I heard an interesting story once about the space race.
In the 1960s both Russia and the US realised that ordinary pens would not work in space.
As their astronauts needed the ability to write, this was a big problem.
The US set to work. Over the course of a five years it spent $18 million developing a “space pen”.
The pen was brilliant.
It could write in zero gravity. It could write upside down. It could even write underwater. It worked in temperatures as low as -45°C and as high as 205°C.
So, what did the Russians do?
They used a pencil.
The story is not true. Most people now know it’s not true. But what they don’t know is it’s based on true events.
Because although NASA didn’t spend $18 million developing a space pen, it did spend tens of thousands of dollars on mechanical pencils.
From Scientific American:
Originally, NASA astronauts, like the Soviet cosmonauts, used pencils, according to NASA historians. In fact, NASA ordered 34 mechanical pencils from Houston’s Tycam Engineering Manufacturing, Inc., in 1965. They paid $4,382.50 or $128.89 per pencil. When these prices became public, there was an outcry and NASA scrambled to find something cheaper for the astronauts to use.
In 2018 money that works out as just over $1,000 per pencil. You can see why people were unhappy.
The space pen was actually developed by Paul Fisher, at a personal cost of $1 million. Or around $8 million in 2018 money.
Fisher was not paid to develop his pen, but his pen was eventually used by US and Russian astronauts alike.
His pens cost the space programmes a discounted, and much more reasonable, $19 each in 2018 money.
The modern-day space race
The space race is now over.
Who won? Well that depends on where you put the finish line.
The Russians were the first to launch a craft into space. They were also the first to launch a human into space. And a dog, too.
But the US was the first to put a man on the moon.
Now, after decades away from the limelight, space travel and space exploration is capturing people’s imaginations once again.
But in what you could argue is a reflection of our individualistic society, it’s not countries that are igniting the race, but billionaire individuals.
The next space race is between Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk.
Each one of them has stated that they see space exploration as the most important work they are doing. They all seem to see it as their life’s work and their legacy.
And in the last few months both Branson and Musk have given preliminary dates for their first manned spaceflights.
“Before the end of the year I hope to be sitting in a Virgin Galactic spaceship, going to space,” said Branson at the end of May.
And a few weeks later Musk announced – on Twitter, of course – that he’ll be ready to go by April:
Meanwhile Bezos’ Blue Origin has this week been given $13 million from NASA to aid in its Blue Moon lunar lander programme.
Even if that one doesn’t succeed. No one can deny it’s got a great name.
Why the sudden interest in space?
It has been around half a century since the first space race. And it’s fair to say that since then, society’s interest in space exploration has waned.
Sure, people got a bit excited about the Hubble Telescope and the International Space Station. But there is nothing like the worldwide awe we had in the 1950s and 1960s.
However, it does feel like all that is beginning to change. And I suppose the question is why?
Perhaps it’s a little bit of history repeating. After decades of peace, political tensions are again running high. And not only that, but people are more and more concerned about climate change.
Maybe these events have made people look ahead to the future and realise that on a long enough timeline, humanity’s only hope lies in space exploration.
No matter how well we take care of the planet, one day the sun will eat it anyway. If humans haven’t colonised space by then, we’re goners.
There’s a kind of depressing statement I’ve seen stated about the generations of people alive today:
“Born too late to explore the world, and too early to explore the universe.”
I don’t really believe it because you can still explore the world if you choose to. But it’s true you won’t be doing it like a real explorer. You’ll always be following in someone else’s footsteps.
The question is, how long will it be before we really begin to explore the universe?
Until next time,
Editor, Exponential Investor