Monday, April 10, 2017

Space is the Place

It's not that long ago -- well within living memory, as I can attest from my own childhood -- that space truly was seen as "the final frontier," with all the problematic baggage that the word implies. Westerns were sure-fire TV ratings gold; the future of space dramas was a lot less certain. When Gene Roddenberry first pitched Star Trek to the networks, his tagline was that it was basically a "Wagon Train to the Stars." Kids like myself grew up building models of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space capsules, ate Space Food Sticks and washed down our breakfast with Tang; to grow up to be an astronaut was way cooler than being president. On July 20, 1969, I stayed up with my parents, glued to the fuzzy video of Neil Armstrong stepping out onto on the surface of the Moon.

But what would we do in space? Why, if we really did "come in peace," was the whole concept of the "space race" built around besting the Soviets? Would we build space stations? Moon colonies? How about Mars? And, even then, there was a vague awareness that, although our appetite for space exploration was vast, the funding and public support it depended on was far from infinite. It was not entirely a surprise, then, when after the first few Moon landings, public support began to dwindle; the Apollo 13 astronauts famously didn't even merit a live TV feed, at least until their mission turned potentially tragic. The Space Shuttle program, though less ambitious in exploratory scope, continued to capture the American imagination, despite (or perhaps in part because of) the loss of Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003. Yet with costs rising and mission goals elusive, its days were numbered, and the last shuttle, Atlantis, landed at the Kennedy Space Center in 2011.

NASA has certainly achieved some remarkable benchmarks since then -- their New Horizons probe made it all the way to Pluto, and took dramatic images of that no-longer-quite-a-planet and its moon (one might even say it wasn't entirely an unmanned probe, as it contained 30 grams of the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930). But with budgets in question, the future of human space travel -- one might not deem it properly "exploration" -- is now largely in the hands of private concerns such as SpaceX.