Independence Minutiae: Wales in Space

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Admittedly, this is – excuse the pun – “out there”. It’s not the first thing on people’s minds when they think of Welsh independence, or even the present economy. The powers and freedom independence bring shouldn’t be stuck in a box of being exclusively about the economy, culture or social justice.

Regulation of outer space activities” is one of the miscellaneous reserved matters in the Wales Act 2017. It’s yet one more “minor” area Wales would take responsibility for upon independence

There are opportunities here – independence or not – and events the other side of the Atlantic are making it possible.

The Welsh in Space

Before going into specifics, it’s worth reflecting on the role the Welsh people have played in space science and space exploration down the years. It’s safe to say we’ve done well compared to our relative size, and it’s one area we should make more of a song and dance about.

In terms of producing astronomers and cosmologists, Wales has always punched above its weight.The Welsh Government’s former Chief Scientific Adviser, Prof. John Harries, was awarded the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal in 2011 “for improving knowledge of Earth’s atmosphere and climate system”.

Former Plaid Cymru chair and AM for South Wales East – sadly no longer with us – Prof. Phil Williams was a leading solar physicist. Prof. Geraint Lewis, from Crynant, is one of the world’s leading cosmologists. Perhaps the most famous Welsh scientist currently is Swansea University alumnus, Aberdare’s Dr Lyn Evans – project leader at CERN’s Large Hadron Collidor.

In terms of astronauts – or cymronauts – Dr. Dafydd Williams, a second-generation Canadian whose father was from Bargoed, Caerphilly, became the first person of Welsh decent into space in 1998 aboard the (subsequently ill-fated) Space Shuttle Colombia. His second mission, in 2007, resulted in a 12 day stay on the International Space Station where he performed a “spacewalk”.

Another Canadian astronaut, Chris Hadfield, has Welsh links in his extended family, famously taking this photo.

Long before that, Cardiff-born and educated Dr. John Llewellyn underwent astronaut training with NASA, but dropped out in the late-1960s. Had he completed training, there could’ve been an outside chance he would’ve participated in the Apollo Moon landings in some way, or at the very least the early Space Shuttle Missions. He died in July 2013 aged 80.

Cardiff University’s School of Physics and Astronomy is one of the UK’s leading research centres for studying galaxy and star formation, as well as the design of astronomical instrumentation, including a large teaching telescope and observatory.

The Spaceguard Centre – based in Powys – monitors threatening near-earth objects such as asteroids. This could become an important part of any global monitoring system in the future.

The Privatisation of Space

Public funding for NASA has always been controversial. President Obama unveiled a new National Space Programme in 2010 which not only saw the retirement of the Space Shuttle, but a shift towards the use of privately-designed and funded launch vehicles.

With US astronauts reliant on the Russian Soyuz system to reach the International Space Station for the time being – an embarrassment if ever there was one for the US – there’s unlikely to be a large gap between the Shuttle’s retirement and a replacement.

Although deep space and manned exploration will still be state-funded and science-led; near-Earth ventures, telecommunications and things like space tourism will be led increasingly by private industry.

Private involvement is space flight isn’t new. Arianespace have developed rockets for the European Space Agency since the 1990s, while big aerospace companies like Lockheed Martin and Boeing have developed rockets to deliver US military satellites into orbit.

It’s human spaceflight that’s the next frontier here. Virgin Galactic are due to launch the first commercial space tourism flights later in 2014 from their base in New Mexico. However, this follows a series of delays and technological issues which underline the challenges involved in this experimental field.

There are also several dozen smaller companies developing their own private spacecraft, whether to compete for the $10million X Prize for sub-orbital flight (won in 2004), or the current $30million X Prize to land a rover on the Moon, which currently has around 30 entries from around the world.

Opportunities for the Welsh Economy

Cost and weight are two key factors to consider when getting things into space. The cost of transporting a payload into orbit is currently around $20,000 per kilogram.

If this can be reduced to something more reasonable, it could revolutionise space travel, even at some point in the distant future making sub-orbital flight affordable for everyone.

One of Wales’ industrial and manufacturing strengths is the aerospace industry, and two of our most important growing high-tech areas of expertise are optronics (lighting electronics) – of which there are several companies scattered around north East Wales – and advanced materials research at the likes of Glyndwr University.

