Day to day economic reality and the immediate practicalities and demands of our daily routines make it hard to consider the bigger picture of our place in space.
However, for 68,000 people in the UK alone, space is not just a point of remote interest but a mortgage paying job. For these people, space is about getting satellites into orbit that have a far wider benefit to society, such as providing television, weather forecasting information, telephone communications and navigation systems.
As a new dawn of privately funded space projects take shape the benefits and economic significance of the space industry will only grow. And as this economic growth occurs and the space economy becomes increasingly interwoven with the general economy, the gap between the reality of space and the reality of daily life will gradually begin to close, providing a vital knock on effect for mankind brought about by the realisation of our existence in space.
Many of the technologies we use daily that improve our lives are attributable to the space economy. Without setting out an exhaustive list, some key ones that spring to mind are satellite television, mobile telecommunications and GPS satellite navigation. These provide great experiences for consumers and provide a better quality of life for millions of people each day - and they all stem from satellites orbiting the earth. Its the space industry that has put them there and maintains them.
The space economy looks set to grow, in particular with the advent of commercial spacelines. The emergence of relatively low-cost reusable spacecraft could be used to put more than just people in to space. Leading the race as a commercial spaceline, Virgin Galactic has been designed with the ability to put small payloads and satellites into low earth orbit. Sir Richard Branson explains "As far as science is concerned, this system [Virgin Galactic's White Knight Two (WK2) and SpaceShipTwo SS2)] offers tremendous potential to researchers who will be able to fly experiments much more often than before, helping to answer key questions about Earth’s climate and the mysteries of the universe". Branson highlights another benefit from low-cost payload launches "[as] for applied research, it is currently just too expensive to be able to do most of the things in space from which industries like biotechnology could really benefit. The beauty of WK2 and SS2 is that they can help change the paradigm of our relationship to space, achieving an era where space accessibility becomes a commercial and scientific norm, rather than an exception." If Virgin Galactic and other entrants to the commercial arena of space tourism have designs that also enable payloads to be put into orbit at a much lower cost than state space agencies then we could see a huge increase in life improving matter circulating planet Earth. Its easy to see the benefits this could be bring, and the more our daily lives are affected by space then the likelihood is that an appreciation will grow for the important role of space. And then more and more people will have the chance to travel in space and have a real look at what its all about.
In addition to these direct benefits from the growing space economy are the indirect benefits that will flow from space tourism as more and more people are shown a different perspective of Earth - a view from space. Around 500 humans have experienced space flight and a common theme described by all is the realisation that our atmosphere, which appears as a thin blue vale around the planet, looks incredibly fragile. Such a perspective will be shared by many thousands more in the years to come as space travel becomes a possibility for non-career astronauts. A different perspective of Earth may compel those who experience it to do more to see the environment protected and encourage original thinking in other areas. I always remember my art teacher telling me to stand six feet back from my painting so that I could get a different perspective. Space travel is the same, standing back from the planet and experiencing a different viewpoint. If the planet can be seen as a blank canvas then mankind can re-examine the way we conduct ourselves in society, in terms of technology, travel, the role of states and international law, government, education, religion and the environment. These indirect benefits from space exploration should lead to more tangible benefits once those who see Earth from space - whether as politicians, law makers, scientists or entrepreneurs - can make changes to the way we govern ourselves and the products and services we produce and consume.
The growth of the space economy will continue to deliver tangible benefits for the residents of Earth. It is to be hoped that as we enter a new era of space travel that the different perspective obtained will give rise to consideration of the wider issues of society that will in turn drive changes to the way mankind conducts itself. Space provides a blank canvas. Strip away convention and acceptance of the way things have always been done, and use original thought. Many things we may be doing as well as we can, but there are many things where a fresh approach must be welcomed.
In the words of television presenter James May, after seeing the Earth from the edge of space in a U2 plane, "if everybody could do that once it would completely change the face of global politics, religion, education - everything". The advent of commercial space travel could give tens of thousands of people that same experience over the next decade, giving far greater impetus to perception change. The reality of space changes everything.