The Stars Just Got Further Out of Reach

I am a child of the Space Age. I was in junior high when Sputnik was launched. I lived my high school years on Vandenberg AFB, watching the Atlas, Titan, and Discoverer launches from my back yard, and rooting around at the dump for discarded rocket parts. One summer, I worked on a construction crew, building the roads around Vandenberg’s SLC6 launch site. I watched the Apollo 11 Moon landing on a small B&W TV in DaNang, VietNam, and the Apollo 13 coverage on BBC in Mildenhall, England. Although I never attended a Shuttle launch, I am roughly of the same generation as the father in this now-famous photo pair:

Father and Son: STS-1 and STS-135, by Chris Bray

Father and Son: STS-1 and STS-135, by Chris Bray

It’s hard to describe what it was like, growing up in that environment. We knew we were going to have space stations, and colonies, and a lunar base, and a Mars base by the end of the century — go look at the timetables published in Aviation Week. We dreamed, and studied to be astronauts — even those of us who were two inches too tall to qualify, and had 20/200 vision even in grade school. We wrote songs that would make your throat ache to hear, and your heart pound to sing.

Of course, it was all a hoax. Those in power had zero interest in space, as such. Case in point: the reason the Apollo Program chose to use a single launch to Earth orbit as opposed to, say building a space station and transferring to the Moon from there was the fact that the option chosen would leave no infrastructure in space. Infrastructure that might entice us into further expenditures. Case in point: when NASA begged for multi-year project funding in order to provide major cost reductions, Congress decided that would be an ‘entitlement’ program and refused.

Instead, our so-called leaders stumbled into a series of useless wars that killed the Apollo Program just as it was starting to pay off, and crippled the whole space program to this very day. VietNam ran for just over ten years and cost just over $660 Billion. The Middle East Wars, not counting Gulf I, have lasted not quite ten years, so far, and have cost over $1.2 Trillion. Between 1960 and 2008, almost half a century, the total NASA budget — including all the aeronautics research that gave us jet fuel saving inventions like winglets — was (all of these are in constant 2007 dollars) $800 Billion.

So today, we consider ourselves too poor to pay for the pensions of the generation that carried us to the Moon. We are indifferent to the fact that we now no longer have a manned space capability. We are uncaring that China will soon be competing with Russia for the mantle of preeminant space power.

I think it was Jerry Pournelle who said that we had a fairly narrow window of opportunity for spaceflight. We had to establish a presence in the Solar System, one that could harness the energy of the Sun and the resources of the Asteroids. One that was close to becoming self-sustaining. We had to do this before we ran out of resources, like oil for industry, and food for the world, because there would be no second chance. He forgot to mention resolve. We no longer have the resolve, the confidence, the cultural arrogance, if you will, that will let us do it. All we have is the petty arrogance of small-minded plutocrats whose idea of vision is to think two quarters ahead.

So, it turns out that the window of opportunity was essentially one working lifetime. The resources are not yet used up, but the resolve has drained away, and the money was pissed away. My forecast is that I will not live to see the next American on the Moon. My fear is that I won’t live to see the next major US on-orbit space project, like a new space station or solar power satellite. As for the stars, I don’t think it’s just my eyesight that has caused them to grow dim. But thank you, Space Shuttle, it was a great ride.

STS-135 reentry, from the ISS

And yes, I stole the title

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One Response to “The Stars Just Got Further Out of Reach”

  1. Kurt Kremer Says:

    Any kid here who has dreams of space should be looking to participate in a commercial or multi-national endeavor (that leaves out the US).

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