It was the twentieth century's highest achievement — literally. When Neil Armstrong stepped out from Eagle, the Space Race was officially over: while America and the world celebrated the achievements of Apollo, the Soviets brooded in secrecy over the smoking wreckage of its own N1 lunar rockets.
Just four years before, though, the spacesuit boot was on the other foot. The Soviets were first into space with Sputnik, first into manned orbit with Gagarin, first to spacewalk with Leonov, first to impact the Moon with Luna 2. To an America in fear of communism, this was a direct slap in the face — and a useful avatar for the nuclear war nobody dared have. Freedom and openness would triumph over secrecy and control, said Kennedy, and by heavens it did — with the help of a few billion dollars.
It is this legacy which Google has neatly appropriated in its deal with NASA, once again wrong-footing Microsoft like a teenage football prodigy hitting the net through the legs of an aging defender. The cold war parallels are unfair — they flatter Google and demonise Microsoft — but irresistible. And if Microsoft is prepared to play ball, they may get us to the stars yet.
Winning the space race was a Pyrrhic victory for manned space exploration; deprived of its immediate goal, the dream of Mars and beyond dissolved in bureaucracy and unfocussed projects. What it needs is a good injection of fear, uncertainty and doubt based on a powerful enemy with unknown motives. If Google has NASA, Microsoft can hook up with the Russians — or better yet, the Chinese.
Often overlooked, the Chinese have an ambitious and successful space programme already in place and recently became the third nation with manned orbital capability. It has a national ethos that nurtures business free of regulatory niggles or an antagonistic press. And of course, why bother offshoring a few divisions here and there if you can just offshore the entire company? In a world where bold moves count for double, they come no bolder than this.
Microsoft should stop messing about, up sticks and transplant its entire operation to Beijing to embark on close co-operation with the Chinese National Space Administration. The US Government is already severely worried about CNSA, fighting ferocious, behind-the-scenes battles to prevent technology sharing deals between it, India and the European Space Agency. This should push it over the edge and into proper commitment with Google-NASA for a Mars mission — one which MS-CNSA could not ignore.
It would be a grand, unorthodox and very bold move — and it's that or yet another round of bickering over open standards and lock-in. We beg Bill to go west, for the sake of all mankind.