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Professor Brian Cox: Scotland could be at forefront of space tourism industry in 20 years

Professor Brian Cox
Professor Brian Cox

It used to be the stuff of science fiction; a realm where refulgent vessels such as the USS Enterprise flew off into distant galaxies and boldly went where no-one had gone before.

But now, according to Professor Brian Cox, the prospect of human inter-planetary travel has never been closer and we could see the advent of space tourism for ordinary Joes and Joannes as early as 2018.

When the bright-eyed Oldham-born boffin talked to the Press and Journal this week, he explained how the same qualities which helped Aberdeen become the oil capital of Europe could be utilised to transform the north of Scotland into a pivotal part of the space programme in the next 20 years.

Review: Professor Brian Cox puts universe in perspective at Aberdeen show

He said: “When you think about it, the parallels between what happened in the North Sea and what is going to happen in space are very similar.

“At the start, before the oil rigs were created, it must have seemed a daunting prospect to send men out there to find the oil, extract it from the sea bed, and bring it back to dry land.

“It needed a lot of vision, massive investment, a mixture of passion and pragmatism… It was something you couldn’t hope to achieve overnight and that was certainly the case.

“With space, it isn’t going offshore; it’s going up rather than down into the sea. But the analogy between the two is spot-on. And that’s why I think Aberdeen – and the rest of Scotland – could have a significant part to play in the future of space exploration.”

At 49, Brian is as far removed from the stereotypical image of a scientist – all test tubes, periodic-table language and monotone voices – as it would be possible to imagine.

That doesn’t diminish his passion for physics, but his innate affability and capacity for deconstructing gobbledygook makes it easy to understand how he flitted seamlessly from appearing on Top of the Pops as the keyboard player with D Ream – who had a No 1 hit with “Things Can Only Get Better – to hosting a series of successful TV programmes, including Why Does E=mc2, Wonders of the Universe and Stargazing Live.

While precious few academics could contemplate filling massive stadium arenas, Brian will be at the AECC tonight, as part of his ongoing UK tour, both thrilling the audience with a series of stunning images from the Hubble Telescope and Nasa, and spelling out his philosophy that life is there to be seized by the scruff of the neck.

In a world which is increasingly plagued by such phenomena as cyber attacks, including the recent global assault on thousands of businesses and the NHS in Britain, many people seem fearful of the influence of new technology.

But Brian isn’t among their number. On the contrary, he is a Starman with something of Captain Kirk in his make-up; a Micawberish individual who is genuinely convinced Mankind is on the brink of the next big chapter of history.

He added: “Things are moving forward at a terrific rate and the progress made by companies such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic is remarkable. It is no longer a question of whether we will go out into the universe in large numbers, but how quickly the process happens.

“It could be as early as next year. Or 2020. I definitely believe that, within the course of the next 20 years, the public will start being flown into Space with massive implications for us all.

“In the past, one of the difficulties was in getting spacecraft to go up there and come back in one piece. It was astronomically expensive. But now, SpaceX has managed to hook a rocket up to the [International] Space Station and that has changed things to a  dramatic extent.

“It is very exciting, but these companies aren’t just investing in space for benevolent reasons. There are so many different possibilities which are being opened up – from telecommunications to space tourism to creating new worlds – that it probably hasn’t registered with most.

“It is obviously going to be a huge challenge, but, as I said earlier, so was the development of the oil and gas industry in the North Sea if you go back 40 or 50 years.

“That is why I would imagine Scotland could play an important role on the global stage in the years ahead. It always has done – from the discoveries of [physicist] James Clerk Maxwell to Alexander Graham Bell and John Logie Baird.

“And now, we will need the creation of space ports and the expertise of building the vehicles which will take people into space, and science will be at the very heart of it.

“The north of Scotland has already shown interest in becoming a space port. You have airports, university centres of excellence and all the knowledge accumulated from developing the oil and gas industry.

“And Scots have always been explorers. Just think about families climbing on board a rocket and going to outer space on a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It is not sci-fi any more.”

A little matter of 13.8bn years after the Big Bang, Brian has his own relentless surge of energy. He can be controversial, has been shocked by some recent political developments, and believes education is as crucial to world security as missile defence.

As he declared: “It’s becoming more complicated to be a citizen. There is more information, more opinions out there and you have to judge whether it’s trustworthy or not. That’s a skill you didn’t need a few decades ago, but you need it now.”

But, whatever one thinks of his views, he has the gift of expressing them with a mixture of Mr Spock’s logic and Engineer Scott’s ebullience.

He said: “Governments tend to be pretty bad at planning long term, but that is what we need to bring youngsters through in the STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] subjects.

“Technology is part of all our lives, but we have to commit ourselves to proper investment in teachers, in universities and education in general to continue taking strides forward. Some joined-up thinking would be useful. So would a bigger overall vision of what exactly is going to happen in space in the future.

“But yes, I am thrilled at the scope of what is going on and I am pretty positive person. The rocket business is – quite literally – talking off.

“And I have no doubt Scotland will be at the forefront of it.”

It might once have been dismissed as fantasy land. But this is no D Ream world for Brian Cox.