What Happened To The Future?
by Brian Plante
In 1969 I was 13 years old and men walked on the surface of the moon. By that age I was already hopelessly addicted to science fiction, and the goings on in the Sea of Tranquility seemed to be the dawning of a new age. In a mere ten years the manned space program had gone from zero to this spectacular pinnacle of achievement. Technology was taking off and there was no reason to believe that the accelerating pace of space exploration would not continue indefinitely. It seemed likely, back then in 1969, that one day I too would live to take "one small step" on the dusty lunar surface.
No, I didn't dream of becoming an astronaut. I planned on visiting the Lunar Hilton like everyone else -- as a tourist. Perhaps one day I'd turn in the old Ford for one of those new-fangled flyers that piloted itself. When I got older, I'd retire to one of the orbital space colonies where I could live, and perhaps even extend, my remaining years in low-gee comfort. During the course of my life, maybe another 70 or so years, we would surely master our own solar system, perhaps even get to work on that first starship. For a 13-year-old kid enthralled by Verne and Wells and Heinlein and Clarke, it all seemed so inevitable.
What a difference 25 years makes. In the quarter century since Neil Armstrong took that famous stroll, we never set up the lunar colonies and space stations that seemed to be the obvious next steps. We never developed a faster or more efficient means of propulsion than the rocket, which is not much different from the simple toys that Marco Polo fetched from China. We never attempted to reach the planets, let alone the stars. And every year, the much-touted long-awaited space station plans are scaled back yet again. Before long, we'll probably scrap the plans altogether and just rent out the piddling Mir space station from the cashed-strapped Russians.
The exploration of the moon was a climax, and everything since has been merely a denouement, when it should have been just the opening chapter. Man hasn't set foot on the moon in many years and probably won't for many more. Instead we busy ourselves with low-orbital missions, running more and more little experiments and littering the space about Earth with high tech trash. Another setback like the Challenger disaster threatens to bring an end to the manned space program altogether.
My own children view the lunar landings, and the Mercury and Gemini missions before that, as historical events from the distant past, on a par with Washington crossing the Delaware. The "space age" is history, not future, to this generation.
Was Arthur C. Clarke so off base, so naively optimistic in 1968 when he prognosticated about the year 2001? Most of the technology predicted in that book is still a long way off, but in 1968, with the moon missions only a year away, many things seemed within the realm of possibility. Clarke probably thought he was playing it safe by setting moon bases, permanent space stations and planetary missions in the year 2001.
So what happened? How did we fritter away all that momentum built up in reaching the moon? Perhaps our motives were not altogether correct in the first place. When the Soviets launched Sputnik, it was a race to prove the superiority of our way of life, not man's instinct to explore, that drove us on. When we proved our point, and the evil empire eventually crumbled from within, people lost interest in space. Rocket launches lost their novelty. The spirit of exploration (if we ever really had it) dwindled, and the space shuttle made mere orbital missions mundane. Money got tight, debt mounted up, the moon was just a dead rock, and we had better things to do with our billions. Sending men to the moon became a sign of our foolish spending on needless things, as in the oft-heard cry: "If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we _____?" No matter how you fill in the blank, that always seems more important to taxpayers these days than conquering space.
Even science fiction, built on a foundation of rocketry, now seems to shy away from space exploration as a dominant theme. Today, SF is softer than when I was a boy, with "inner space" and psychological themes prevailing. What's called "hard" SF these days usually deals with nano-technology, genetic engineering and virtual reality -- interesting topics, but inward directed in my opinion. The recently popular "steam punk" and alternate history stories set SF in the past rather than the traditional future time frames. And high fantasy, which we all know is not SF, yet is competing for and winning over a lot of the space on bookstore shelves previously held by SF, is typically set in quasi-medieval realms. Maybe you should ask your librarian why they still use a picture of a rocket ship to identify SF titles.
So, am I the only one who still holds hope that humankind will one day be a true spacefaring race? I sure hope not. Like everyone else, I bitch and moan about high taxes and the national debt out of control, but I still think the space program is a worthwhile endeavor. And I still like to see the occasional space story in SF.
If you've grown up reading SF like me, you probably believe that exploring the stars is our birthright. Besides the obvious trickle down of new technology spun off by space research, the mere effort can be a unifying force for the whole world, and heaven knows we need more of that. Are wars (hot or cold) the only things that can spur us on to develop new technologies?
Okay, I've resigned myself to the fact that I'm not going to make it to the moon, except maybe in a virtual-reality simulation. I'll still gladly (well, not too gladly) shell out a chunk of my hard earned income for the exploration of space. The year 2001 will come and go without most of Clarke's predictions coming to pass, but eventually -- maybe when the periodic cycles in the economy, political climate and technological breakthroughs are all in conjunction -- we'll have some real progress and continue what we started in 1969. Too late for you and me to be tourists, perhaps, but it will happen.
And what are we disgruntled tourists to do in the meantime? Well, there is science fiction.
As long as some kid can grow up reading stories of travelling to the stars and thinking, "why not?", as long as that kid can grow up to become a scientist or engineer or politician believing that we can do it someday, as long as a few of us can still dream it, then it can be done. It is our manifest destiny.
Copyright © 1994 Brian Plante, first appeared in Manifest Destiny Winter 1994.
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