Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
In 1997, a team of Scottish scientists led by Ian Wilmut and Keith Campbell introduced a cloned sheep named Dolly to the world, and a general sense of panic and wonder swept over the planet. A German newspaper ran a cartoon showing an army of Hitlers. Religious leaders moved to denounce it, saying man was interfering with god. President Clinton introduced a bill banning human cloning. The fear-painted scenarios, which seemed eminently justifiable, predicted soulless armies, second-class citizens, a desperate grasp at immortality. Few, however, spoke of the outcome we have now: a safe form of meat and dairy.
But that is where this technology has led. Scientists at the University of Connecticut announced this week that meat and diary products from cloned animals easily meet all the health standards required for safety. This news seems to crash with a prosaic thud; meat over fire, after all, represents perhaps the lowest technology in man's history. This contrasts with the general hysteria that met the initial Dolly announcement. But the implications of the new declaration are no less staggering, and the unease will be no less real, because of the finding that cloned meat is not "Frankenfood"
The finding is exactly what the people most directly involved with cloning have been crossing their fingers for. Wilmut, as he describes in his book The Second Creation, was working on how to quickly and efficiently reproduce animals - this was no mad scientist creation, no backwoods quack with a thick Eastern European accent meddling with powers He Can't Possibly Understand - this was a doctor at a respected institute working on agricultural technology. When Dolly was born, the question, at least for scientists, was whether or not their products would be safe and whether the process could be done efficiently enough to make the benefits outweigh the costs.
Cloning was refined quickly enough that it became a productive technology - and now it seems to be a consumable one as well. As Dr. Xiangzhong Yang of the University of Connecticut and his colleagues demonstrated, the meat and dairy from cloned cows is virtually indistinguishable from that of calves born the traditional way. Of the over 100 meat characteristics compared and contrasted with a standard beef control group, 90% of them were found to be the same. Among the attributes that were different, in marbling and fatty acid composition, the cloned calves did better than their "natural" partners (marbling is a gauge used, for me at least, to determine how delicious a steak is. Others speak more of fat content). The reason for this difference is that the bull used for cloning was an unusually studly specimen - the late Kamitakafuku, who was used to inseminate 350,000 cows (making him the Wilt Chamberlain of the cattle world).
This isn't to say that the science is perfect, or the cure-all for global hunger. Though many of the objections to genetically modified organisms are notable for being uninformed, there are legitimate concerns. Cloning naturally decreases genetic diversity. Organisms and their underlying genetics are variations on a theme - cloning just endlessly repeats one of these variations, (think a Philip Glass composition as opposed to a Bach fugue.) The cloned cows aren't as aesthetically dreary, but it does give rise to the fear that cloning raises the susceptibility to disease. Variation is important because some organisms can fight off a particular virus strand that kills others. If all the cows in one country are genetically identical, even if they are all super-cows like Kamitakafuku, one virus that they are unable to resist could easily wipe out the entire population. This is a concern that is important to discuss when debating any kinds of genetic modification, and that's before we get into whether or not companies will try to "patent" specific cow strains. Cloned beef is not going to make it more likely for you to get cancer, or less likely you get fat, but the horror or wonder toward cloning shouldn't obfuscate the promise or concerns that come with this still very new science.
For most of their history, exploratory space programs have been the exclusive purview of governments. The space race of the Sixties was one of the major battles between the USA and USSR in the Cold War. Today, the International Space Station is perceived by some to be the embodiment of the end of the Cold War - American astronauts working side by side with Russian cosmonauts, along with space-men and women from around the world. At the end of the last century, China became the latest entry in the list of nations participating in space exploration and even now some pundits argue
that a new space race has begun between China and Japan.
Historically, governments have been the logical financial supporters of space exploration. Sending huge hunks of metal into orbit has been extremely costly in terms of both financial outlay and brainpower required for research and development. Only governments had the money to build the equipment, the ability to attract people with the "right stuff" and the will to pull together programs that would allow space travel and exploration. All this is changing, over 40 years after Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space. Now many private citizens and corporations are trying to bring to life the dream of many a childhood - becoming an astronaut when you grow up.
