Saturday, December 31, 2011

10 Years After 2001 and Still no Space Odyssey

It was in 1951 that a writer by the name of Arthur C. Clarke published a short story called The Sentinel that postulated a future for the human race among the stars. In time, the short story would be expanded into the 1968 novel and film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now, as 2011, 10 years past the title year of 2001, ends, so far, humans are still pretty much as grounded as they were the day The Sentinel was published 60 years ago.

So, where did we go wrong?

Answer: the political climate changed.
In 1961, president John F. Kennedy famously declared that America would land a man on the Moon and return him to Earth before the end of the decade. While that may have been just talk in another time, before or after, in the 1960s, it was serious business as the Cold War was on the verge of becoming a hot one. While coming about with neutral aims, rocketry quickly became a military science. By the 1950s and the advent of nuclear weapons, the capabilities of a given nation's rockets was a symbol of that country's power. The longer the rockets could fly, the greater the capability of delivering atomic death over vast distances. When the USSR launched
Sputnik into orbit in 1957, it was obvious that Soviet rocketry was ahead of American capabilities. Theoretically, with rockets capable of launching payloads into orbit, the Soviets could rain death from the heavens of any city in the world. So, in order to keep the balance of power even, American scientists had to work fast to equal their Soviet rivals. And they did. By the time 2001 hit theaters, NASA was finalizing its plan to launch astronauts to the Moon. Think of it: in the span of just 7 years, humans went from an Earth-bound species to one poised on the pinnacle of traveling to another world.

So, in 1968, who would have expected the enthusiasm for space to dry up virtually overnight?
Placing oneself back in 1968, if we looked at how far we had come in just a decade (Earth-bound in 1957, getting ready to go to the Moon in 1968), how could one not expect that in, say, perhaps another decade, we could be going on missions to Jupiter, just like in the movie? In the late 60s, only infinity was the limit. Unfortunately, and ironically, by winning the space race in 1969, America killed the enthusiasm for space exploration.

With Apollo 11's touchdown in the Sea of Tranquility and return to Earth, President Kennedy's promise of landing a man on the Moon and return him safely home had been fulfilled, the Russians had been beaten, and the national pride that had so publicly been put on the line for all the world to see was intact. Following Apollo 11, many people simply could not name any good reason to go to the Moon at all. By the start of the 1970s, the Vietnam War was escalating and the booming economy of the 60s that fueled the space race was beginning to sputter. With the cost of everything on the rise and wages not rising accordingly, in the eyes of many, the drive to go to the Moon and beyond, the very idea that gripped Americans of all economic, racial, and ethnic classes of the 60s seemed a waste of money. For a a few years, NASA used scientific research as reason to go to the Moon but, come 1972, the powers that be had other ideas and it was announced that Apollo 17 would be the last trip to the Moon and that three future missions, Apollo 18, 19, and 20, would be scrapped and NASA would focus on undertakings that it deemed to be more friendly to the national treasury.

So, come 2011, we humans find ourselves, at least in terms of manned spaceflight, worse off than we were in 1968 as not only can't we go to the Moon, but we can't even launch ourselves into space without hitchhiking a multimillion dollar ride with, of all countries, Russia, the nation that we beat in the space race 4 decades ago. In reality, the self-sufficient space cities orbiting Earth, permanently-manned lunar bases, outposts on Mars, and star ships that would take us beyond our solar system and deep into the cosmic sea are still as much science fiction as they were 4 decades ago, a testament to the folly of turning away from technology.
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