When I was a kid, my dreams of the future didn't include a computer in my home, or a box that would give me directions for a road trip, or a phone that I could answer from Hawaii as well as from my East Coast state beginning with the letter M.
Nope, I fully expected that the future would be filled with fabulous American space journeys. Yeah, we made a quick dash to the Moon all right, but that was like the earliest explorers in the 1500s. Next would come the Jamestowns and Plymouths of space: orbiting platforms where groups of Earthlings would live and tool up to set sail for Mars and the asteroids and wherever else. Now, I never did figure out where I personally would be in all that -- I didn't see any women involved in the U.S. space program, and, I'm ashamed to admit, I didn't have the imagination to see myself as a spacefarer. I just assumed that my country would continue to soar into the heavens.
That gap in the 1970s? That was OK, we had Skylab and we were getting the shuttle ready. We were still making plans to go somewhere. Then the shuttle program started. I sweated bullets the first few times I watched a live landing on TV, because it was so
different from a splashdown, but then I got used to it.
Trouble is, we all got used to it until something went wrong, as the Challenger disaster showed. And by that time, our society was pulling back, becoming more risk-averse with every passing year. Don't do anything that might get you killed. Don't spill hot coffee -- you might burn the navel you're gazing at.
For several years I belonged to a space-advocacy (space-enthusiast?) group that was first called Boston L5, then the Boston chapter of the National Space Society. We met monthly in a room at MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab -- supposedly we had permission from the legendary Marvin Minsky himself to use that space, though I don't recall ever seeing him at our meetings.
Through those gatherings I learned a lot of stuff and met a lot of good people, some of whom are still my friends today. But I drifted away from the "space movement" once I moved to Maryland 19 years ago. Partly that was because I was just too damned busy to get involved in another group, and partly because I was hanging out with an astronomy-department crowd that, by and large, hated the space shuttle (and I didn't really feel like arguing with them, even after the first successful Hubble repair mission).
But I was also starting to feel a very large feeling of "been there, done that, got the T-shirt." I heard SO darn many space station plans and proposed configurations and blah blah blah that when NASA finally did start lifting segments of the ISS into orbit, I had no clue what the final product was supposed to look like. And then after 9/11 the country made a massive turn inward once again and there was endless jawing about what should follow the space shuttle, and where we should go after low Earth orbit.
And there is just NO consensus and NO societal will to do anything.
Somebody makes a plan for human space flight and a few years later it gets scuttled. What's the latest plan for a reusable capsule? Do you ever expect it to fly? Some people say we could get to Mars or an asteroid in 20 or 25 years. That's what people were saying FORTY years ago.
I no longer expect to see the "next big step" in human spaceflight in my lifetime. (President Obama claims that he expects to see it
, but I doubt he will either -- he's not THAT much younger than I am.) In fact, I fully expect that the next humans to visit the Moon or Mars will come either from China or from some consortium of nations with considerably less personal freedom than America. I hate to say it, but maybe it *does* take at least a mild autocracy to steer such an ambitious, expensive, never-done-before program through the inevitable technical and financial shoals.
When I was a grad-school teaching assistant, my Astro 101 students would inevitably whine about "how hard
" the homework was. And at least once a semester, I would inevitably whine back at them: "Look, everything that's worth doing is hard!
Curing cancer is hard! Ending hunger is hard! World peace is hard! That's life -- get used to it!" And then I would get lousy end-of-semester evaluations with comments like, "We are students, not scientists."
Look, no offense meant to all the great scientists of the past -- Galileo, Newton, Pasteur, Lister, Mendel, Mendeleev, Faraday, Maxwell, Einstein, Bohr, Curie, to name just a few -- but in all the branches of science, humans have already picked the low-hanging fruit. More scientific discoveries remain, to be sure, but we have to work harder and harder to discover them, because they're nowhere near as easy as, say, rolling balls down inclined planes or studying the innards of a frog. And that work costs money -- more people, more computing horsepower, and much more powerful instruments.
JFK said: "We go to the Moon in this decade and do these other things
[that he listed in his Rice University speech] not because they are easy, but because they are hard."
And now Republicans in the U.S. House want to cut the James Webb Space Telescope program because it's costing more than originally anticipated. *headdesk* This seems to be the final blow to any notion that we as a society have any attention span at all beyond the next tax cut, video game or app release.