Science fiction promised children growing up in the 1950s something different than what it does to our children today. The innocent expectations of tomorrow culminated in the 1964 World’s Fair which seemed all about the future and the promise of space travel? Was there ever another time in history where kids truly believed they would walk on the Moon or Mars when they grew up? Between 1961 and 1972 NASA always went further and faster with Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs. For the forty years since 1972 we’ve been retracing old orbital paths below those reached in Project Gemini in 1965. Now, the U.S. can’t even launch men and women into orbit. When did the final frontier fizzle out? I’m sure the budget bean counters know.
It’s not like we don’t have the technology to travel to the planets, we just don’t have the desire, or at least the desire to spend the money.
Like religion, science fiction promised true believers life in the heavens. As long as NASA kept rocketing to new heights it was easy to believe the faith of space travel. Like religion, space travel has failed to answer the prayers of its devoted – nobody leaves Earth. Could it be that humans are meant to stay on Earth? Forever?
What if it becomes obvious we’re not going to the planets and stars, and humans must live for thousands, if not millions of year here on planet Earth? How does that change science fiction and the faith in the final frontier? What if we come to realize that travel in space isn’t practical or even desirable? What if we come to realize that alien spaceships will never visit us either? That gulf between the stars is too vast for travel by biological creatures. Robots might go, but not us. How will that change our faith in science fiction?
We won’t know our limits in space until we hit them. So far, we’ve only hit the money barrier!
I always believed science fiction was the sacred writing of the space travel faithful, but again like other belief systems, tenets of the faithful change. If humans aren’t meant to travel to the stars, what is our destiny? Science fiction, instead of selling space travel, promotes turning inward with artificial intelligence, cybernetic worlds, brain downloading, biological immortality, and other fabulous speculation about living on Earth. I can accept the confinement if there are real limitations to humans traveling in space, but I’d sure hate it if we’ve just reached the limits of our vision.
Oh sure, there are still true believers who can’t give up the idea there’s a world just 35 million miles away that’s ripe for terraforming. They keep preaching their gospel hoping to convert enough believers to make their visions come true, but their creed dwindles.
Yes, there is another time when kids grow up thinking they will walk on the Moon and Mars. It’s now, and those kids live in China. Do they dream my old 1950s dreams? Will their dreams come true this time for all us humans?
This is what we get for cutting taxes.
A small government leads to smaller dreams.
China will get bigger with bigger dreams, while we grow small, clutching our tax dollars.
Thank you, Republicans.
JWH – 4/9/12
5 thoughts on “Losing My Faith in Space Travel”
I hear you Jim. I still remember watching Armstrong on the B+W TV back in ’69–I was 4yrs old and even at that age I understood the immensity of what had been accomplished. I grew up believing that I would see Mars colonised in my lifetime (sigh). But perhaps this period of withdrawal is not a bad thing: we’ve shat in our nest, my friend, and until we demonstrate the collective wisdom, willpower and compassion to clean it up and rescue our fellow earthlings from the mess we’ve made of our home…perhaps it is a good thing that Earth’s accountants and gravity well act as a containment. It saddens me that I feel this way now. Then again, there’s always China: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Chinas_Lunar_Docking_999.html
Great post Jim! I personally think the future of space exploration and travel is privatization. Companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic will soon show the world that space travel can be done far more affordably and without all of the cost-overruns/bureaucracy we’ve witnessed within NASA over the past few decades. There’s no doubt NASA has done, and is still doing great work (and will continue to do so) however the Obama administration has called for privatization and budgetary cutbacks within NASA as you know. With these cutbacks, important NASA research such as Mars exploration is being decimated. Politicians have never truly supported space travel or exploration for the sake of humanity either way however. These efforts have always primarily driven for military purposes (even the initial moon landing was driven by the Cold War) despite what they tell us. The future of space travel and exploration will be driven by private companies, or perhaps as you say, China. I remain optimistic however, that as these U.S. upstarts begin demonstrating to the world that space travel can be done cheaply and safely, excitement will once again rise to levels of years past. I think educating our youth is an important step as well. If we don’t change our education system and start placing an emphasis on the STEM disciplines, we are certain to take a secondary role in space (and just about every other industry) regardless of any advantages we might gain via privatization within the industry. Either way, I remain optimistic about the future of space travel/exploration. The industry is evolving as they all so often do and while it may never be the same as it was in years past, we (Americans) aren’t completely out of the race just yet.
Obama was at least going to keep the Constellation program, but Congress cut that, which is a shame. I didn’t like Bush, but I thought his backing of the Constellation program was a great idea, we were finally going to leave LEO again. But no.
NASA is never given enough money to do big projects anymore. And advocates of private space programs have been attacking NASA for years – they saw the Shuttle program as a waste of money. Too many people want too much from NASA’s tiny budget. It really is a divided house.
Personally, I don’t have much hope for private space exploration. The private companies gush about space tourism, but that’s very limited. It might fund sub-orbital flights, and a bit of orbital business, but tourists are going to have to be billionaires to afford going to the Moon. And spacing mining is pie in the sky dreaming. And as soon as a private tourist rocket blows up, I think the business will be over.
Real space exploration is expensive and we all have to want it to make it politically practical.
Never say never, Jim – and I mean that two different ways. Technologically, I would never say that anything is impossible, not for sure. Star travel may seem impossible now, but we really can’t say what we might discover tomorrow. It’s way too early to be giving up on the dream.
And secondly, just because something is hard doesn’t mean it’s impossible, if we just keep trying. It took women a hundred years, roughly, to get the vote. African Americans faced a hundred years of segregation and terrible discrimination, even after the Civil War. Heck, the war was just the start of their struggle for civil rights.
This isn’t the same thing, of course. But we can’t give up, just because it hasn’t been quick and easy. We won’t always be in this economic hole. And we won’t always dismiss science for faith, either.