A new blogpost 'To Travel Without Limits' was published today:

TO TRAVEL WITHOUT LIMITS!

Throughout history human progress has been tightly linked to increased mobility. The isolation imposed by the limited endurance of human legs was broken by enlisting the help of donkey, mule and horse, and as a result tribe could reach out to tribes farther away. The invention of the wheel permitted increased movement of goods and led to the convenience of the cart and ultimately the coach. And the stagecoach allowed, as the name implies, journeys to be organized in stages and thus enabled greater reach. Cars followed. Ships made it possible to traverse lakes, bays and ultimately oceans. New technologies made this faster and faster, yet ultimately ships were seen as snails compared to planes, jet planes and the iconic manifestation of supersonic speed, the Concorde.

In our time we also see progress in mobility. The advent of the artificial exoskeleton will be lessening the hardship of the stricken, self-driving cars will rationalize road traffic and make individualized transportation much more comfortable, and we have broken gravity’s spell by moving into space with greater and greater ease. On 21 December Elon Musk and SpaceX managed to launch a payload into space whilst bringing back the spent first stage of the rocket and land it vertically. This followed a similar feat of Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin a month ago, albeit without the launch of a payload and therefore slightly less complicated. Yet, fact is that both the achievement of Elon Musk and of Jeff Bezos are paradigm-breaking successes. An era of re-useable launchers is upon us, and the economics of space will be radically changed. How radically nobody knows, but very significantly, without a doubt. Competitors will now scramble to catch up and the effect of the new paradigm will be the increased and even more varied use of space. This we must welcome.

Bezos and Musk are men of big dreams! They do not only want to change the economics of space fundamentally, they invest in space transportation because they ultimately want to make it possible to colonize Mars. Yet, the ultimate prize cannot be that. The ultimate prize must be that their generation makes possible travel without limits and at greatest speed. The epitome of mobility is ultra-fast, easy and safe travel to the destination of your choice, be it on Earth or in the heavens!

Bezos and Musk concentrate on space flight, and this is obviously very respectable. But point-to-point travel to destinations on Earth at hypersonic speeds, and possibly even through space, should not be forgotten, and Messrs. Bezos and Musk may have a critical contribution to make there as well. Same ground-breaking technologies could be involved in both undertakings.

The dream of ultra-fast flight for terrestrial purposes is not new, of course. Already in the 1920s Herman Potocnik Noordung, an unsung genius, imagined an aerospace plane able to go from Berlin to Tokyo in less than one morning, even making prescriptions for how such hypersonic/space travel could be achieved. Not unreasonably, preoccupation with jet propulsion, Apollo and the space shuttle put ultrafast point-to-point flight on the backburner for a long time, but in 1986 Ronald Reagan revived the idea in the State-of-the-Union address, where he conjured up images of the hypersonic/space plane as a modern-day Orient Express. After ten years of half-hearted effort this came to nothing, however, partly because it could not be agreed whether the dream was indeed increasing the speed of terrestrial travel or easing the access to space. But, of course, it should have been both. It should have been both because both dreams require the same technology breakthroughs.

During the same period one focus of radical innovation in Europe was single-stage-to-orbit vehicles, and although the related project was ultimately discontinued an offspring lives and prospers today. The Skylon project recently attracted a 50 million Pounds grant from the UK government and shows a lot of promise, ultimately perhaps not only as a safer and cheaper way to get to space, but even as a precursor to finally being able to hit the beaches of Australia in less than two hours when New York weather would so invite.

The dream of limitless and ultrafast travel to whatever destination you may desire is unlikely to be realized by entrepreneurs alone. Yes, Skylon and space tourism pioneers like Richard Branson may show the way. And yes, Bezos and Musk are changing the economics of space flight. But all this does not mean that an ambition of limitless and ultrafast travel can materialize without a heavy dose of involvement and funding by governments! The International Space Station has cost the five partner governments more than 100 billion dollars over the lifetime, and creating the technologies allowing to go effortlessly to space or to the Australian beach might cost even more. Yet, this should not deter us. A society is only as big as its dreams, and stopping the big dreams spell long-term disaster. Europe, India, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the US have taken a Euro 15 billion gamble on ITER and fusion energy and showed courage in embarking on such a high-risk project. The technologically most advanced countries must continue to show such daring, if for no other reason than this being a probate way to justify continued leadership and privilege!

For many decades now, the mobility of humankind to space has been limited by the immense cost of rocketry and the mobility on Earth limited by the limits of the jet engine. It is time for humans to free themselves of these constraints and realise the dream of being able to go wherever they want easily, safely and ultrafast! Let aerospace planes be one of the legacies we bestow on future generations!

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