Prince William is wrong – the salvation of mankind is in the stars


IN five days the COP caravan will arrive in Glasgow. Anxiety is high. Will this galaxy of bigwigs come with big enough commitments to save the planet? Bars and panel rooms will be buzzing with rhetoric about hydrogen, heat pumps and hybrid vehicles. The whole panoply of necessary and down-to-earth solutions.

There is a good chance that we are talking less about the contribution that the sky can make to the fight against the climate emergency. In the words of Prince William: “We need some of the greatest brains and minds in the world to be determined to try to fix this planet, not to try to find the next place to go to live.”

The prince’s idealism and commitment are beyond reproach. Nonetheless, his comments are surprising. They seem to betray a lack of curiosity and a poverty of ambition. Who knows what secrets the universe could deliver to us to help us better understand and manage our own planet? One wonders what William’s great-great-great-grandfather, Prince Albert – the first royal patron of science and technical innovation – would have done with him.

The journey of scientific discovery is fueled by an insatiable appetite for more. And the progress of civilization is an unbroken story of how, by seeking answers to one problem, solutions to others are found.

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When President Kennedy decided in 1962 to send a man to the moon, many questioned his priorities. His response was, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are difficult; because this objective will be used to organize and measure the best of our energies and our skills ”.

He was right. By testing our engineering capabilities in the harshest environments and pushing the limits of technological possibilities, we are in a better position to meet the toughest challenges here on Earth. There is a myriad of innovations, which owe something to humanity’s investment in space. Would today’s solar panels, for example, be as efficient and viable without NASA, which needed them to provide vital energy and support to their spacecraft?

Elon Musk may be on a mission to create a permanent, habitable base on Mars. Yet in the process, its SpaceX became the first private company to perfect reusable launchers, helping to transform the economics of placing satellites and other payloads in space.

Thus, support for the fight against the climate emergency or investments in space should not be considered as alternatives. Investing in space is essential to protect life on Earth. And just as we praise today the pioneers of the Industrial Revolution, which raised the standard of living for millions of people, we must also recognize the value of today’s space revolutionaries.

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One of them is Will Whitehorn. A Scotsman, whose grandfather patented the first gasoline-powered electric car in the 1920s. Whitehorn was the man who persuaded Richard Branson to invest in rail and space. He was chairman of Clyde Space, a successful Scottish space company. He is also the current president of UK Space. And he runs the world’s first listed company created specifically to invest in space technology companies. If he had been alive 200 years ago, he would have stood by Stephenson’s side on the Rocket’s platform or raised money for Darwin’s journey on the Beagle. A polymathic assembly of points. A promoter of evangelical fervor.

He is also the new chancellor of Edinburgh Napier University. He used his inaugural conference to warn that even if all of the COP26 commitments materialize, they may still be insufficient to allow Earth to support a world population well in excess of 11 billion by the end of the century. He urged policy makers to think outside the box – and to think outside of the earth’s atmosphere.

Yes, he has a vested interest; he is also right. More efficient Earth observation and GPS, thanks to advances in satellite technology, have already made a significant contribution to sustainable development. More accurate weather forecasting, helping to improve crop yields. Better tracking of food shipments, reducing the number of perishable goods delayed or damaged in transit. Whitehorn believes such contributions are just the tip of the melting iceberg.

The digital economy, fueled by power-hungry data centers, is now responsible for over 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions and is growing rapidly. Surpass the negative impact of all pre-Covid air travel. Why couldn’t these data centers be put into space, he asks. Solar energy available 24 hours a day. No cloud interferes with efficiency. A readily available cooling system – the freezing temperatures of space.

And he sees a future where technology – 3D printing, robotics, AI – will make it possible to manufacture products in space, including pharmaceuticals. Or harness solar energy in space to provide a more abundant and efficient source of renewable energy on Earth. All relieving climate pressure.

He is not afraid of difficulties. Putting more in space means more debris. He sees this as an opportunity, rather than an obstacle, creating the need for new companies that are experts in debris clearance. They already exist and people are investing in their development. And of course, the more we rely on systems in space, the more we need to be able to ensure their security. A British Space Command is not science fiction; it’s happening right now.

Whitehorn believes the UK can be a world leader in space, with Scotland at the forefront. Something the British and Scottish governments agree on.

Scottish universities are at the forefront of space technology. Glasgow manufactures more satellites than anywhere else in Europe. Edinburgh is home to Skyrora, Scotland’s own rocket maker. And the Saxa Vord spaceport on Unst in the Shetlands is in the running to win the race to host the UK’s first-ever vertical space launch next year.

As President Kennedy might have said – don’t ask what we do in space, ask yourself what space can do for Earth.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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