Throughout history, innovation has been driven by competition. One of the greatest examples of this is the Moon landings—arguably the most significant achievement of modern mankind, which would see 12 humans walk on the surface of our nearest celestial neighbour between 1969 and 1972.
While it is not in question that we as a species have always yearned to explore the unknown and to push forward into space, it was the backdrop of the Cold War that enabled this game-changing achievement.
At the time, both the USA and the Soviet Union were competing to showcase that their ideology was the best. They wanted to show that they could do a big thing well, and that ‘big thing’ was space. That competition, underlined by the very real threat of all-out war, led to a surge in technology and innovation back on Earth.
Today we live in the Space Age—a world defined by our first foray with the stars and the legacy of the Space Race of the 1960s. While we may not have hotels on the Moon or flying cars just yet, we live in a world transformed by space, from direct applications such as satellites and spin-offs that are helping to improve life on Earth, to the many innovations in technology that have come from those inspired by the Space Race.
Then there is the simple fact that no person under the age of 17 has lived in a time when humans haven’t been continuously living and working in space (on board the International Space Station). The world of today is a world of science fiction to that of the 1960s. While we may not have returned to the Moon just yet, in the words of the late, great Gene Cernan (who at the time of his death in January 2017, still held the title of ‘Last Man on the Moon’): “we will return, it is our destiny, but perhaps we just got the timing wrong”.
When it comes to pushing the boundaries of innovation, technology and exploration, to paraphrase the evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane, ‘the universe is not only as strange as you can imagine, it is stranger than you can imagine.’
Today, in space, there is a new competition, one that is driven not only by a growing number of nations, such as China and India, who are competing for national prestige, but also by a private race between many commercial companies (most of which you would have likely never heard of). They are all hoping to change the way we reach for the stars while at the same time turning a profit, which will in turn help to drive forward innovation.
To make a comparison with earlier US history, the Apollo Moon landings can be thought of as the ‘Columbus Moment’ for space, while this new Space Race is the ‘Mayflower Moment’. Space has the potential to be a multi-trillion-dollar industry. From mining asteroids and the Moon for a range of materials to use for applications such as in rocket fuel, to moving manufacturing to low Earth orbit, helping to protect our planet. There are new, lower cost ways of launching to space being developed, which will open up low Earth orbit to many more companies and ideas to benefit us on Earth.
Then there is private tourism, which will mean that more of us will get to experience space travel, while new Earth observations satellites probing our planet will provide us with a gold mine of data and information. Later this century, humans may be walking on the surface of the Moon and the planet Mars. The list goes on. I am excited for the possibilities to come. And it is all down to competition driving this forward.
Where we are with space travel now is comparable to where we were with aviation 100 years ago. And it was competition which drove forward innovation in flight. In 1927, when Charles Lindbergh became the first person to successfully fly across the Atlantic, his incentive was competition. The Orteig Prize— a cash reward of $25,000—was offered by the wealthy hotel owner Raymond Orteig to the first person to fly non-stop from New York to Paris. This is a transatlantic trip that many of us take for granted today, but it was impossible prior to 1927.
It is a similar prize incentive that we see today in space. The Ansari X Prize was a space competition with a reward of $10 million for the first private manned spacecraft to fly into space twice within two weeks. It was won in 2004 by a company called Scaled Composites, whose spacecraft would later form the foundations for Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. And today there is a new private incentive for companies to send unmanned craft to the surface of the Moon. One day, in the future, these things will be taken for granted.
And then we come to materials, a topic that may not on the surface seem that exciting, but which has transformed the world. Graphene, for example, is something that has always held my fascination. Nearly 13 years on from when it was first isolated, graphene has massive potential to change materials, which will in turn change an enable the development of innovative technology that will transform the world of tomorrow.
The possibilities from new materials are endless, from space exploration, to aviation, medical applications and the environment, making Earth a better place for the next generation. Once again, the need for competition and business is crucial for enabling this.
Of course, there will always be questions over why we continue to push boundaries. But stasis is not good for our species; for some it is even thought to be dangerous. Pushing boundaries defines who we are. Humans are built to explore, to go over that hill. I am optimistic for tomorrow and the untold possibilities that competition will drive forward in innovation, exploration and wonderment.
Credit: Apollo 10 is on loan from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC.| © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum, London