Thursday, April 15, 2010

Simple Grandeur

Part of me really, really wishes I'd been born earlier, just so I could witness the heyday of America's space exploration program.

And not just Apollo -- magnificent achievement as it was, using soda cans and bailing wire to get to the Moon, of all places -- but also the Pioneers, the Voyagers, et cetera. I used to set my calendar by the years the Voyager probes would reach the likes of Uranus and Neptune; I was a bit too young for Jupiter and Saturn.

So to see Constellation scrapped -- when it could have been overhauled and made more economically efficient -- is sad. To see Orion developed as an emergency backup to the 1970s technology that is Soyuz and to the mysteries that are the space programs of China and India, is sad.

And to see government putting reliance on the privatization of low Earth orbit? I like the concept, but you'd think we'd wait to rely on that when they were actually ready to offer the service, not when it's just a bunch of rich guys playing with their toys?

Oh well.

I know there are economic realities. I know there are "better" reasons to spend the money at home, on the Earth. But I know there were economic realities and better reasons in the 1950s and '60s as well, and yet we were still able to go to the moon. Several times.

Even with the Space Shuttle, it's maddening to see human exploration of space ending with the apex of the 1972 moon landing, the last time man set foot on the moon, the last time man left low Earth orbit.

I'm thrilled with the Hubble, with the roving probes on Mars, and the other local solar system exploration programs. They're wonderful. But man hasn't set foot on the moon in 38 years. I thougth for sure we'd have Moon bases by now.

Why are we settling for political inertia?

Apollo 11 lander, as seen from space.

The New York Times said it well back in 2009, when these Moon landing site photos were released:
[T]here’s something terribly wistful about these photographs of the Apollo landing sites. The detail is such that if Neil Armstrong were walking there now, we could make him out, make out his footsteps even, like the astronaut footpath clearly visible in the photos of the Apollo 14 site.

Perhaps the wistfulness is caused by the sense of simple grandeur in those Apollo missions. Perhaps, too, it’s a reminder of the risk we all felt after the Eagle had landed — the possibility that it might be unable to lift off again and the astronauts would be stranded on the Moon. But it may also be that a photograph like this one is as close as we’re able to come to looking directly back into the human past.
Simple grandeur. Yes, it was a hell of a lot of money. But what an achievement. For a decade, reality caught up, almost, with science fiction. The writings of Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke and others actually, for a few moments, felt contemporary.

No longer. We're back at 78 Wistful Vista, waiting once again to open that closet and have everything fall out and clatter to the floor. Our fiction has once again surpassed reality, and that's maddening.

There is some hope, I suppose. President Obama, in his speech today, committed to an extensive Mars program, and a modernization of current Earth-bound facilities:
He outlined a program including a multibillion-dollar modernization of Kennedy Space Center, expansion of private-sector and commercial space industries, creation of thousands of jobs and eventually human travel to Mars.

"We will actually reach space faster and more often under this plan," Obama said, adding it would send more astronauts into space over the next decade than previously planned.

"By the mid-2030s I believe we can send people to orbit Mars and bring them safely back to Earth," Obama said. Landing on Mars will follow, and "I expect to be around to see it," he said.
But you know what? It's more political inertia rather than simple grandeur. It's putting goals so far into the future that the same kind of degradation and creep that caused Constellation to be cancelled can set in. What we need is a John Kennedy -- and the political expediency -- to say, once again:

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