“Before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth”
Sometime in my childhood, perhaps at the age of 10 or 11, I entered a phase, much like any other child. Space was my obsession. Not space of the personal variety, but space of the outer kind, that black void that envelopes our own planet Earth. In particular, a book entitled “Space and the Future” captivated my attention. It chronicled the advancements made in current space technology, and made rather bold predictions about space technology in the near (that is, in this millennium) future. Among the predictions were implementations of Reagan’s beloved “Star Wars” missile defense program (due in by 2050), factories orbiting the Earth and producing ultralight, ultra-strong metallic foam at one millionth the cost of Earth-based production methods (due by 2016, my expected year of graduation with an undergraduate degree), and giant, spinning habitats halfway between the Earth and the moon. Such dreams seemed so real to me: so near, so tangible; they were, after all, beautifully illustrated in exacting detail in the pages of the softcover book in my hands.
I, of course, added my own printout of a map of the plans for the International Space Station to the front.
Unfortunately, I believe that, due to a series of societal transformations and shifts in values, space exploration as we all (yes, I’m sure you did too) dreamed it to be has died. Part of that dream is being taken off life-support right now, as Atlantis is completely her last mission and the International Space Station looms as a solemn reminder of ambitions once held. In many ways, this post is my obligatory goodbye, a wave to the object of so much fascination (and a trip to Space Camp). In many other ways, it expresses my feelings about the nature of space exploration, and the path forward. A smattering of opinion mixed with history, so to speak.
On October 5, 1957, a missile took off from an air base in the Soviet Union. Aboard was a device which, other than scaring the crap out of the Americans by emitting a periodic, unwavering beep, had no purpose other than to become the first man-made satellite to orbit the Earth. Less than two years later, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to enter space (and return safely; who knows how many might have died before him). And, a decade after the first human successfully returned from space, Neil Armstrong became the first human being to step foot on another celestial body.
In a period of time shorter than my life, our perception of space was transformed from that of a dark, mystical place, removed from our experiences to that of a new frontier of exploration, larger than any faced on Earth.
Yet, since 1972, no human has left low Earth orbit. Furthermore, before the end of this month, the United States, the same country whose president promised that, in less than a decade from the time that the US entered the space race, man will walk on the moon, will lose the capacity to launch humans into space; a break in 50 years of manned space flight.
Furthermore, the planned replacement for the Shuttle Program, the Constellation Program (which has now been cancelled), was essentially a return to the Apollo-era technology developed in the 1960s. What happened? What have we been doing for the past four decades? What happened to the hopes and dreams of film makers, writers, comic book artists, and children around the world? In 2001, the groundbreaking film “2001: A Space Odyssey” finally became out of date. Were its dreams too fantastic? Perhaps, but what could be more fantastic than creating a machine that could safely bring humans to another body?
By any means, JFK’s challenge to the American people to pursue the goal, “before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth” was absurd. He posed the challenge a mere month after the first American was put into space, and only barely so. Most people today would be surprised if a country announced that it would put people on the moon in a decade, and the technology already exists. The entire Apollo program was, quite frankly, absurd to begin with, and absurd to the end. Everything about it was too ambitious, too risky, too adventurous, and by every possible measure of reasonableness should have been shut down before it expended its first million dollars. Yet, the Apollo program was a near-perfect success, punctuated only by the Apollo 1 disaster, which happened on the ground, and the Apollo 13 incident, which was a testament to the quality of the program itself.
The Apollo program could never have existed in the 21st century. Such a monumental project, involving over one hundred thousand people and billions of dollars, would never be attempted, never mind completed. The naysayers and the protesters would be too powerful, any government proposing it would be criticized for misuse of taxpayer money, and any individual suggesting it would quickly be neutralized, probably by promotion into a less dangerous position.
Compare the safety measured in place for Atlantis’s last mission with those prepared for Apollo 11. The latter is, by every measure, far more dangerous: it was the first of its kind, it was far more ambitious, and posed a far greater engineering challenge. Yet, Nixon actually prepared a speech to give to the public should the Lunar Module fail to ascend from the moon, stranding the two astronauts forever. No rescue mission was planned; NASA had made preparations to simply cut off communication with the Eagle, leaving Aldrin and Armstrong to die or commit suicide in total radio silence, and Collins to return home alone. In stark contrast, since no rescue Shuttle mission could be planned, each astronaut aboard STS-135 carries a space suit compatible with the Russian Soyuz craft, at a cost of millions of dollars each. Should the Shuttle be unable to return from the ISS, Soyuz probes will be sent up to rescue the crew members, one by one, over a period of a year.
Note that I do not believe that the safety measures are a bad thing, nor do I believe that the safety measures have made the Space Shuttle program the most dangerous American space program to date, in terms of lives lost. In fact, I applaud NASA for committing itself to preserving human life. However, we must recognize that we, as a planet, have tremendously scaled back our ambitions in the past fifty years, in part due to safety concerns.
If Barack Obama were to announce that humankind will land on the moon once more within a decade, he would not be re-elected. The next president, much like Toronto’s mayors, would immediately cancel the program, to the cheering of those who look out for “taxpayers’” money.
The world has changed, as have our values and ambitions. It is the nature of each era to attempt to predict the technologies of the future, while hopelessly failing to do so with any accuracy. At the turn of the century, if you were to ask a person about the future, they might chatter on about fantastic aircraft and automobiles. If you were to ask a person in the 1950s or 60s about the future, they would praise the virtues of manned space exploration and talk of trips to Mars, vacations on the Moon, and interstellar travel. Instead of underwater cars, the people of the first half of the twentieth century got space exploration. Instead of vacations on other celestial bodies, the people of the second half of the twentieth century got the Internet. After all, is the Internet not a marvel comparable to the space program?
Our modern society is simply too risk adverse to pursue something as ambitious about the capabilities of human explorers as Apollo. Our ambitions have shifted; this is not necessarily a bad thing. However, with the early end of the Apollo program, the slow reduction of energy put into space exploration (especially manned space exploration), and now the end of the great momentum of American space travel, it seems that the window of space exploration is closing. And that makes me a little bit sad.
However, this situation is far from unique. Theodore Gray, the author of that beautiful coffee table book featuring his element collection, has argued that we may currently be living in the only period of time during which new elements are being actively created. Until recently, nobody had the capability, and in a few decades, nobody may even try.
Space exploration was once the new frontier. The fence lines, however, have shifted. To me, the creation of the Internet, the Google search engine, and the IBM Watson deep Q&A system are all as marvelous as Sputnik, Vostok, and Apollo. Surely the great frontier of technology will continue to change in directions unknown. And despite my twinge of sadness at the near-terminal nature of a childhood fantasy, I have enormous hope for the future. Now, as in the past and in the future, we can relish in the next “small step for a man” and “giant leap for mankind”. However, I am ambivalent about making predictions. Really, the only certainty is that whatever the next frontier of innovation is, it will be totally different from what we envision it to be.