February, 2003:

With the recent catastrophic loss of space shuttle Columbia, we naturally pause to ask fundamental questions about what we are doing, why we are doing it, and where we are going. These aren't just questions for a few whiz kids in universities, or engineers in NASA labs—they are questions of vision, leadership, and determination for the populace at large.

These questions need to be asked by Americans on the eve of another memorable historical event—the entry of China into the manned space realm, anticipated sometime this year. This ought to be a breathtaking wakeup call to a historically torpid political leadership and a populace still arguing about primitive creation myths in lieu of sound modern science. It will probably be announced with Soviet-style fanfare following a typically secretive launch—soon.

During the early 1970s as I was finishing college in Connecticut, I was working in the visitor reception lobby of a New Haven area hospital. This was during the last of the moon shots—a time when the future of space flight seemed in doubt, when our faith was shaken by the disastrous Vietnam era, when we were led by a president and a vice president who would soon (each, separately) be resigning in disgrace rather than face full criminal charges, and budgets were being determined by a visionless Congress playing its routine political pinball games.

What is remarkable about the third of a century that followed is not so much what didn't get done—the fabulous cities envisioned by science fictioneers, the flying automobiles, John D. McDonald's orbital Ballroom in the Sky, Stanley Kubrick's hotels in the sky (2001: A Space Odyssey)—but what did get done. The business of coming and going in space became the innovative but seemingly pedestrian job of NASA's space shuttle program and Russia's reliable capsule launching systems. Remarkable planetary missions unfolded, photographing and telemetering the solar system body by body close up. The Hubble telescope is the first of a stunning family of deep space observatories that take us to the origins of time. Solar orbiters like COBE listen to the background music of the Big Bang itself. The list of hard and brilliant accomplishments is far longer than the list of imaginative missed opportunities. The one agonizing fly in the ointment is the fact that we currently have no coherent driving plan for getting humans back to the moon, to Mars, and beyond. It apparently will take some rude, overwhelming outside stimulus to accomplish that, and I think we are about to experience that.

As a young fellow of 20 or so, stationed in that hospital lobby, I had the opportunity all day to be part of hundreds of rolling snippets of conversation as a wide cross-section of the populace came and went through the visitor area. By a quirk of nature (which we understand today as being related to the El Niño phenomenon) it was a very rainy year. Today, I recall with amazement the constant commentary made by this sampling population, who were convinced that the rainy weather was the result of "all those space flights up there." Numerous people pointed out the apparent coincidence that, every time a trio of astronauts went to the moon, it seemed to rain ceaselessly and ominously, and when the astronauts came down to earth the rain stopped. Apparently this angered the tribal gods for some reason, and they let their displeasure be known in the form of showers and drizzle. These sentiments were accompanied by a firm body of opinion that we ought to cease exploring space so that the rain would stop—and that we should stop wasting money "up there" when it was so badly needed "down here." Ironically, though we have not sent anybody to the moon in 30 years, the climate has not significantly adjusted, and those tribal gods have moved on to other spookery.

I cite this rather dismal sampling of illogic (from a populace that has been estimated by National Science Foundation studies to be 93% scientifically illiterate) at a time when we have just experienced another catastrophic event—the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia just 6 days before I write this article for Far Sector SFFH.

At Far Sector SFFH, we add our heartfelt eulogies and extend our sympathy to the families of the lost astronauts, and to the spacefaring family in general (NASA, JPL, and every bright-eyed boy and girl daydreaming of one day flying in space). These heroes join other lost adventurers--the Challenger astronauts, the three lost Apollo astronauts, the Soviet cosmonauts lost in flight. Here at Far Sector SFFH, we share something special in common with the dreamers of NASA. We are part of the broad science fiction community, those "Futurians" who have dreamed and agitated and written and talked about spaceflight for generations. Every historic high and low point affects us with special poignancy, since we have invested much of ourselves in a dream of traveling beyond the "surly bonds" of time and space, of gravity and human brevity. Now it is time, once again, to assess.

The U.S. populace has actually been at the other end of the spectrum of space fascination many times. I can remember the days when the United States and the world sat by in breathless anticipation while the first manned U.S. space flights were being narrated by Walter Cronkite. The world held its breath with every delay, every scrub, every minute twist and turn of the time table, until those magnificent Mercury and Gemini astronauts sailed off on their exciting missions. That certainly reflects the other end of the spectrum—a population caught up in the dream, a population whose elected leaders were able to communicate vision and leadership. Several devastating political assassinations whose motivations are still shrouded in mystery, an undeclared war costing half a million U.S. casualties including 58,000 dead that divided us at our core, a continuing national debate over civil rights carried to extremes of rage and retribution, a growing Prohibition-like drug war that would drag on for decades with no appreciable result other than a long casualty list, these were some of the factors that dampened progressive spirits.

