Space oddities and austerities

It's going to be a difficult Christmas for some of Nasa's scientists and engineers. While the space shuttle Discovery sits wretched and unlaunchable in its hangar, other aviation innovations are streaking ahead.

In December, researchers in the US said they had lifted semi-cylindrical plastic rods using a beam of light. As the laser beam hits the plastic, it exerts a force that, if you get the angles right, is exactly like aerodynamic lift.

As if flying through space on a laser beam weren't exciting enough, the US military's robot plane has taken itself into orbit and landed safely back on earth, paving the way for advanced deployment of such space hardware as spy satellites.

Then there was the success of the first privately funded rocket capable of carrying human beings on a return trip into space. The flawless round trip by Falcon 9 was brought to you by the wonders of scientific research - adequately funded and properly equipped scientific research, that is.

If you want to know what UK science - motto: "Doing more with less" - might look like from 2011, Discovery provides a useful illustration. This was supposed to be the last year of operation of the space shuttle fleet, but a hydrogen leak just before Discovery's scheduled November launch led to a further round of inspections. This uncovered damage to the foam insulation on the external fuel tank. Yet more inspections led engineers to discover potentially catastrophic cracks in the fuel tank itself. The next launch window - between 17 and 20 December - was abandoned. Discovery's final launch is now tentatively slated for February to give engineers time to find a solution. No one knows if this shuttle will fly again.

Nasa has been eking out the space shuttle programme's resources for a few years now and the attempt to wring every last drop of potential has led to ever more stuttering launches. The final mission of the whole fleet, to be flown by Endeavour, was meant to happen by the end of 2010. It is now slated for April.

Britain's scientists are about to learn how it feels to work on a tightly stretched programme. Their budget has been held flat, but that news isn't anything to celebrate - inflation will probably reduce its value in real terms by about 10 per cent by 2015, and cuts to university funding are likely to undermine much of its infrastructure.

The inspiring story of Apollo 13's near disaster in 1970 showed what scientists and engineers can do under pressure and with limited resources. UK scientists will certainly adapt and survive - some of them have already started to find jobs abroad, for example.

Perhaps one of these lucky few will have the right stuff to solve Discovery's problem and let it limp into orbit one last time. However, despite the best efforts of science, you may not get to ride across space on a laser beam until the age of austerity is behind us. l

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 20 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special