Guest post : Wright brothers or Wrong brothers ?

July 21, 2009

I am now back in the UK but decompressing… Here is a timely Apollo-11 type guest post from old chum Martin Elvis.

It was 40 years ago today when Apollo 11 touched down on the Moon. I stayed up till 4am, in England, desperately trying to stay awake on the sofa to see the first steps. I just made it, and will never forget it.

Back then, as so many people have been commenting just now, it seemed that the Apollo program was just the first stage in an endless adventure of exploration. Surely I’d get to fly in space, others might get to Mars. It was all about to happen. After all, this was like the Wright Brothers showing that heavier than air powered flight was possible in 1903 . 40 years after that we had already had the Battle of Britain, with hundreds of bombers and fighters deciding the fate of Europe; commercial air service was well established (if still slow, vomit-inducing and quite dangerous). Where are the hundreds of spaceships now?

But were the Wright brothers the wrong brothers? Should we have been thinking of the Montgolfier brothers, who worked 120 years earlier, instead? They were the ones who showed that human flight was possible in 1783 . Forty years after that was no golden age of flight. That was because the hot air balloons used by the Montgolfier brothers, like the competing hydrogen balloons developed at the same time, were not a practical technology for useful flight. Pioneering trips, e.g. across the English Channel were made within a few years but, being at the mercy of the winds, these trips had no major follow-ons. They were used for military observations, but not much else.

Perhaps Apollo too showed that human flight – in space this time – was possible but didn’t have the right technology to make it useful. After the Montgolfier brothers, it was 60 years before significant work on heavier than air flight began (with George Cayley’s gliders), and a full 120 years before the confluence of gliders and the internal combustion engine made powered flight possible.

What technology are we waiting for? Do we need to know how to build carbon nanotube cables so we can build a space elevator, which is being actively pursued ? If that’s the case, we may have another long wait on our hands. Or do we need far bigger and better ion drive engines to save on the huge fuel mass that conventional rockets need, so we can go to Mars and other distant destinations quickly? That’s ‘just’ a matter of scale. Or has computer control and computer aided design come along far enough that cheap rockets can already be built, as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic believe? In which case, all we need is a reason to do it. Tourism in space may be it. Mining the asteroids may be it. But whatever the killer app for space is, it will have to make a profit, and probably an enormous profit, to kick things off like the Wright brothers.