Both are likely to be important considerations in the construction of new private spacecraft, especially if they can be lightweight, tough and have a need for high-tech on-board systems (requiring specialist lighting).

Sub-orbital aircraft – This is one of the most important research areas in aerospace at the moment. Sub-orbital passenger aircraft will be able to fly significantly higher and faster than current commercial airliners. A trip from Europe to Australia could be reduced from 20+ hours to under 3 hours. Although only Virgin are actively considering it at present, it’s certain major aerospace companies will explore the possibility more seriously – and they’ll need somewhere to manufacture and research. Where better than a country with growing expertise in aerospace and advanced materials science?

Private spacecraft – At the moment this is nothing more than a cottage industry in global terms, but it’s likely to rapidly expand over the coming decades. It’s not only relevant for space tourism, but practical applications such as telecommunications, geological research (commercial and scientific), logistics (which could – in the long term – replace shipping) and, indeed, the military. It’s likely many state-backed scientific projects will be reliant on private spacecraft in the long-term too. Could Wales set up a hub to develop these spacecraft? Do we need regulatory powers over space activities to do so? Independence is our answer.

Space Tourism – At the moment this is very exclusive. A ticket for Virgin Galactic will cost $250,000 (£149,500). The price is likely to come down as the technology improves (and, more importantly, it’s proven to work) – much as it did with the earliest commercial aircraft. Reports in November 2013 suggested Wales could be shortlisted for a “spaceport”, and if we established ourselves as home to “Europe’s Cape Canaveral”, then other spin-offs listed above might follow.

Recycling“Space Junk” – A growing problem, it’s estimated there are around 300,000 pieces orbiting Earth. Some will have broken off equipment. Others could be as large as defunct/stray satellites or space stations. These all pose a risk to operating equipment like telecommunications satellites, scientific equipment and manned spacecraft. Some of the options to deal with this are pretty cheap, ranging from land-based lasers to orbiting collection pods to collect the junk. If they could be captured and brought to re-entry though, then parts could be recycled, and could become a lucrative industry.

Space Mining – Now, this is one for the long haul. Could the Welsh – long associated with mining – take it to the stars? Asteroids contain rare elements that are absolutely essential to modern industry, but are running short on Earth. At the moment, the costs of mining an asteroid are likely to run into hundreds of billions of dollars and are incredibly high risk ventures. So the technology will need to be developed for prospecting, mining itself, processing the material and delivering it back to the surface.

At the moment, Planetary Resources are the only company taking this seriously, but they’re starting to develop said technology and are backed by billionaire investors like Google’s Eric Schmidt, Larry Page and K. Ram Shiram and others like James Cameron, Richard Branson and Ross Perot.

So although, for now, things like asteroid mining are impractical, it won’t be for much longer.

If Wales – or Wales in partnership with other countries – could take a lead in those sorts of things, well….put it this way….a single mined asteroid, full of elements like gold, platinum, tungsten and palladium, would probably generate enough income to fund Welsh public spending at current levels for 500 years – not taking into consideration the deflationary effect asteroid mining would have on prices of rare elements and what that would do to the global economy and even the capitalist system itself.

“Closer” to home, helium-3 – an important element in fusion power – is relatively abundant on the Moon, and worth about $3billion a tonne. Although fusion power is in its earliest stages of development, it’s said 100 tonnes of helium-3 could provide clean energy to Earth for a year, and the Moon has enough helium-3 to power Earth for 10,000 years.

That’s before mentioning how valuable such technologies and expertise would be in defending Earth from an asteroid strike.

Aiming Higher

If – at some point in the future – Wales does develop a space policy, we’re going to need more scientists and engineers coming through schools. You can do that through the curriculum, or you can also do it via extra-curricular activities like competition for amateur rockets, astronomy or space engineering solutions in schools and colleges – like this recent example.

I’ve since covered the make up of any Welsh Defence Forces, though I’m unlikely to return to it. Although the European Space Agency doesn’t currently have its own manned spaceflight programme, it does have an astronaut corps, and runs joint projects with NASA.

I don’t think it would be too outragous that “the best of the best” from Welsh military or academia – who have the potential (physically and mentally) – be put forward as candidates for astronaut training. It’ll only be one or two people a decade, but why not?

As I’ve hopefully demonstrated, the opportunities independence could bring aren’t confined to material concerns. The sky isn’t the limit.