The Soviets pressed just a little bit harder than we did at mid-20th Century, and they garnered a string of memorable firsts—including first unmanned orbit (Sputnik 1, 1957); first living creature in space (Laika, a dog, Sputnik 2, 1957); first shots at the moon (Lunik, 1959); first man in space (Yuri Gagarin, 1961); and so forth. The Soviet Union is a lost world that no longer exists, and their immortal achievements must now be documented by others. We who lived through that era tend, I think, to remember the stark differences between the U.S. space program (open, democratic, part of a popular dream) and the Soviet space program (secretive, a weapon in their relentless Stalinist war to subjugate the world). As I think back to those days in my own childhood, I remember being fascinated by those early events—and the constant tingle of dread—what will the Soviets do next? Bomb us? Put a man on Mars? Just as their bleak empire was doomed to failure by its own contradictions, so they blew the chance to elevate space flight that extra rung beyond threatening geopolitical military acrobatics. We should remember what they accomplished, because nobody can or should take away their "firsts," and we certainly honor the bravery and dedication of Soviet cosmonauts, but their country's space accomplishments are remembered with a certain grainy, black-and-white nightmarish quality as being part of the Cold War that Uncle Joe Stalin foisted on the world. Their movie reel came to an end in 1991. Flap, flap, flap, flutter...

I remember, too, as a boy of 12, finding an old 1951 world almanac in the cellar about the time that Yuri Gagarin and Alan B. Shepard launched into space. What I remember, unforgettably, from that musty handful of newsprint, was that the index contained exactly one entry for "space," and that led to a one-page article. The gist of the article was "if you can stop laughing long enough in your unimaginative dimwittedness, there are actually a few scientists who believe it's possible to go to the moon, and they claim, har har har, it might be possible by that faraway Year 2000." Needless to say, within a decade, the index entries in U.S. almanacs started becoming richer and richer, filled with growing space lore as we became a space faring nation. Or, more accurately, as we globally became a spacefaring culture.

There is a wide spectrum from that dour 1951 article and the subsequent awakening that put U.S. astronauts on the moon just 17 years later. It was a leap of faith, a magnificent act of leadership, a bold and daring resolve, pronounced by President John F. Kennedy, who put U.S. national prestige and his own credibility on the line in pledging us to an impossible-seeming odyssey. In some ways, that bold and brilliant resolve seems part of a lost world now also, as is its visionary who was gunned down in Dallas just a few years later.

Columbus first crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1492, and it took decades for Spain and Portugal to begin substantively exploiting the mind-shattering discovery of an entire new world consisting of two hitherto unknown, vast continents full of jungles, deserts, forests, mountain ranges, and hundreds of ancient native cultures. At the time, Spain had just finished the expulsion of the last of the Islamic invaders who had conquered and ruled a significant part of Europe for over 500 years. There was much political, economic, and religious shaking out to do before the Iberians could follow up on Columbus's exploits. Likewise, it is taking us decades to consolidate from the early days of the space age and our own expensive, long housecleaning we've had to do to rid the world of Communism.

Aside from all the successes, the most significant failing has been not so much our absence from the moon since 1972, but our apparent lack of a national will to go back there, and beyond, to new frontiers.

It is particularly noteworthy that a sizeable portion of the NASA budget has been taken up with pork-barrel spending projects revolving around the International Space Station. As worthy as that project sounds, and as significant as it could potentially become as the first really permanent human space presence, the space station has been a political football and a vast sinkhole of money for the usual division of tax payer dollars among victorious politicians who want to bring sexy spending programs to their districts to assure their own reelection. That's hardly a criterion for a sound and sensible scientific program, but that's the reason why we are risking the lives of our astronauts flying 22 year old shuttles using 1960s technology when we should be continuing to develop new materials, new engineering, new protocols, new goals, and new ships in this new millennium.

This should all change quite dramatically in 2003 and in the first decade of the new millennium. Look for nations like China, India, Pakistan, Japan, France, Germany, perhaps even some real surprise contenders like Brazil, Egypt, or Israel to start putting their citizens in capsules and launching them into orbit. I do not believe that the majority of U.S. citizens will want to get up each day, in a nation whose officials have lost interest in space, and look with envy upon the accomplishments of Chinese settlers on the moon, or South Americans on Mars, or maybe an Arab-Mongolian-Congolese expedition to Io. You laugh? That's what the drudges were doing who wrote that 1951 almanac article.

The United States historically suffers from what I call Pearl Harbor Syndrome. It took a surprise attack on Hawaii to awaken us and we conquered half the world, producing 2/3 of the world's GNP by 1946. It took Sputnik to awaken us from a time when we couldn't get a rocket higher than 60 miles to where we had men walking on the moon and returning without a single lost life 12 years later. It has taken the bombing of the World Trade Center to awaken the American giant once again, and I have no doubt we will change the face of the world within this decade so that the threat of enemy religious zealots is finished, there can be Mideast peace working in a framework of free enterprise and at least fledgling democracies, and perhaps we'll even switch to a hydrogen economy to end our dependence on oil.

It may take the launch of a Chinese or Brazilian or Indian manned space program to reawaken national pride here so that we get on with the business of being space leaders; and that will benefit all mankind.

What's exciting is that, as usual, once awakened, we'll do more than orbit three guys in a bathtub. We did that almost half a century ago.

There are lots of revolutionary technologies in the offing. For one thing, a fast-flight ionic drive, first conceived in the 1950s, has been under development, so that we might make a run to Mars in 12-16 weeks rather than 9 months to a year or more. I'll bring more details of these exciting developments in future columns.

For now, we remove our caps and bid an emotional farewell to our seven space heroes of Columbia. The least we can do is to carry forward their promise by creating safe human habitats in orbit, on the moon, on Mars, and beyond in our lifetimes. If we could go from the first halting launches of Vanguard to a perfect moon flight program in a little over a decade, think what we can accomplish now if we just elect some intelligent leaders and press onward to the stars.