Hard to believe — really — but it’s nearly over. After the 20th of this month, there will no longer be an American manned space program. I was a freshman in college when it all began; we listened to descriptions of Alan Shepard’s brief ride into space on the campus radio station that broadcast the event via loudspeakers. Optimism was amazingly high. And now?
In those early days, we were hopeful we’d blow by the Russians first, do a quick trip to the moon, build a space station (that was envisioned to house 30 to 40 astronauts), and then soar to the planet Mars, just like in the movies.
But not quite. Up through the first couple of missions to the moon the public mood was one of fascination and wonder: how can these people do stuff like that? Plus, there was the added satisfaction of actually beating the Russians, then a politician’s dream. By the time we had reached the final lunar trip, however, the glow had subsided and then-President Nixon, sensing diminishing returns at the ballot box, decided to curtail more “steps for mankind” on the forbidding moon’s surface.
You know all of this, of course. And you know that the space shuttle and the space station were succeeding steps that kept the manned space program alive. But it was all pretty much within the neighborhood: witness flight frequencies that were originally intended to number as many as a dozen a year (to go where?) never exceeded six, and a space station that ended up at half the original plans. And over at Rocketdyne, where I worked in a marketing capacity for more than two decades, our fabled and reusable Space Shuttle Main Engine, which was supposed to be able to handle 55 flights, was never used out of the box for more than a fraction of that number.
Now to be sure, what you did get for the considerable money was all grand stuff; I served as company spokesman at several live shuttle launches and you have never seen such a show. And back at the shop we were always working to figure out new ways to beat the drum for more space, more space. One slogan we came up with — a lift, really, from a certain television network — was “I need my space,” that we silk-screened on t-shirts. Or the biggest reach, and from another contractor, “It’s about life on earth,” trumpeting the (hoped for) practicality of the space station.
And yet, it was inexorably all going downhill. The manned space program, such as it was, was literally going in circles: millions of miles, jillions of orbits, and leaving and returning to the same place. Even decades ago, the magic, the allure, was gone. So the president was absolutely correct when he recently cancelled the return-to-the-moon program with the rhetorical question, “Why go again? We’ve already been there.” Couldn’t agree more. And then he said, let’s go to Mars. Now you’re talkin’!
It is sad that the smoke and fire — as far as people going for the ride of their lives — is ending. Very exciting stuff, and I think of the people and talents that I was able to watch in action since the mid-80s. It was something to be able to rub elbows with those guys. But when a train that was destined to go nowhere runs out of gas, I guess you simply have to get off and look for another ride. We’ll keep sending satellites and probes into the deep for who knows how long, but Americans sending Americans looks to be a long way off, a return that no one is talking about with any seriousness. You hate to think about it in these terms, but it sounds a lot like we just gave up. We lost the vision of roaring through the solar system.
Meanwhile, from time to time, Kris and I break camp before the sun comes up and we take a walk out to the back yard so we can see which planet is out there in the eastern sky. Yesterday it was Jupiter, and maybe we’re crazy, but it seemed close enough to touch. We looked at each other and said, “Can you imagine how fantastic it would be to go there?!”