Saturday, December 12, 2009

Unpredictable weather: from Mojave to Copenhagen

I've just returned from Mojave, California, where I attended the unveiling of a new spaceship, and have arrived in Copenhagen for the climate change meeting.

In Mojave I was lucky enough to witness the unveiling of Virgin Galactic's new spaceship, VSS Enterprise. It was an astonishing evening, with gale force winds rocking the marquee erected to shelter the 800 people (press, VIPs, astronauts) who came to witness the event.

In June 2004, I witnessed the flight of SpaceShipOne from this very runway in Mojave, in the full heat of the desert. The event on December 7th could not have been more different. A storm had blown in over the west coast of America, and the band of low pressure seemed to have its active edge right above the Mojave high desert plateau. Throughout the day, patches of blue skies fought with rain and clouds, until the end of the evening when the storm finally moved in.

When SpaceShipTwo was finally unveiled, it arrived from out of the darkness of a stormy night. There was dry ice and lighting, but nature threw more of a display than event management ever could. Wind and fog swirled around her as she appeared from the gloom. When Holly Branson (Richard Branson's daughter) smashed a champagne bottle it shattered into thousands of glittering green pieces which were instantly whipped across the runway. Burt Rutan's (designer of SpaceShipTwo) wife said she would be one of those who would be painstakingly picking these off the runway the next day.

I had to leave the party early to write a piece for The Economist. The next morning, Richard Branson told me that the marquee had to be evacuated when they were warned that winds of 115mph were coming. Only a few minutes after the area was cleared the entire marquee, all its contents (lighting and speakers) were blown away. It is very lucky that nobody was hurt. Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic, told me afterwards that the only thing they found afterwards was the scale model of SpaceShipTwo.

A few days later and Copenhagen, by contrast, is windless. But the political weather is not too far from the gale force winds of Mojave. Walk outs, demonstrations, barbed comments from chief negotiators. What kind of climate deal will the world get from Copenhagen remains impossible to say. Even forestry, where it might be argued negotiations are more advanced and with greater agreement, the text is a mess and still a long way from being done according to insiders.

An interesting side note, one of Burt Rutan's hobbies (when he isn't designing innovative aeroplanes and spacecraft) is climate change. He thinks that the science behind anthropogenic global warming is overblown. I wish I thought he was right about this, it would make everything so much easier if climate change were a fiction. But for it to be true one would have to argue that thousands of the world's scientists, and many of the world's major scientific organisations, are involved in a conspiracy of silence.

Of course all this begs the question, should we be getting off the planet or saving it?