IT TOOK less than one human lifespan, just 66 years, for humankind to go from our first powered flight to landing a man on the moon. But in the last decade we’ve given up on supersonic flight and grounded the space shuttle forever. There are no jetpacks zipping across the City skyline. Whatever happened to the future we were promised?
This is a real worry to some, who attribute our present economic malaise in part to stagnating innovation. Various explanations are offered. PayPal co-founder and early Facebook investor Peter Thiel thinks we spend too many of our productive years in universities. Economist Tyler Cowen suggests that we may have picked all the low-hanging fruit, making progress harder than in the early twentieth century.
Another possibility is that we thought innovation would benefit from state support, when this was like trying to make a hot air balloon fly higher by adding more sandbags.
Aviation began in a flurry of decentralised, private innovation – and it grew fast. Just 24 years after the Wright Brothers flew, Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic nonstop in the Spirit of St Louis in pursuit of a $25,000 prize offered by the hotelier Raymond Orteig. But Concorde was built in the 1970s as much as a political as an engineering project, trying to cement UK-French relations as we looked to join the Common Market. It ended up a commercial impossibility. Preserved by state subsidy, it was ultimately defeated by its lack of business sense.
Or look at Nasa, which in its early days managed to put a man on the moon in eight years from a near-standing start, but has since bloated and turned the great adventure of space into a high-spending bureaucratic morass, remembered for its catastrophes rather than its daring achievements.
How refreshing, then, to see the launch this week of a new company, Planetary Resources, co-founded by Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson, that seeks to “mine near-earth asteroids (NEA) for raw materials, ranging from water to precious metals”. Diamandis is the man behind the Ansari X Prize for private spaceflight, itself inspired by the Orteig Prize chased by Lindbergh. The X Prize was won after just eight years and provided the technological foundation for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, due to start commercial spaceflights in 2013.
The idea of off-planet mining may seem crazy, but Diamandis has proved what a dose of private sector initiative can achieve, faster and cheaper than any government work. The company’s press release states: “The promise of Planetary Resources is to apply commercial innovation to space exploration.” We need more of that mindset, and not just in outer space. If this project succeeds, it will open up new worlds of economic and human possibility, and if it fails, it will not leave taxpayers carrying the bill. Government was supposed to take care of this sort of thing for us, but it’s not a patch on individual enterprise. It’s time to take the future back.
Marc Sidwell is City A.M.’s business features editor.