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  • Lawrence Bailey

Space is big business - and getting bigger



Some eighteen years ago, I was sat in a conference room at the Lyndon B Johnson Space Centre in Houston (as you do).


Anyway, I was in conversation with a NASA official who shared the opinion that although his agency was in the doldrums, he foresaw an eventual resurgence. This, he said, would be done through contracted-out operations and re-usable equipment.


I thought it was a bit fanciful at the time, yet just this month alone we’ve seen several billions in dollars, yen and dirham expended on a series of public-private exploration missions utilising that self-same approach.


Last year, $5.7 billion of investment went into US space start-ups, breaking the record of $3.5 billion set a year earlier. That figure is thought to have been more than equalled by other (so far) undisclosed partnerships around the globe.


Back in 2003, NASA was way down in government spending priorities. They consequently began looking for new opportunities and well as extending their education role. One of these outcomes was the Challenger Centre initiative.


Named in memory of the ill-fated space shuttle, the aim was to boost academic interest in the space-related sciences through inspirational ways that also encouraged interactive skills.


Each facility took organised classes aged 11-16 through sequenced scenarios. Tasks like docking, manoeuvring and robotic sampling, were based on actual footage and could be actioned remotely either via mission control or module conditions. There was even a flight simulator.


Thanks to efforts by Swansea University, the WDA and Swansea Council, discussions reached a pretty advanced stage for Swansea to become a Challenger host city.


An eventual meeting in Houston was followed by a reciprocal visit to Swansea by astronaut Mark Kelly who commanded the shuttle Endeavour when it first docked with the International Space Station (ISS).

Sadly though, the same disenchantment with space eventually also prevailed here.


The Challenger concept clearly didn’t sit well with the educational establishment and politicians who had closed their minds to the idea in opposition remained that way on gaining power.


If things had worked out differently then we might be uniquely placed today as a region with its own generation of engineers, scientists and technicians who regard heading for the stars as a natural progression.


Space is very big business and we could have been involved at the first stage. What's more it doesn't matter where on the planet you are located to be part of the enterprise.


We can still boldly go where markets beckon, but it’s going to be a much longer journey.


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ONLINE FATIGUE COSTS MORE THAN MONEY


We’re all becoming adept at doing stuff online. Yet I’m not sure if this is turning out to be an entirely good thing.


If anything it feels that employers, especially among the larger outfits, may have over-estimated their staff’s ability to absorb the pressures arising from extra traffic.


Personally, I’m finding service levels in some instances are getting creaky.


A problem I experienced when my combined broadband, landline and mobile charges all got more expensive turned out to be down to human ‘intervention’ rather than system error.


Another example came last week when HMRC informed me my tax would be going up significantly next year. It took a while to find a contact number then a 30 minute phone wait but just a few moments to confirm that someone had hit the wrong button.


A more worrying aspect though, as online stock trading gains in popularity, was the reported case of the young man in the US who killed himself after being mistakenly informed by an app that he owed $500,000 in fees.


Automation and artificial intelligence might signal a bright new future in many instances but as I’ve stated before, it’s a poor outcome if it means that you end up treating people like machines.

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