It all started with the Ansari X Prize - the bastard child of early aviation prizes like the $25000 Orteig prize awarded to Charles Lindbergh upon his successful trans-Atlantic flight of 1927. The X Prize, bankrolled primarily by the Ansari family but including other donors such as First USA bank and author Tom Clancy, offered $10 million to the first crew that successfully launched a piloted spacecraft to an altitude of at least 100 kilometres, carrying the equivalent of three crew members by weight. This feat had to be accomplished twice in a two week period in the same vehicle.
According the X Prize's website, the aim with this competition was to create breakthroughs in space and related technologies for the benefit of humanity. Like the aviation awards of the early 20th century, the donors to the X Prize want to encourage innovation and entrepreneurial spirit in a particular area. The prize seems to be aimed at spurring interest in space tourism, perhaps even creating it.
Why is this happening now, after almost fifty years of space exploration? Part of the answer lies in the fact that the technology is mature enough now for private enterprises to make use of it and develop their own programs. Much of the answer, though, becomes apparent when looking at how the mandates of government space agencies have changed over time. Private spaceflight is burgeoning to fill the void left by the lack of activity by the major players of the previous great age of space travel.
The space race of the Cold War created the world's top governmental space agency - NASA. In it heyday, NASA was sending people into space every year, and while tourists still gathered to watch the Shuttles take off, space travel came to seem an everyday occurrence. However, as the Cold War ended, the humans-in-space program began to lack urgency. The Columbia crash in 2003 was a further setback and for some time afterward NASA seemed to have given up on human spaceflight. As I write this, the great Return of the Space Shuttle scheduled for May 2005 is much ballyhooed on NASA's website and in their press releases. Only last week, the space shuttle Discovery was rolled out of its hanger to the launchpad. But the very name of this mission - Return To Flight - indicates that NASA has been somewhat scared off from human spaceflight. Since the Columbia crash, the NASA personnel aboard the International Space Station have been arriving and departing via Russia's Soyuz spaccecraft.
However, NASA has not been inactive during this hiatus on peopled spaceflight. There has been research and development on a hypersonic jet that uses Earth's atmosphere for fuel, not to mention the high-profile robotic exploration of Mars and the Cassini-Huygens mission exploring Saturn. These missions are helping humanity learn a great deal about our galactic neighbourhood, which increases our body of knowledge and will help to prepare humanity for space exploration in the future. Indeed, the NASA of the 21st century seems to be entirely devoted to preparation rather than innovation.
This shift in focus is neither surprising nor problematic. NASA has undergone a significant decrease in funding in real dollars since the end of the space race. From 1993-2005, NASA's budget increased by 8.32% whereas inflation rose by 33.73%, a net loss of more than one-quarter of its program budget (figures from NewsMax.com and inflationdata.com). As other US domestic and foreign policy issues overshadow NASA's mission, it becomes more and more difficult to justify public funding of space travel and exploration. Even in the 2005 budget, coming on the heels of a supposed commitment from the White House to a Vision for Space, the planned repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope have had to be cancelled.
Indeed, even for Americans who are self-professed space enthusiasts, it is difficult to support large influxes of cash to a space program when the national debt is increasing at a rate of about $2.35 billion per day, and fundamental programs like education are struggling. But many believe that space exploration, particularly human beings traveling to and living in space, is a necessary step for human progress. Like early explorers building great ships and sailing to the ends of the earth, humanity needs to escape the gravity well and see what is out there in the wilderness. That is, however, impossible to do when problems here on Earth make space travel both a luxury and a diversion.
Enter private companies providing space travel. Private corporations are ideally suited to pursuing luxuries - creating, selling and marketing them. And the incentive system used by competitions like the X Prize offers the exact right amount of financial gain, bragging rights and exposure to get private citizens and groups motivated and working on new ideas.
