When Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, he was apparently welcomed with a glass of masala chai by a pioneering Punjabi who had already set up a tea stall there. So goes an old joke. In regional variants, Malayalees, Gujaratis and other sub-nationalities which travel well and are appreciated for their industry stand in for the Punjabi. It is now revealed that like most long-running jokes, there’s a bit of truth here. On Monday, the Dutch planet colonisation project Mars One closed its astronaut selection programme and reported 2 lakh applications received. Ten percent of the applicants, 20,000 people, are Indians. In our eagerness to leave Earth behind, we are surpassed only by the Americans.
Meanwhile, last Thursday, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo successfully executed all mission phases, including feathered re-entry, in a test flight to the edge of space, 100 km above sea level. In 2014, only two years off schedule, it should be able to launch commercial sub-orbital flights. The two projects have different objectives but clearly, the long-awaited age of commercial space travel is upon us.
Virgin Galactic’s immediate project is zero-gravity tourism in flights taking off from and landing at Spaceport America, custom-built by the government of New Mexico. However, incredibly fast intercontinental travel will become routine when other ports open. Meanwhile, Mars One plans to establish a permanent human settlement on the planet within a decade. The list of 2 lakh applications will be pruned down to four lucky pioneers who will take the first flight out in 2022.
Such projects—there are several, including Blue Origin, promoted by Jeff Bezos—are usually celebrated as space tourism, a sunrise sector which indulges the rich, the famous and the intrepid with expensive rides yonder. However, when it reaches economies of scale, the industry could bring about disruptive economic, political and social change, affecting everyone. The last such event had happened during the age of exploration. The colonial era which it founded changed the map of the world and left almost no part of the human race untouched. Now, once more, mobility could prove to be reality-altering. The first effect would probably be an acceleration of globalisation.
In the 20th century, poor labour mobility was a drag on globalisation. Political issues like anti-immigrant sentiment were usually blamed but sheer distance was also a deterrent. Then, cheap air travel brought cities closer to each other and the Internet annihilated social distances altogether.