Forgotten Frontier

December 4, 2014
2001 came and went, and so, apparently, did our fascination with space exploration

This morning NASA was set to launch Orion, the next generation of US spacecraft, for a brief but important test flight. But the launch was cancelled due to high winds, and has been rescheduled for Friday morning.

Orion is the successor to the mothballed Space Shuttle fleet. But it’s far more than that. You see, unlike the shuttle, Orion is capable of traveling beyond Earth’s orbit, and will be able to transport its 4-person crew to destinations like the moon, and even Mars. The first official manned Orion mission is scheduled for 2020, with a Mars mission planned for 2035.

Exciting stuff, eh? Well, I certainly think so. As do lots of other people my age. But younger people, not so much. You see, to the younger generation, it seems that space has lost its allure. To them, space is old news, it’s mundane, boring even. It seems that space is only good as a backdrop for shoot-em-up space operas like Star Trek and Star Wars, and high-tech psycho dramas like Interstellar and Gravity. But, as for spending money on space exploration, meh.

So, what happened to all that passion and fascination with space exploration that we once felt? Well, I have a few theories.

First of all, the race is now over. I was 10 years old back in 1961 when John F. Kennedy vowed that America would put a man on the moon before the end of the decade, and return him safely to Earth. (I’m sure the gender bias wasn’t intentional, but it was certainly assumed back then.) Anyway, who can forget his stirring speech “We choose to go to the moon, and do the other thing…” whatever that other thing was. In any case, it definitely lit a fire under the USA’s butt. After all, they had just had their asses handed to them by the Russians who beat them into space, first with a basketball-sized Sputnik satellite, and then with the launch of their first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit. Sure, the Americans launched Alan Shepard on a suborbital flight a few weeks later, followed by John Glenn’s orbital flight not long after that, but the damage was already done, the humiliation complete.

I recall that chilly night in October of 1957, when my dad told my sisters and I about this thing called a satellite that was going to fly over our house in outer space. We lived in Toronto at the time, so it was hard to see stars in the night sky, let alone a tiny satellite. But that didn’t stop us from trying. We didn’t go out into the backyard or even the street to watch for it. In fact, my dad and some neighbour friends stood by the front door with hopes of seeing it. Of course we saw nothing. But my imagination sure got fired up by that event. Space! People had sent something into space. I didn’t care that it was the Russians who did it. We were in space!

The 60s that followed was the decade of the space race. It was an exhilarating time of exciting NASA progress, first with their 1-man Mercury flights, then the 2-man Gemini flights, followed by the 3-man Apollo orbital tests, and finally with the moon missions themselves, culminating in Neil Armstrong stepping off of the LEM onto the surface of the moon, making his footprint in the dust, and his “One small step for man…” speech (I’m starting to feel a little self-conscious of all this gender bias.) In any case, what a glorious and mind-boggling moment that was, seeing two human beings walking on the surface of the moon on live television (and yes, we honestly did go to the moon, folks). The moon! Literally, where no man… sorry… where no one had gone before! It was almost too incredible for words. Even today it makes me shake my head in amazement.

I remember watching the moon landing live at my friend Chris Syed’s house. We stayed up late to watch every last moment of it on a tiny 10-inch black-and-white TV with bad rabbit-ears reception. But it was still a dream come true. Not that anyone had ever doubted Kennedy. But, it was really happening. Never again would anyone look up at the Moon and wonder if we would ever go there. Because we just had!

And that’s the first problem. Today’s young people were born after the moon landing. So the moon no longer holds the mystery for them that it did for us. It’s no longer that romantic celestial orb within eyesight, yet just out of humankind’s reach, that it was for my generation. And there’s no longer a race to get there. Quite frankly, by the last manned mission to the moon in 1972, most of the world had kind of gotten complacent about it too. Eh, it’s just the moon (yawn).

Case in point. I remember going to a science exhibit at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, way back in 1977. They had a chunk of moon rock on display there that you were allowed to touch. But no one was touching it. In fact, no one was even looking at it. I went over to the display, dumfounded at being able to touch a piece of the moon. The moon! A couple of kids came over to see what I was doing, and I told them all about the space program, and how amazing it was to be able to touch a rock from another world. After a few minutes of this they got kind of excited and were touching the rock too. When I turned to leave, there were probably 20 people standing behind us waiting to touch it. They’d been listening to my tales. So maybe all the space program needs is some good PR.

The second reason I think young people have lost interest in space exploration, is a byproduct of the promise of exciting things to come offered by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick in their 1968 space-movie-to-end-all-space-movies, 2001: A Space Odyssey. With incredibly detailed sets, mind-blowing special effects, and a focus on futuristic but believable space hardware, Kubrick put us all into deep space to experience the next leap in the evolution of mankind… er… humankind. It was stunning. It was captivating. It was a promise of a glorious future. Only it never came to pass.