The winner of the X Prize was SpaceShipOne, totally funded by Paul G Allen (co-founder of Microsoft), designed by Burt Rutan and built by Rutan's company Scaled Composites. Not entirely unlike NASA's Space Shuttle, SpaceShipOne is a winged aircraft that is launched from a turbofan airplane at between 45000 and 50000 feet. The Space Shuttle uses preliminary rocket thrusters which fall away from the Shuttle when the fuel is used up. SpaceShipOne continues flying straight up under power of an onboard rocket motor. The motor is calibrated to burn out at about 150000 feet, where inertia supplies the rest of the upward momentum. Then, the ship recalibrates its wings, flips around to begin re-entry, and essentially lands as a glider (description from howstuffworks.com) Other vehicle designs included the classic rocket style of the UK team from Starchaser Industries, Canada's da Vinci Project's helium balloon first stage system and the shuttle style of Russia's Cosmopolis 21.
The X Prize has already sparked a successor - Bigelow Aerospace's "America's Space Prize". This prize is larger both in scope and reward. A $50 million purse will go to the contestant that successfully sends a crew of at least five into orbit twice within 60 days using a craft that is not more than 20% "disposable" hardware. In short, they are trying to get people to make a solid, reusable, dockable orbiting spacecraft. For many, the big downside of the prize is that it is open only to competitors from the United States. Some pundits in Europe hope that this prize will spark a similar contest outside North America.
Already, the X Prize foundation has started to capitalize on the success of the first X Prize. They are planning an annual event called the X Prize Cup, which will include races, new designs and possibly aspects of space tourism - one of the planned events is a prize for the vehicle that ferries the most passenger to space in a single flight. A preliminary exposition is slated for 2005, with full competitions to start in 2007.
While it is likely that none of these early efforts would be feasible for significant orbital or long term space flight, the interest sparked by the competition has essentially created an industry where none previously existed. In September of 2004, the Virgin Group bought the rights to license the design of SpaceShipOne and started Virgin Galactic which plans to offer full service space tourism packages. In February of 2005, representatives of several groups formed the first industry group devoted to space travel, and a company called Space Adventures is already selling suborbital, orbital and other flights. Clearly, space travel for recreational purposes is just around the corner.
Aside from helping some technologically adept entrepreneurs make and spend a lot of money, what is the big deal? Private space companies are not really contributing to the body of scientific knowledge about space and they certainly do not appear to be interested in being part of the kinds of research projects that NASA and other government agencies support. So how is this useful to humanity? The answer lies in the very fact that most governments are no longer able to devote a significant part of their budgets to space development. While China and Japan are aggressively pursuing thier space programs, they are not likely to become leaders in this area any time soon. Similarly, the European Space Agency has become a much larger player, but significant missions that spark the enthusiasm of the average citizen seem to be moments for the history books.
In a nutshell, private space travel makes space travel exciting again - it becomes both novel and attainable, a combination that historically stirs the blood of daring adventurers and those who wish they were. By focusing on relatively inexpensive means of transporting people rather than equipment, private space companies are developing the technology that will be used to send large numbers of people into space. Government agnecies are required to have a more diversified focus, but by focussing on one goal - moving people into space - private companies are able to pour all their energies and resources into moving this area of development forward. To develop permanent colonies on the moon or other bodies, or create orbiting stations, mass transport is going to be required. And while many people question the wisdom of these goals, many others believe that any sufficiently long-term view of humanity's survival requires the exploration and colonization of areas beyond planet Earth.
Whether or not we are able to curb our rapid population growth and reign in our pollution of the planet, the reality is that distributed systems are more resilient and fail more gracefully. If humanity wishes to preserve itself, moving into space is our only alternative. It certainly is not an immediate need - this is why governments can no longer make space exploration a priority. But if no one is doing the research and no one is interested in the journey, it will never be made. Private space companies are a necessary small step in what hopefully one day will become a true leap ahead for all humanity.