Back to the Future: The Lost Children of the Space Age

I wrote this post some years back, but just stumbled on it again. I’m glad to say that since then people like Richard Branson and Elon Musk, along with many other commercial entrepreneurs, have come to the foreground and taken on the challenge of advancing humankind into space one baby step at a time. Hey–I’ve even heard rumors about space hotels lately! So while this post is now a bit dated, I still think it’s got a lot to it that continues to ring true. These are just my musings, so take them for what they’re worth ($0.02 on the open market). How do you think we’re doing these days?

Space travel imageSomething got lost between 1961 and 2011. I’m not quite sure what happened–maybe politics, maybe economics, maybe even the successful Moon landings had as much to do with it as anything–but somewhere between those heady days of the burgeoning space program, something died. I see it most plainly when I read books like Gerard K. O’Neill’s The High Frontier: that unabashed adult enthusiasm that seems so foreign, so unbelievable to a kid born in the ’80s. Our parents grew up with the first space walk. The news covered space-related issues and developments like regular news, and not just when a rocket blew up or an astronaut put on a diaper and drove five hundred miles for who knows what nefarious purposes to Florida.

But where is their enthusiasm now? What happened between the time that Buzz Aldran set his boots in moondust and the years kids my age grew up in? (I use the term “kid” lightly–I’m nearly twenty-six now.) Nobody talks about space anymore, but it’s not just recently. It’s been since I was born. It’s as if we conquered the Moon and then just shrugged our shoulders and said, “To Hell with it. Let’s go get a beer.”

I know I’m not the only one frustrated, but I’ll admit I get a little angry when I read those great, old (yes–they’re old now) ’70s books on all the wonderful things we could do in space like these developments were right around the proverbial corner.  They seem so blindly innocent to me, so ridiculously optimistic. For goodness sake, Arther C. Clarke set a novel in 2001! The man who defined geo-synchronious orbit picked 2001 as the year we’d be venturing out into space.

As a fourteen year old, I laughed at that because it was so bitterly far from reality, and that’s coming from a kid who really loved space exploration. Still does, in fact, though sometimes when I read books like O’Neill’s, I feel more like the adult than the middle-aged scientist whose work I’m reading. It’s like I’m sitting at the kitchen table, listening to little Gerry rattle off about how unequivocally *awesome* the future is going to be, and all I want to do is pat him on the head and tell him to go play outside, Mommy’s busy being realistic. And I hate that. I hate that somewhere between 1961–when we had so much potential–to 2011, we let that excitement and possibility dissipate. I’d blame myself, but I haven’t been old enough to do much about it until now. Our culture has become one that barely does more than smirk at the suggestion of space flight, and outright snorts at the entrepreneurs out there trying to make it profitable because nobody else seems interested in trying.

My generation got handed a lot of disappointments when it comes to the Space Age. The space event that dominated my childhood wasn’t the Moon landing, it was the Challenger disaster. More recently, it was the Columbia. And it’s not just me. Even our science fiction films from the 1980s through the  2000s are dominated by dark or dystopian story lines. Just look at the prevalence of “dark science fiction” as a genre. (This, coming from one who both writes dark SF and also works for a magazine that started out exclusively publishing dark SF.) There’s a draw to that kind of grim future, the hopeless “look what technology hasn’t solved” mentality.

Certainly there are exceptions, in fiction and in film, news coverage, and certainly amongst individuals, that haven’t been as deeply affected by this gradual decay of the Space Age dream. Some people still have that spark of amazement, of hope, and of optimism that we will get there. Someday. Somehow. I’m trying, as I get older, to be one of those people, but sometimes I wish the generations before us had managed to hold onto that enthusiasm just a little longer, just a couple decades more. It’s hard to comprehend such passion vaporizing so quickly. From National Pride to nothing at all, except perhaps a place to trim the budget. And there’s a good chance I’m romanticizing how interested the American (or world) population was in space exploration. After all, I’ve only got the remnants of the books and movies and documentaries and articles. Doesn’t it say something that the book most recommended for someone interested in extra-planetary habitats is The High Frontier? A book written almost thirty years ago? And yet it’s still recommended reading in entry-level space physics classes in college, because it’s one of the most comprehensive works on the subject to date?

I don’t anticipate any American making it back to the Moon in my lifetime. I don’t anticipate witnessing the first human mission to Mars. I don’t see space stations being built, or colonies on the Moon, much less human travel out to the further reaches of our own solar system.   

Perhaps that’s too much to ask of any generation to keep the enthusiasm when everything in the last three five decades has pointed in the opposite direction. Perhaps it’s misguided to wonder where the love went.

But come on, folks: you’ll always have the Moon.

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