If Gerhard Zucker was alive today, he'd be delighted — it's amateur hour in space and that's no bad thing. Firstly, the Federal Aviation Authority in the US has said that it'll accept as astronauts qualified airline pilots with whatever training a company deems necessary. For those of us brought up on the Right Stuff legends of years of intensive, cutting-edge training for the most exceptional individuals a country could find, that seems startling. Can any old Nigel really put down the Daily Telegraph crossword, strap on a fishbowl helmet and boldy go? If there's no beer in space, would he want to?
The truth is, by the time the passenger spacecraft are built a bus driver could sit up front and press buttons. The NASA image of homo superior was to large extent a Cold War myth, something the astronauts themselves acknowledged when trained monkeys went up before them. That’s not to decry their bravery in general or the exemplary skills many showed during crises or during the lunar exploration, but when the job involves sitting tight and looking out of windows – how hard is that? Still, I imagine the competition among the Virgin pilots is going to be pretty intense.
Meanwhile, a group of radio amateurs have set a new long-distance reception record by picking up the signal from Voyager 1. This space probe is the most distant manmade object in existence and is scooting towards the void around nine billion miles away, or roughly a hundred times the distance of the Earth to the Sun.
For those who care about such things, this is roughly equivalent to someone knocking up a supersonic jet fighter in their garage: NASA uses the Deep Space Network of giant radio dishes to keep in contact with its fleet of spacecraft, many of which are unimaginably underpowered. The Voyagers have thermonuclear generators which are close to the end of their lives, and the transmitters are consequently running at around 15W — only about 30 times stronger than a mobile phone.
This is the same group of commendably bonkers amateurs who are also planning to send their own orbiting spacecraft to Mars sometime after 2009 — the Voyager reception is part of the preparations for that. The Mars mission will be directly receivable by anyone with a two or three metre dish and some fairly simple electronics, so if you fancy doing your own interplanetary science then this is your chance. And if Branson's got any pocket change left over after the NTL deal, he could do worse than send a bit of sponsorship their way. After all, someone's got to supply the connectivity to near-earth orbit.