Oh sure, for the next few years, we watched the last of the moon missions. Then we watched the space shuttle fleet go up and do their jobs as low-orbit delivery trucks. Then the International Space Station (ISS) was assembled in orbit. Sure, it wasn’t the slick, giant, spoked-wheel space station of 2001, and it didn’t spin to produce an artificial gravity, but hey, it was bigger and better than Skylab or Mir. We space nuts remained undaunted. All seemed to be right on schedule. It was only a matter of time before we returned to the moon and setup a permanent base station there.

But that never happened. The money, the desire, and the drive, all ran out. Despite attempts to stir interest in the ISS missions, there really was nothing to see except people floating around. Unless you count two highly watched, space-related disasters when the space shuttle Challenger exploded a couple of minutes after take off, and when Columbia broke apart and disintegrated over Texas and Louisiana on reentry. Each horrifying calamity set the shuttle program back years, and delayed many ambitious plans.

And so 2001 came and went without even a return mission to the moon, let alone one to Jupiter (and beyond the infinite). And with that missed milestone, and those tragically lost lives, a lot of the romance of space travel got lost as well.

I think that if NASA was really interested in getting people back on track with support for space exploration, they should setup a small outpost on the moon as soon as possible. No bigger than a ranger station in a national park, but something that can be seen through a good telescope on a clear moonlit night. Then people would believe that we’re actually there, and maybe even set their sites on going themselves, if and when they ever get the chance. You have to give the public something tangible to sink their teeth into.

The third contributing factor, I think, is Star Trek. Back in 1967, when it first aired on NBC, the viewing public bought into Gene Roddenberry’s utopian view of a future where society is no longer ruled by money, greed, or war. This played right into the hands of the young generation of the day who would have liked nothing better than to look forward to such a future. We were after all peaceniks, remember.

The follow-up series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, continued that utopian philosophy through seven seasons. But something happened along the way. Attitudes changed. Peace and exploration gave way to aggression and conflict. Just watch the ST movies and notice how the Starship Enterprise evolves from a sleek, brightly-lit, vessel of peace and exploration, to a dark, weapons-decked-out gunship. Maybe the Star Wars movies had something to do with that, what with all their space battles. Peace be damned. People now wanted to see shooting and explosions. In space no one can hear you blow up. Space was no longer seen as the backdrop for peaceful exploration and diplomacy, it was now for shoot-em-up battles and aliens that burst out of people’s chests.

And finally there’s the whole practicality (or impracticality, I suppose is more correct) of pumping taxpayer’s money into “pointless” space exploration. It could be claimed that recent times have nurtured a more fiscally-responsible mindset, whereupon multi-billion dollar explorative missions are getting harder to justify. Especially when Congress would rather spend that money on wars and weapons. If we’re gonna lose lives, they figure, let’s at least do it the good old-fashioned way… in battle (or some such nonsense).

And all this, despite great technological leaps-and-bounds being achieved by Space-X and Virgin-Galactic as they develop reusable, private spacecraft for space tourism and sub-orbital delivery. These companies are promising to taxi fee-paying individuals out into low-Earth orbit, to experience what only a handful of people have ever experienced. How can young people not get excited about that? Even if it’s not them going, space will no longer be the exclusive domain of  military personnel and scientists.

And even if you’ll never personally make it into space (as I expect I won’t) you can at least go outside on a clear moonless night, find yourself a dark place away from streetlights, and stare up (out) into the blackness that is space and grapple with the reality that all around our planet is a vast, virtually unexplored realm filled with wonders and mysteries of which we can’t even imagine. How can we not make an effort to see what’s out there, maybe even in person?

It’s quite possible that some of the answers to the big questions are out there. I truly believe that our destiny is in space exploration, and possibly even colonization. Because we’re sure screwing things up down here. It seems to me that we’re like a family or friends trapped in a cabin by snow for the long winter. We’re bouncing off each other with ever-increasing claustrophobia, rage, and cabin fever. And, if we don’t get away soon, all they’re going to find of us in the spring is our remains.

I’m truly saddened that the excitement of space exploration has petered out. It was thrilling growing up in the 60s, watching the lightning-fast progress made by NASA, and believing that a Buck Rogers, Gene Roddenberry, Stanley Kubrick world was only a few years away. But sadly it never came to pass. Instead, we have a world that doesn’t look much different from what it did in 1969. Except that we now have computers, and cellphones, the iPad, and of course the Internet and Netflix.

Oh, yay. Such a brave new world.

I’m just sayin’.

2 Responses to Forgotten Frontier

  1. thdem says:

    This resonates strongly, Brad. Space no longer interests youth as much as it should. I’d even extend that disinterest to science and exploration. Many of us are no longer curious how the world works, let alone the space surrounding it. Nowadays, we are inundated with information that does not really matter, which makes it difficult to focus on important things. If anything, we would need more posts like this to get everyone fired up about space again.

    • wordswithbrad says:

      Thanks for your kind support. The shallowness of today’s interests saddens me. All about us is a world offering the most amazing things, and yet many are missing it because it requires a little thought and focus. I can only hope the pendulum will soon swing the other way, with exploration and adventure restored to their rightful places, and our minds taken off trivial issues.

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