Those of us who were kids in the 1970’s watched Apollo launches and moon walks from the black and white TV in our classrooms. The astronauts even drove around in a little go-cart and collected rocks that they brought back for local museums throughout America.
Most of us believed – and were even told by our parents – that we’d probably get to go into outer space by the time we were adults. I remember my 4th grade teacher, Mr. Caruso, once took a poll of the class to see how many of us thought we’d get to visit the moon in our lifetime. We all voted yes.
Given the amount of time it took us to get from the Wright Brothers to aircraft crowding over JFK, it’s not unreasonable for people actually visiting the moon to have expected the colonization of Mars within a few decades.
The Space Shuttle always seemed like something of a compromise compared with the romance of the Saturn V and Lunar Landing Module. It was only going up a couple of hundred miles, all told. An afternoon’s drive. But its extended missions, giant payloads, and eventual use as a route to the space station gave it something of a workhorse image. Yes, moon launches are spectacular, but the Space Shuttle would turn our spaceward fantasies into reality. It was a stubby, but practical vehicle.
And while the Space Station is a terrific metaphor for international cooperation and a great platform for experimenting with weightlessness or observing the heavens, it never seemed to promise widescale space exploration or migration.
No, the kinds of projects NASA used to talk about included placing a factory in space, right in the sweet spot between the earth and the moon. We’d mine the minerals in the moon and then assemble our spacecraft in this factory in space, from which they could take off with no gravity or atmosphere to contend with. Another plan called for sending robots to Mars that would mine ore and then build more robots and construction equipment that would, in turn, be used to construct a dome and living modules for humans, who would arrive a few years later.
By the 1990’s, NASA’s less inspiring goals, combined with the emergence of the Internet, shifted our attention to inner space. Consciousness pioneers such as Timothy Leary reworked their models of human evolution from space migration to uploading our minds and souls to the web. While computer networks changed our daily experience, space exploration seemed to stand relatively still. It had more to do with launching communications satellites (to enable our interactive networks) than going to space.
The most recent shuttle disaster will probably not end space exploration but it reveals just how low a priority space has become. I’ve got nothing against 1970’s technologies, when they work. But the troublesome heat shield tiles used on the Columbia were a compromise, to begin with. NASA only used tiles because the technology did not yet exist to make a single, continuous sheet of this heat-reflecting material. Now this technology does exist, but it hasn’t yet been implemented. Besides, there was never any back-up heat shield. And the solid fuel rocket boosters that the shuttle uses are as dangerous as propellant can get. They can’t be shut off.
The shuttle was meant to be an inexpensive, weekly mission to space. Projections were for the craft to cost 5 million per launch, in today’s dollars. Instead, it costs 100 times that much. In short, the shuttle was a great idea, but it doesn’t work. NASA has been afraid to admit this, lest its funding be cut even more. This policy may have just backfired.
But what’s at risk is more than a single program. It’s the metaphor and reality of space exploration, itself. Space is our last genuine frontier – a challenge for us as a race and as the most mobile and technologically advanced of the earth’s species. To give up on space is to admit that, at least for the extended time being, we have nowhere left to go.
Sure, this might be a good thing, turning our attention finally to the realities of the environment and peaceful co-existence. But, allegorically, anyway, it feels a bit more like we’re reaching middle age.
We’re coming to accept the limits of our ability to expand – of our very fertility. For if we truly kill our space exploration program, at least one more category of hope must die along with it.
At a time when America is already struggling to come to terms with sure signs that its Empire is waning, I’m not sure that this is such a good idea.