dutch planet colonisation project Mars One closed its astronaut selection programme and reported 2 lakh applications received. Ten percent of the applicants, 20,000 people, are Indians. In our eagerness to leave Earth behind, we are surpassed only by the Americans.

Meanwhile, last Thursday, Virgin Galactics SpaceShipTwo successfully executed all mission phases, including feathered re-entry, in a test flight to the edge of space, 100 km above sea level. In 2014, only two years off schedule, it should be able to launch commercial sub-orbital flights. The two projects have different objectives but clearly, the long-awaited age of commercial space travel is upon us.

Virgin Galactics immediate project is zero-gravity tourism in flights taking off from and landing at Spaceport America, custom-built by the government of New Mexico. However, incredibly fast intercontinental travel will become routine when other ports open. Meanwhile, Mars One plans to establish a permanent human settlement on the planet within a decade. The list of 2 lakh applications will be pruned down to four lucky pioneers who will take the first flight out in 2022.

Such projectsthere are several, including Blue Origin, promoted by Jeff Bezosare usually celebrated as space tourism, a sunrise sector which indulges the rich, the famous and the intrepid with expensive rides yonder. However, when it reaches economies of scale, the industry could bring about disruptive economic, political and social change, affecting everyone. The last such event had happened during the age of exploration. The colonial era which it founded changed the map of the world and left almost no part of the human race untouched. Now, once more, mobility could prove to be reality-altering. The first effect would probably be an acceleration of globalisation.

In the 20th century, poor labour mobility was a drag on globalisation. Political issues like anti-immigrant sentiment were usually blamed but sheer distance was also a deterrent. Then, cheap air travel brought cities closer to each other and the Internet annihilated social distances altogether. But if Indians in Silicon Valley have to get back home in a hurry, it still takes them almost two days. Sub-orbital flight would shrink flying time to about four hours. Flying east to west would be seriously fast, with passengers overtaking the sun to arrive before they set out. Anyone who can afford a ticket would be willing to move anywhere for work.

But there lies the rub. Virgin Galactics ticket price was set to $200,000 and hiked by $50,000 in May. There is also a deposit of $20,000, in case you break the bathroom sink blundering about in zero-gravity. The list of those who have paid the deposit includes Katy Perry, Tom Hanks and Stephen Hawking. However, by conservative estimates, economies of scale should bring down the ticket price to the level of the deposit within a decade. To compare with another disruptive technology, it is almost two decades since the Internet was opened to the public. It is now commonplace. Access barriers, technical and financial, have crumbled and over a third of the worlds population has the means to use it.

Virgins current price, the limitation to a single port and the size of its craft, which can take only six passengers at a time, restrict it to space tourism. The six seconds of zero-gravity its joyrides offer is too short for scientific experiments exploring physical, chemical and biological phenomena in the absence of gravity. Experiment kits could represent a future market, along with top-flight passengers, for whom time translates into valuable advantage. But eventually, craft with commercial seating capacity would drastically reduce ticket prices.

Mars One is totally different. First, it is offering one-way tickets, so expect last-minute dropouts. Second, the space establishment feels it is impossible to set up a base on Mars with current technology. Third, it will be funded by a live telecast of the first flightBig Brother in space.

Interestingly, both Big Brother and Mars One were promoted by Dutch entrepreneurs. However, the viability of the latters business plan is not beyond doubt.

But the global buzz that the project is generating, the suggestion that the exploitation of planets is finally within reach, should at least set corporations and governments thinking about owning a piece of the pie in the sky. Yet again, an age of exploration is about to give way to an age of colonisation.