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GPS satellite
GPS is far more important than just as a service for “soldiers, explorers and even taxi cabs”, as one author claims. (credit: Boeing)

Yet another victim of Britain’s (non) space policy

Andrew Roberts may be the best popular historian currently working on either side of the Atlantic. The Holy Fox, his biography of Lord Halifax, who almost became prime minister of Britain in 1940 instead of Winston Churchill, is a small masterpiece. Roberts has a near-perfect grasp of mid-20th century British politics and has an excellent and wide-ranging understanding of the history of the rest of the late, unlamented 20th century. His new book A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 picks up where Winston Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples left off.

Of course, the greatest contribution the Apollo landings made to Western civilization was its role in the victory over Soviet Communism.

Like Churchill’s work, this is a wonderfully idiosyncratic book. Its pays more attention to Australia and Canada than we are used to in such histories and this alone makes it worth reading. He is well aquatinted with all sides of the most recent and noisy historical and political controversies that afflict us. His exposition of the interplay of social, political, cultural, economic, and journalistic factors that led up to World War Two is simply superb.

However, when it comes to dealing with the way the space race was driven by the Cold War and has inspired America’s (and others) space programs ever since, he falls flat on his face. After describing the Moon landing and its world wide emotional impact, he writes:

It is true that space travel has come nowhere near directly repaying financially the huge investment made by the US taxpayer, although there have been considerably more advantages gleaned from it than merely non-stick frying pans. Without satellites in space, for example our telephone communications would be far less advanced, our weather forecasts even more unreliable and the Global Positioning System has proved invaluable for soldiers, explorers and even taxi cabs. Also, Osama bin Laden was deeply irritated that “the Infidels survived the blasphemy of walking on the moon”, so it all wasn’t money wasted. It is nevertheless very hard to see how the US taxpayer can possibly start to justify—let alone recoup—the trillion dollars that the manned Mars mission announced by President Bush in January 2004 is expected to cost.

Lets talk about that last point first. The trillion-dollar figure came out immediately after the Vision was first announced, despite no budgetary information from NASA that supported such a conclusion (see “Whispers in the echo chamber”, The Space Review, March 22, 2004). Certainly with NASA’s current budgets it would take it decades to simply spend a tillion dollars on all its programs, let alone on a human Mars mission.

Roberts ignores the huge role that the space program played in the development of the semiconductor industry. Without the NASA-induced competition between Intel and Fairchild, the components that the pioneers of the personal computer Industry used to build the first PCs would not have existed. Surely the taxes paid by those companies have repaid the investment America made in the Moon program many times over.

Of course, the greatest contribution the Apollo landings made to Western civilization was its role in the victory over Soviet Communism. This came in two parts. The first was the boost that Apollo 11 gave to American and Western morale at a low point in the struggle. The years 1968 and 1969 were lousy, depressing years for the Free World. Vietnam, Czechoslovakia, riots in America and Europe, and the beginning of international terrorism as a political phenomena contrasted with the seemingly picture perfect achievement of Kennedy’s goal of “…within this decade, landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.” More important was the role it played in convincing the Soviet leaders that when Ronald Reagan spoke of a way to make nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete” the US track record showed that they just might be able to do it.

The confusion in Roberts mind among the civil, commercial, and military aspects of the space industry is sadly obvious. He understands that there are communications satellites up there and that the telephone system uses them, but he fails to connect the operations of the cell phone he probably carried with the GPS system he subtly denigrates as useful for “soldiers, explorers and taxi cabs”. In fact, mobile phones and many modern electricity, communications, and information networks around the world would fall apart without the timing signals from GPS.

Like many other highly intelligent Englishmen, his education and broad culture is missing a basic understanding of what space is and why it is important: a sad commentary on the land and people that gave us Issac Newton, not to mention the colonizers of Massachusetts and Virginia. Space is not only the critical military high ground of the future, but also is the only place where the energy and mineral resources needed for the future can be found. To many in the UK this sounds visionary and optimistic, and so they reject the whole idea. Yet when one looks at future global requirements, particularly the economic rise of China and India, one sees that terrestrial energy sources will simply not be able to handle the demand.

As has been often pointed out, space exploration is not mainly about science, it is a race to see who will be able to effectively and profitably dominate the solar system.

Britain’s lack of a well-funded space policy has been a problem for both its European and now US partners for many years. The tiny size of their overall space budget simply does not allow for the development of a space industry and a space constituency that can push for a major role in a variety of space efforts. There is some hope that this will soon change: Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) has proposed a pair of UK lunar missions which fit neatly into NASA’s plan to return to the Moon. If these are properly funded they could lead to a rethinking of Britain’s isolated role in space exploration.

NASA and the British National Space Centre (BNSC) have recently signed a new cooperation agreement. The UK government is now complaining of being shortchanged by ESA. There are even signs that, thanks to the Chinese, a few members of the British military have woken up to the importance of space for military operations. This could be yet another false start, but it could also be the beginning of a profound change.

As has been often pointed out, space exploration is not mainly about science, it is a race to see who will be able to effectively and profitably dominate the solar system. An excellent historian such as Andrew Roberts should be able to see that. Sadly he is blinded by the way the British media and educational establishment has tended to belittle America’s space program over the last few decades. Unlike the French, whose jealousy of the US achievement has pushed them to develop Ariane and to generously fund ESA’s programs, not to mention Galileo, the British have been content up to now to make cynical comments from the sidelines.


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