What Prince William gets wrong about space travel

19 October 2021

10:15 PM

19 October 2021

10:15 PM

Time was when ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before’ was not just a line from Star Trek. It was a national dream. Space exploration transcended political divisions. When Nasa pulled off the first moon landing, the world watched in awe.

Last week, the Star Trek actor William Shatner was blasted into space on one of Jeff Bezos’s rockets. Yet there was no shared wonder. Instead, there was criticism. Scientists have more pressing problems to solve, argued detractors. In a rebuke to Bezos, who is pouring his fortune into space travel, Prince William told the BBC: ‘We need some of the world’s greatest brains… trying to repair the planet, not trying to find the next place to go and live.’

Such arguments miss three key points. The first is that technological breakthroughs in one area are frequently beneficial in another. Moonshot missions require the creation of many sub-technologies. In time, some of these become the building blocks for solving other complex challenges. For example, Nasa’s work on powering drones boosted the efficiency of solar cells.

Shatner himself seems aware of this. In response to Prince William, he said that Bezos’s programme is just a ‘baby step’ towards making other space-based projects a reality. For these to be feasible, a necessary building block will be space travel at scale.

That’s still a long way off, but Wright’s law suggests we’ll get there. This is the second point. In the 1930s the aeronautical engineer Theodore Wright observed that each time the total production of aircraft is doubled, the cost of building one reduces by 20 per cent. As you go from one to a thousand to a million aircraft, the cost reduces to a tenth, then a hundredth, and so on, of the original price. This is because, when we actually build things, we learn shortcuts, develop mathematical predictions and make fewer mistakes.

Wright’s law doesn’t just apply to aircraft. It applies whenever we produce something, whether it’s a chair, or a microchip, or a manned rocket. The percentage reduction for each doubling varies across industries, typically from 5 to 25 per cent. But the overall effect holds true.

What this means is that we shouldn’t be put off if, at first, the cost of a new technology seems prohibitively high. When the first human genome was sequenced in 2003, the price tag was $300 million. Today, it costs less than $1,000 to have your genome sequenced Every time a thing is produced, the price gets knocked down. Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson are just at an early stage in the process: producing things at a time when they’re not yet widely affordable.

The third point is that telling the best minds what to do is not how the biggest breakthroughs are made. This is the credo of the London Institute for Mathematical Sciences, where I work. History has shown, time and again, that the most transformative discoveries occur when scientists are free to follow their curiosity.

My fellow researchers and I recently moved into the Royal Institution in Mayfair, which has witnessed some of the greatest curiosity-driven science in history. For instance, it was here that Michael Faraday uncovered the principles of electromagnetism. The result would unleash electric power for the benefit of everyone on the planet. Yet is that why Faraday carried out his experiments? No. He was just curious.

Compare this with what happened when the government asked Faraday to make purer glass for better telescopes. Loyal to his country, Faraday did what he was told and built a glass furnace in the basement of the Royal Institution. Despite years of toil, he failed.

Exploring space is one of the most important technological challenges of our time, but so is the development of renewable energy sources. The question of which is a more noble mission is obscured by the fact that they operate on different time scales. One is concerned with the practical problems of today. The other opens the door to unforeseeable future opportunities.

Shatner was bang on message when, shortly before blasting off, he quoted Sir Isaac Newton’s reflection on his life, a sacred text of curiosity-driven science:

 I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me

There’s an element of play, for sure, in what Bezos is doing. Yet no one can deny he is exploring the ‘great ocean’. This instinct, to boldly go where no man has gone before is more than a sci-fi soundbite. It’s the human impulse to look beyond the horizon, which has always led to discoveries. You can criticise it. But you cannot close it down.

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