Next year it will be 60 years since people first witnessed the majesty of a satellite being launched into orbit: Sputnik 1, hurled into the night sky in Kazakhstan early on October 5th 1957. ... Just 15 years separated the launch of the first satellite and the return of the last man from the moon, years in which anything seemed possible. But having won the space race, America saw no benefit in carrying on. Instead it developed a space shuttle meant to make getting to orbit cheap, reliable and routine. More than 100 shuttle flights between 1981 to 2011 went some way to realising the last of those goals, despite two terrible accidents. The first two were never met. Getting into space remained a risky and hideously expensive proposition, taken up only by governments and communications companies, each for their own reasons. ... New rockets, though, are not the only exciting development. The expense of getting into space during the 1980s and 1990s led some manufacturers to start shrinking the satellites used for some sorts of mission, creating “smallsats”. Since then the amount a given size of satellite can do has been boosted by developments in computing and electronics. This has opened up both new ways of doing old jobs and completely novel opportunities. ... No single technology ties together this splendid gaggle of ambitions. But there is a common technological approach that goes a long way to explaining it; that of Silicon Valley. Even if for now most of the money being spent in space remains with old government programmes and incumbent telecom providers, space travel is moving from the world of government procurement and aerospace engineering giants to the world of venture-capital-funded startups and business plans that rely on ever cheaper services provided to ever more customers.
For every flight departing Dubai, as cabin crew head to their airplanes, the last room they traverse is a hall with mirrors on one side and windows to the tarmac on the other. The space allows workers to inspect themselves for perfection against a backdrop of government-owned taxiways thick with Emirates jets. That’s the airline, in one image: glamour and ambition in a framework of absolute control. ... Out in the desert, a half-hour drive from the coast’s skyscrapers and malls, the government is building a $32 billion, five-runway megahub precisely to Emirates’ specifications. Its ambitions are consonant with its name: Dubai World Central. The project will have a capacity of 220 million passengers per year, four times the number that New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport serves today. ... the airline is at risk if those emerging markets don’t, in fact, emerge. Emirates in May reported its first-ever annual revenue decline and is cutting some of its plans for growth amid slackening demand from sub-Saharan Africa, Turkey, and Brazil. The slump has industry analysts wondering how Emirates will fill the staggering number of planes it has on order. ... From a fuel and flight-time perspective, the Persian Gulf is the most efficient place on the planet to connect Europe with Southeast Asia and Australia, and the U.S. with India. Strikes and protests aren't an issue—unions are banned, and rights to free speech and assembly are severely limited.