By Mick O'Hare
WE TRY never to be naive. We know that ideology, not technology, dictates trends in space travel. In 1961, New Scientist was actually calling for a halt to the moon race, driven as it was by cold war rivalry. Nobody at that point knew how to reach the finish line, but both the Soviet Union and the US had launched satellites, and Yuri Gagarin had orbited Earth. In our 8 June issue, we lamented that the superpowers were squandering resources better spent on earthbound problems. With imperious aplomb, our US correspondent wrote, “I trust it is not too much to expect the British people to act, as they have in other instances in the past, as a brake on an over-impetuous Moon race that could easily become a losing bet for free men everywhere.” One suspects that the leaders of the US and USSR were little troubled by the Brits’ delusions of superiority.
The cold war was still raging in 1972, but by now Europe was starting to flex its limited political muscle in space too. Our 22 June issue announced that the forerunner of the European Space Agency had been invited to play a role in the US space shuttle programme. Jokes abounded about Britain providing the astronauts’ teabags, but once again New Scientist was more preoccupied with bang for bucks. Instead of hitching our horses to the US space wagon, we suggested spending the money on “new commercial transport projects such as the [vertical take-off] airliner”. As we now know, the shuttle flew, the airliner did not.
By 1997, the Berlin Wall had fallen and the world was starting to rely on private enterprise to fulfil its spacefaring ambitions. Numerous companies were working on engines to power a spacecraft to Mars, though most of the planned ships could only carry enough fuel for a one-way journey. Our 29 June edition suggested using a chemical reactor on Mars to make fuel from hydrogen and carbon dioxide. That some of the raw materials for the reactor are already available on the Red Planet certainly gladdened the heart of thrifty New Scientist.