IAC 2017: Reminiscing the future

Mankind as a species is lagging far behind the futuristic lifestyle dreamt up in Stanley Kubrick’s magnum opus 2001: A Space Odyssey. Elon Musk – A.K.A. the Tony Stark of our times – echoed this sentiment when he spoke, a few days ago, at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide. ‘It's 2017,’ he said, ‘we should have a lunar base by now.’

(Be warned: some unintentionally foul language follows.)

It is great that Australia now plans to have its own space research organisation. It is not all that exciting that the new agency is not called ARSE. For jest some of us wished it would be named as such. The humorous news went so far that some people were, apparently, under the impression that the Australians had called it ARSE after all; a website too was set up to sell ARSE merchandise; and someone on Twitter went through the trouble of creating a logo rivalling NASA’s. For what it’s worth the agency will likely be simply called Australian Space Agency – to be frank, I have no idea myself. All said and done, though, there is no denying the whole ARSE joke did a lot more to popularise Australia’s latest efforts than any publicity their government itself worked on.

In other news, as if all the jokes and unfortunate tweets on the new space agency were not enough, Elon Musk’s afternoon session involved another big cuss word. Unlike ARSE, though, it seems like this one is here to stay, much to the chagrin of anyone anywhere trying to explain anything about our future plans to settle on Mars. The centre piece of Mr Musk’s talk was a large, do-it-all, reusable rocket called the BFR, which, according to some stands for ‘Big Falcon Rocket’ while according to others it stands for ‘Big F***ing Rocket’.

Whatever BFR really is I still think it is unfortunate given all the interesting things we could have named it. Of course this will not be of concern if, over this year and the next, BFR goes the way of the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) that the SpaceX CEO unveiled at last year’s IAC. However it is highly likely that ‘BFR’ is only a codename at this stage.

Looking past its naming, the capabilities of this proposed rocket are impressive: besides interplanetary travel, the BFR is also going to enable intraplanetary travel, taking passengers across any two points on Earth within one hour. How good the market for this is remains to be seen but I hope it takes off. Even if you tack on a couple of hours before boarding and an hour after landing going from Asia to America in four hours is still a great thought. In a decade or two we will likely be talking this way about traveling to Mars – or, at least, to the moon.

Speaking of the moon, SpaceX plans to set-up a base there to help travel to the red planet. Moon Base Alpha will prove to be useful in more ways than one, becoming the ideal space lab for physicists. I look forward to it. The BFR is probably going to be made capable enough to reach the moon and get back to earth (and then some) without any refuelling required at the halfway point on Luna.

In 2024, hopping all goes as planned, four BFRs are scheduled to head to Mars. Two of them will carry human crew onboard and two will haul cargo. It is about time we set up a base on Mars. 2024 is ideal because, around then, Earth and Mars will be at their closest separation in recent times. It will happen in 2022 as well but its is not likely that the BFR will have been tested and be trusted enough to send humans to Mars by then.

Zarkov’s Rocket Ship, based on the ‘Flash Gordon’ comics, rendered by Niall Pearce.

Somewhat ironically all this futuristic news took me back to the past, to a certain comic series that I grew up reading: Flash Gordon. Having spent my childhood summers reading issue after issue of Flash Gordon[^ I used to re-read them the following year besides trying to pick up new ones. I still carry digital editions around on my iPad today, silly me.] there are two things I would like to see realised in the coming years: the first is, of course, a Flash Gordon film although I doubt Hollywood is interested in this anymore; and the second is that the BFR should be renamed ‘the Zarkov’ after Dr Hans Zarkov[^ Of course the Enterprise is a name I strongly back but Mr Musk undoubtedly already has that somewhere in his notes.], the resident rocket scientist in the Flash Gordon comics, who made a really great looking rocket known only as Zarkov’s Rocket Ship (see picture above).

Zarkov’s ship, besides its funny wheels, has a design better than any of today’s space shuttles; whether it is structurally feasible and aerodynamic is a different issue but it is undoubtedly extremely good looking[^ I think it is only fair to state, at this point, that I think the BFR looks great too. It has a different kind of look, leaning more towards the simplicity of Kubrik than the ornate intricacy of FG.].

The entire Flash Gordon comic series seems to be alien to the current generation – that is how the clock ticks – but if any comic deserves to be revived it is this. The interplanetary expeditions of Flash, accompanied by his belle Dale Arden and his kidnapper Dr Zarkov, that lead him to Mongo, the domain of Ming the merciless, lead him to friends like Prince Barin, a rare peaceful ruler in Mongo, the frigid and tropical kingdoms of Frigia and Tropica, the faster-than-light rockets in the Skorpii war, Vultan’s flying city and so much more.

The whole series was incredibly colourful, both in the literal sense and in terms of the imagination. In fact, done right, the space fighter Dak-Tula can be a formidable enemy in a hypothetical Flash Gordon film[^ Naturally they will have to do away with some sexist language and make the stories more period-appropriate; there is a lot of the ‘damsel in distress’ angle in the old FG comics.]. That I am talking here of a comic strip older than Batman does a lot to make me feel old (I am yet to meet someone who used to read Flash Gordon in his childhood) but it also makes one thing clear: the internet has stolen many people’s imaginations and if we need the support of all of mankind to realise interplanetary colonisation – the only promising way forward for human survival – we need to get people more excited about space and few things spark our imaginations like flying dragons and tree people and rocket ships zooming from planet to planet. If there can only be one person who can grab people’s attention in this regard my money is on Flash Gordon.