The day of Charles Simonyi's launch was rainy and windy. If the launch had been in Florida in such foul weather, it would certainly have been postponed. At Baikonur (a Russian space port in Kazakhstan), it went up within a second of the planned time. The launch was a public ceremony in which the whole town participated. The cosmonauts paraded through the town at the head of the procession of dignitaries including an Orthodox priest, with townspeople carrying umbrellas on either side. In the main square, the mayor was sitting with other dignitaries. The cosmonaut stood facing the mayor and formally announced that they were ready to fly. Then, after a couple of speeches, they proceeded to the launch site. The whole performance had the ambience of a religious sacrament rather than a scientific mission. In Russia you do not go into space to do science. You go into space because it is part of human destiny. To be a cosmonaut is a vocation rather than a profession."
--from physicist Freeman Dyson's Intro to the 2010 "Best American Science and Nature writing"
Soviet rocket scientist & aeronautics theorist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky once said:"Earth is our cradle, and we will not always stay in the cradle. ..."
The SpaceX Launch: A "Where Were You" Moment for Some
What were you doing at 2:45am Monday morning, week before this one? I was watching a live stream from Cape Canaveral featuring the launch of America's first commercial space flight to the International Space Station. It was a strongly emotional event for me. It struck me, and I know I speak for lots of other geeks, as one of those events that may go down as a signal moment in American tech/economic history. Not so much, in my judgment, because it was the first true "commercial space launch" (the company responsible for the effort -- SpaceX, has a $1.6 billion cargo/commercial transport contract with NASA, after all) but because it may mark what Dr. Jamie Jacobs of OSU -- one of the aerospace academics responsible for Oklahoma's fab public/private unmanned commercial drone project -- told me could be the beginning of a sea change in space exploration and the serious return of America to the final frontier -- a breakout event that could have huge impacts on the American economy and the developmental trajectories of places like Tulsa.
As readers may know, the Tulsa World carried word last week of a Tulsa aerospace support tax initiative that voters may be asked to support in November of this year. I've made arrangements to talk to the architects/advocates for this project and a related general economic development initiative that they have sketched and plan to write something about all of this soon. Both projects are earnest responses to our ongoing American Airlines "crash" and the very real need to forestall dramatic drops in aerospace jobs. But this week, I wanted to share my enthusiasm for what may be a great moment in U.S. aerospace history and a glimpse of the future.
Can you guess the place?
*Has one of the only fully certified and ready spaces for launching commercial rockets and hosting advanced aircraft capable of lofting objects into suborbital and low Earth orbit;
*A spot filled with geophysical/earth science expertise like few places on the planet, plus lots of folks with deep insight into natural resource exploration and identification;
*How about a place that was the headquarters, until it went "banco," of RocketPlane: a year 2000+ attempt to put hundreds, perhaps thousands of people into space via a very high end (no joke!) tourist venture. This was a project that simply failed to put together the superior management team required to pull off something that was a difficult, maybe premature project. RocketPlane also secured a commercial cargo contract with NASA. OSU's Jacobs suggested that all the (justified) acclaim and fresh investor interest that polymath executive Elon Musk and his company SpaceX are now getting might have flowed to Oklahoma had RocketPlane not tanked.
If you guessed Tulsa (and Oklahoma generally) you would be correct.
More Space Econ "Drivers"
And there is a another giant effort that bears watching: This more speculative venture is launched by filmmaker/explorer James Cameron, Charles Simonyi (the principal software architect of the Excel spreadsheet), Eric Schmidt (the chair of Google) and a passel of former NASA executives and astronauts.
Called Planetary Resources Inc., this audacious company will identify and "mine" near-Earth asteroids -- that is, giant floating rocks in Earth's vicinity that may be rich with high-value metals and related materials. Essentially the project is a humongous mining and resource exploitation play that could transform the acquisition of rare metals and produce hundreds of thousands, if not millions of jobs at some point in the middle run future and add trillions to U.S. GDP.
Planetary Resources, the work of SpaceX looks to be an actual response to the need to generate many millions and millions of additional jobs in the US and on planet Earth: a quest that has been mightily constrained by what we could call a "poverty of imagination". In any event, SpaceX, the Planetary Resources gambit and a set of space tourism efforts associated with UK biz wizard Richard Branson, could have a real connection to Green Country's future -- if we encourage public and private people who might want to step--up to do so.
A few days ago I spoke with OSU's Dr. Jacobs, who last week, like me, also got up early two Mondays ago to witness the SpaceX launch. He told me there were a variety of in-state projects that have a connection to the increasingly real prospects of a large-scale space "drive" -- including a long/medium run space habitat/human "system" development project that OSU and other parties are doing via something called the X-- Hab project.
The "Space" in Aerospace
Dr. Neil Tyson, the astrophysicist/media star, told me in an interview during his 2010 visit here that he was optimistic that President Obama's controversial effort to take $6 billion from NASA's "legacy" outlays to spark commercial-launch space tourism and other next-stage space projects was: "a masterstroke, from both a strategic and a technical standpoint."
NASA, he said: "was a wonderful agency that facilitated the early exploration of space." The agency, he said, "had done its job." The next stage of America's adventure in space, he opined, would be lead by adventuresome private companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX venture and Richard Branson's space tourism project.
A couple of months ago, Tyson wrote a highly influential piece in Foreign Affairs called "The Case for Space." It is worth a close read for any American who wants a compelling future for the Country.
Tulsans need to take that old adage of "thinking globally and acting locally" and look to the heavens -- and we need to do it soon.
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