When I was about five years old, I remember reading a book in the school library called You Will Go To The Moon. This was the 1960s, when the Space Race was being run, and everyone was space crazy (well, by ‘everyone’, I mean five-year-old boys in South London). I still remember slogging to Woolworth’s with 5/11- saved from pocket money (those old pennies were HUGE) to buy my Airfix Lunar Module, and my scale model Saturn V rocket dominated my bedroom.
That was then – the Space Race has since fizzled out. Nobody has visited the Moon since 1972. To put this into perspective, that was the year that a young, hip group called Deep Purple released their Machine Head album, containing the anthemic Smoke On The Water – loathed by assistants in music shops everywhere – as well as a nod to the contemporary obsession, Space Truckin’. The participants are all still alive, but have turned from young hipsters to old farts, mostly of pensionable age. One of them has actually retired. Imagine that a rock musician could live long enough to do that?
But I digress.
Optimism about space continued into my teens, when I read a book by Patrick Moore called The Next 50 Years in Space, which envisaged a lunar base in 2020. That’s something that might still happen … but I wouldn’t put money on it. Despite much talk of our space stations being used as jumping-off points for manned space exploration, they are still LibDems among spacecraft: high of hope, they remain low of orbit, riven with compromise and uncertain of purpose. People still haven’t worked out what they’re for. Notwithstanding inasmuch as which, unmanned space exploration has come on by leaps and bounds. All the major bodies in the Solar System have been visited by robot probes, some several times, and our telescopes have revealed the existence of hundreds of extrasolar planets, the tally increasing daily.
What, then, is to be done? Happily the space age has received an influx of new young hipsters, rich from teh interwebz and keen to do something with their money and expertise. Hence the arrival of private, commercial space enterprises such as SpaceX, subject of this fascinating feature. SpaceX has already built, tested and launched its Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon orbiter, which it will use to resupply the Space Station now that the Space Shuttle fleet has, like Deep Purple’s original keyboard player, retired. The $1.6bn contract is for a minimum of twelve supply flights, with an option to order additional missions up to $3.1bn. But only if they can get a skip. Clearly, thar’s brass to be made from space.
Not that the Dragon orbiter has yet carried a human passenger. The first test subject wasn’t a dog, or even a hamster – but a round of Gruyere cheese. Why? A tribute, apparently, by SpaceX boss Elon Musk (who made his pile with PayPal), to Monty Python’s Cheese Shop sketch. Mr Musk is, apparently, something of a fan of all things Pythonesque, particularly that excellent motion picture, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Although he might well say ‘Nih!’ and demand a shrubbery, Mr Musk appears to be Wise In The Ways of Science, and knows the Airspeed Velocity of an Unladen Swallow. But would that be an African or European Swallow? Time will tell.