Space

Today President Obama cancelled the US plan to return to the Moon. At least as far as the government is concerned. He announced he is turning the space ambitions over to private enterprise.

Well I can understand. The recession has caused government budgets to balloon and space is, at least in the short term, not essential. The problem for me is the phrase "short term".

I think of the debate over space like the row over the environment. Both of these projects are big - far bigger than any one single country can realistically achieve alone.

But, and I'm about to go off on one here, there is an organisation that could handle this. Every one has heard of the United Nations. But I wonder how many realise the range of activities they get up to.

There's the Security Council, the obvious one, passing resolutions to try to get this country or that country to "play the game". Here in the UK with an enquiry into the Iraq War going on we hear all about UN resolutions and whether there was a legal basis for the invasion of Iraq.

But there's more... and don't think I'm patronising you. I'm just being flip. Yes you'll think of UNESCO - the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation - and they do far more than just designate part of the planet as Heritage Sites. But that's another matter. Bck to the UN.

There's also the UN World Food Programme, UNAIDS (the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS), UNEP (the UN Environment Programme - with the recent Copenhagen conference you may have heard of this body), UNDP (UN Development Programme) and others.

So there's plenty there to suggest that we can at least attempt to solve issues by working together. So could space be another such issue. Hand over control of space exploration and, hopefully someday, colonisation to the United Nations.

Next problem - how do you pay for it? Well, and I'm really going to go out on one for this. Oil!

So how do we convince the countries of this world to give up their oil reserves? Well we shouldn't have to. All we have to do is agree that if oil reserves are found in parts of this planet that are not within any country's borders. This will be a tense issue. Over the last year or so there have been heated claims from various countries over rights to oil reserves under the Arctic.

These conflicts of interest between nations are potentially very dangerous - especially as the Earth enters an era when fossil fuels become less and less available and more and more wanted. I can see wars erupting over these diminishing resources. But my worries on this are somewhat a sideline to my thoughts here (and might potentially be resolved by these thoughts).

If the UN is given the rights to these deposits then it can allocated drilling rights to various countries and organisations - for a price. And then use this money raised to fund space exploration - which would also give the various countries and companies of the world a chance to get this money back and maybe ease the feelings of losing out on the initial oil claims.

So it is, in theory possible. But is it worth it? Is there more to space than simple science and a chance to take some seriously funky pictures of swirls of dust?

In my honest opinion - yes. But this is when youtake a long view. We normally look at our own small little slice of time, unable to see all that far beyond next week (figuratively speaking).

We have top move back from time a little and take a wider view. View time in terms of decades or even centuries. And when we do so we must consider that it's not just oil that is beginning to run short. We are consuming our planet at an incredible rate.

If we continue at this rate it won't be all that much longer until all kinds of resources become extremely rare.

However all is not lost. Up there, beyond our thin atmosphere is a near incalculable number of objects, big and small. And they are made of stuff - some of which we are definitely going to need if we want to keep filling our lives with pointless gadgetry (oh, and reasonable bits of hi-tech contraptions like life-support machines, computers and the like).

So if we have the ability to get into space at a price that is affordable - which you will only get by doing it. Make one and it's expensive. Make ten thousand and you figure out how to make them cheap.

So if we fund lots of different scientists, engineers, technologists and entrepreneurs, but in a non-typical government way (private enterprise model) then in a reasonably short period the cost of getting to the Moon will become more affordable, and if private enterprise has anything to do with it they'd already have put something on the Moon to greet you when you arrive with all kinds of tantalising merchandising offers. Glass of wine from the first extra-terrestrial vineyard anyone (well why not - that would keep my wife happy, not to mention a sizeable portion of the French population).

But space is such a long term investment kind of thing that private enterprise alone is not going to be able to fund it based on eventual possible gains - I can't see any chairman being able to sell his shareholders to the thought of let's spend billions now on the possibility that your children will gain. But if our mythical UN organisation sponsors things a la X-Prize then it may well work. And more over private enterprise will do one thing for sure that government may just hope might happen. Technology developed by the private sector will not be exclusively space tech. You can bet anything you own on them making money on the side.

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