TAKING FLIGHT: THE CARIBBEAN AND SPACE EXPLORATION
Since the beginning the stars have always been a source of inspiration and ambition to us. The past century saw humans begin to claim a place among them, with the moonwalk of the Apollo crew on July 20 1969 not only an achievement in history, but a declaration of intent for the future.
Now in 2018 there is a new era and new momentum for humans to once again venture boldly into space. It’s often little-known the role the Caribbean has played in the work of space science. So, just as it has before, what role could the region play now in this new era?
LOOKING BACK AT LIFT OFF
Alongside the achievement of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the fact it came almost 66 years after the Wright Brothers first achieved human flight on a cold North Carolina beach in 1903 is testament to the speed of human progress, but also to the reality of geopolitics. This helps explain why we are where we are today in space research, and also why we have not progressed further.
Following World War II the race began between the USA and the
USSR to become the unquestioned leader in space technology, and be the first to land on the moon. This competition drove progress between the two nations and their allies. Even though the USSR ultimately never landed on the moon, the post-Cold War world has seen Russian tech power launches of the Atlas V in the US, and astronauts delivered to the International Space Station (ISS) with a Soyuz fleet of rockets.
Post-Apollo 11, the USSR soon scrapped its moon landing plans and, with no other human landings having been attempted beyond the moon since, there’s been a strong perception in the minds of many that space progress has stalled.
While this is a misconception - the perpetual orbit of the ISS launched in 1998 alone shows the tremendous progress that has been made since the Apollo missions finished their launches in December 1972 - it is also a reality that popular support for space programmes among taxpayers will always be linked to delivering ‘wow’ results.
The landing of the first Mars rover on the Red Planet in 1997, and the 2012 announcement that the Voyager 1 satellite had exited our solar system and travelled into interstellar space the first known human-made object to do so - have served as blockbuster pieces of news that can instantly inspire and engage all people.
The more gradual and incidental progress, such as the 2017 discovery of micro bacteria on the side of the ISS that could be alien in origin, while certainly valuable to space research overall, less readily captures hearts and minds.
THE CARIBBEAN CONTRIBUTION
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s moonwalk fairly won acclaim for their American nation. Just the same, the moon landing was one that saw many nations contribute. Beyond the splashdowns of John Glenn and Michael Carpenter off Grand Turk, the US and Canada’s High Altitude Research Project (HARP) in Barbados - that aspired to shoot satellites into space via a modern-day, cannon-like structure - was another flirtation of the region with a direct link to outer space.
In more time recent times, notable luminaries of space science, like Trinidadian spacecraft engineer Camille Wardrop - just three years old when the moon landing occurred - show on an individual level the contribution the people of the Caribbean can make in this field.
This alongside the growth of private space companies like Elon Musk’s Spacex that is boldly aiming for a Mars landing by 2022, and a human mission just a few years after that, and Amazon tycoon Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin venture, that seeks to redefine space tourism, just as Amazon has done eCommerce.
These new ventures don’t replace or overlook the pioneering work done of public agencies. Though recent turbulence has seen Caracas rightfully focus on Venezuela’s domestic problems here on Earth over opportunities in space, since its establishment in 2005, the Bolivarian Agency for Space Activities has been a leading institute for space research in Latin America.
Instead, at core, Spacex and its competitors show new opportunity. With the growth of private companies like
Virgin Galactic - and their decision to launch future space tourism flights from Italy - Caribbean nations could look upon this chapter of space exploration as an opportunity to build commercial links that
offer mutual benefit to private business, and local communities keen to grow jobs in this emerging sector.
SUNSHINE AND SPACEFLIGHTS
Alongside other emerging tech that could find a ‘natural home’ in the Caribbean - like green energy cars that could utilise the sunshine of Aruba for testing, or new blockchain initiatives that have the potential to find a sizeable local audience in the financial and tourism industries - there is nonetheless the reality that building a new Caribbean space hub would ideally have at its foundation a stronger Caribbean tech hub than exists right now.
There have been fantastic inroads made in this area, over many years and in more recent times, so this reality is no derision on the present industry or the future possibilities locally, just a recognition that there remains a distance between the milestones passed and the one that lies ahead to really incentivise more space research and commerce.
Yet, contribution to a new era of space tech does not necessarily demand local launches or the in-person presence it once did. While the ‘Big Six’ of space agencies in the world - USA, Japan, India, Europe, Russia, and the People’s Republic of China - have launched rockets, other nations have been leading contributors to the collective effort of human beings (beyond national rivalries) to progress space tech.
If there is a core takeaway from the rise of private space business in recent years, it’s that the old way of thinking - that certain nations and certain agencies can lead here - is now void.
Just as our ambitions for space have grown, so too has our world become smaller, thanks to modern communications and globalisation. This signals promise for the Caribbean.
GOING UP AND UNDER
It’s not only looking upwards to the skies that could see this new era of space programmes bring benefits to the region.
There is the possibility for advances in space tech to bring real results here on the ground, and beneath the sea.
While humans have been taking to the seas for thousands of years, in 2018 over 80 per cent of our ocean remains unexplored. For our region, not only its natural features but its history of sea-voyaging mean many of the world’s estimated three million shipwrecks lie within Caribbean waters.
Before his death in 2004, former NASA astronaut turned diver Gordon
Cooper made maps of Caribbean waters while he was in space, recording anomalies that he held to be shipwrecks. The map has already borne fruit, with a shipwreck discovered off the Bahamas in June of this year.
In the stars, sands and seas, there is every reason for the Caribbean to look forward to this new era of space exploration.
Barbados—Project HARP Space Gun. Designed by Canadian ballistics engineer Gerald Bull (assassinated in 1990 in Belgium while working on a space gun for the Iraqi government). At its apex, the gun was able to fire an object a staggering 112 miles into the sky, setting the 1963 world record for gun-launched altitude at 93 KM
Located roughly ten minutes from Grantley Adams International Airport, the longer cannon is still easily visible to visitors