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 labsthey are questions of vision, leadership, and
determination for the populace at large.
need to be asked by Americans on the eve of another memorable historical eventthe
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 launchsoon.
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 shotsa 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 donethe
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
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 stopand 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 eventthe tragic loss of
space shuttle Columbia just 6 days before I write this article for Far Sector
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 spectruma 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
The Soviets pressed
just a little bit harder than we did at mid-20th Century, and they garnered
a string of memorable firstsincluding 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 eventsand the constant tingle of dreadwhat 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.
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
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.
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.
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