When the first "solar sail" vehicle, Cosmos 1, was lost in space last June, it looked like the ship–which uses pressure from sunlight to ply outer space–had joined a long line of cosmic-sized failures. But Cosmos 1 represented a more enlightened way to test far-out theories. The effort was funded not by taxes but by the Planetary Society, a private, California-based space advocacy organization.
Another business-backed group has a 2010 target date for an operational "space elevator." Once merely a plot device in Arthur C. Clarke novels, the idea of a 22,300-mile-long cable car running from the earth's surface into space is now a testable proposition. Should it work, the cost of getting stuff into orbit would plummet.
And last year, space entrepreneur Burt Rutan snagged the $10 million Ansari X Prize for sending his SpaceShip One 100 kilometers above the earth. His ultimate goal is routine space tourism.
Taken together, these efforts suggest a swing back toward individuals and small private entities tackling difficult scientific problems. While governments have long been at the forefront of space exploration, cheap computing power has brought complex design and engineering tasks within reach of small teams of problem solvers.
The government-directed, Manhattan Project?style program diverges from the historic pattern of technological breakthroughs. The bureaucracy-heavy approach is a sad contrast with legions of tinkerers and do-it-yourselfers, each nimble enough to strike out in new directions when faced with inevitable but temporary setbacks. In that spirit, the Planetary Society vows to give solar sailing a second try.