Two events in the recent weeks have prompted a lot of reaction from the armchair experts as being ‘a total waste of money’ and I find it rather troubling! It seems we live in a society where there is a disdain for doing anything successful and an almost religious hatred for those wishing to splash some cash on ‘pointless things’.
The two events in question are the crash of Scaled Composites ‘SpaceShipTwo’ and the landing of the Philae probe on comet 67P.
Very soon after the loss of SpaceShipTwo and its Pilot there were a whole slew of articles in the mainstream press jumping to conclusions and quoting ‘experts’ as to the cause of the crash. The most common one being the failure of the hybrid rocket. Many commentators jumped on that one saying how it had known problems and how they were taking huge risks with questionable new fuels.
And of course along came the usual readership comments on how this is a rich man’s game and how it should be scrapped ‘cos they don’t see the point in it and it’s just rich people wasting money for the sake of a few mins in space. Much better just to tax the rich isn’t it 😉 Or calls for <insert hated celeb of the day> to be on the next flight so that they will get killed. Oh now nice.
Well lets have a quick look at the company behind SpaceShipTwo. Scaled Composites was founded by Burt Rutan who pretty much started by designing planes in his garage back in the 1960’s. They don’t have huge wind tunnels or armies of people testing infinite design iterations. It is pretty old school hard core engineering. And they’ve managed something which so far only governments with almost infinite budgets have managed.
The craft that one them the X prize was tested by throwing scale models off the roof or by strapping parts to a truck and driving along the road while watching tufts of wool flutter in the airflow.
The fact that Richard Branson has come on board seems to have irked a few people. I think this is just pure envy. Lets not forget that a lot of very important technological milestones have been achieved due to the support or the super rich.
If Juan Trippe had not risked his company (Pan American) and ordered a fleet of Boeing 707’s we might not have the cheap commercial air travel we enjoy today. And if it wasn’t for (often wealthy) nutters like Louis Blériot (flew from France to England) and Raymond Orteig (he stumped up a $25,000 prize for the first non-stop transatlantic flight, claimed by Charles Lindbergh) we might never have seen the air revolution.
You can go even further back. The Duke of Bridgewater who helped kick off the building of canals in England. Gottlieb Daimler who is considered to be the father of the modern car. William Armstrong who had one of the first private houses lit by electricity. The list is pretty long. Prior to the cold war and the space race an awful lot of innovation relied on some private company or individual stumping up a big stack of cash.
And as for the claim that SpaceShipTwo’s cost will have no benefit to the rest of us? Enjoying that electricity are we? I doubt the Wright brothers knew where their first flight in 1903 would take the world. I have no doubt that there were many nay sayers at that time. Maybe they should have stuck to fixing bikes as flying powered planes is a bit hard and might kill you. Nothing hard and potentially dangerous is ever worth while is it?
As for landing on a comet… The 1 billion Euros may seem like a big bill but the UK spends about half that every day on the wellfare state, and the rollout of smart electricity meters in the UK is set to cost 12-15x that. 1 billion sounds a lot but in global terms it is quite small. I don’t even want to think how quickly the USA could spend that amount. Certainly it would not last them 10 years, which is the duration of the Rosetta mission.
And for that billion Euros we managed to design and build a probe that could survive for 10 years in the frozen emptiness of space and still work. And it managed to hit its target! NASA have had a few issues where they got hit and miss mixed up.
And both of these projects have kept quite a number of people in jobs and have allowed them to grow our collective engineering knowledge.
Anyone who still thinks its a waste of money and won’t ever effect them, just look around you. You can fly to Australia in less than a day, it used to take weeks if you could afford it. You now have smartphones with processing power that was unimaginable 10 years ago with batteries that last sensible amounts of time.
How much did a mobile phone cost in the 1980’s? Imagine if we’d never kept going with that idea. Pah, waste of time! Toys for the rich bankers! Who would want to carry a phone with them.
And you’re sitting in front of the worlds greatest information resource ever known. All because people took up the challenge of doing something that was hard and at the time had no immediate benefit to society and probably had a very high price tag.