The end of the Space Age

I grew up in the shadow of Apollo.

Like all American boys at the time, I wanted to be an astronaut. I was hypnotized by anything to do with space exploration, whether science fact or science fiction. Although I never really thought of it as fiction. Not that I believed the Enterprise or Moonbase Alpha or the Galactica were real, but I was certain something like them would exist eventually. As surely as I knew I would become an adult, I knew humanity would ultimately lift itself off of this rock and walk among the stars.

I was wrong.

Have you ever seen a Saturn V in real life? If not, you need to. There is one at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and another at the Johnson Space Center in Texas. It is impossible to appreciate the sheer scale until you get up close. As you stare, it takes a while to sink in: This is not a Hollywood prop; those videos were not special effects; those images were not Photoshopped. It all really happened. Every line, every curve, every wire, every little tube you see above you was placed with a deliberate purpose: To send a man to the Moon. And every part was designed using computers less powerful than what is in your pocket right now.

The Saturn V is an engineering feat without parallel in human history. To seek a rival, you have to turn to the Pyramids of Giza or the Great Wall of China or the Canal of Panama…

…or the statues of Easter Island.

Anyway, when I was growing up, I thought the moon landings were an inevitable first step. I figured if the U.S. had not done it, somebody else would. And as we saw in 2001: A Space Odyssey etc., the next steps were as obvious as they were inevitable.

Yet here I am in 2011, and there are no routine flights into orbit. There is no permanent moon base. We have not even gone back at all. I now believe we never will; not in my lifetime, not ever. I should have figured this out when they scuppered the Saturn V in favor of that children’s toy with the reusable whatevers. But I had internalized the dream. The details did not matter. Surely some crazy genius would eventually just figure it out and we could leave the earth as easily as we leave our houses.

But then I grew up and learned that no single genius, however brilliant, can get you to the Moon. For that you need the resources of a nation, a great nation. You also need tremendous political will. You also need a certain kind of culture. Say what you will about white European males, but for better or worse, we are perhaps the only group culturally inclined to do this sort of thing. And even we did it for the wrong reason. The right reason would have been to kick-start humanity’s greatest journey. The wrong reason was to prove a point.

Well, we proved our point, and so we stopped. And the highly improbable environment that allowed it to happen is long gone. So I believe the human race is never going back. Sure, maybe the Chinese will send somebody there in a decade or two, but note two things: (a) They would not bother had we not gone first; and (b) they, too, will merely be proving a point. They, too, will stop once it is proven.

Going forward, I expect humanity increasingly to occupy its time with noise, trivia, and efforts to control the increasingly scarce resources that we are burning up at an exponential rate. Someday some jerk will cut down the last palm tree consume the last barrel of oil or whatever, and the Great Regression will be in full swing. The Moon will be as far as we ever walk.

At least, that is my guess. I am trying to decide if there is anything I can personally do to make this outcome less likely.

Related: The Economist

7 comments to The end of the Space Age

  • johnhhaskell

    Why don’t we burn up scarce resources at an exponential rate by sending people to the Moon? The Saturn V’s fuel consumption makes a Hummer look like a bicycle. Then the people we send to the Moon can bring back moon rocks. Not very helpful in solving our resource problem, but pretty to look at.

  • I thought this was great. Thanks for sharing your thoughts as always, Nemo.

  • fratris_filia_nullius

    Wow. What a well-written and depressing post. Thanks for reminding me that now I get to look forward to pointing to the Moon and telling my children “We used to go there” or going to a museum and saying “We used to build those”.

    I imagine the mothers of Easter Island did just as much.

  • Publius

    Nice post. Very romantic. Captures the dreams of space flight.

    I’m sure we’ll read more of this kind of reflection as China, India, and Brazil begin a manned space program.

    But I’m also sure that many will be angry with me when I state, without equivocation, that MANNED SPACE FLIGHT IS A COLOSSAL WASTE OF HUMAN AND FINANCIAL CAPITAL. It makes for good movies, but most people fast-forward through most the space scenes of 2001, except at the end. They’re too slow. Oh, and the “flight attendants” in weightlessness. Those get a view.

    Romance is great, it inspires dreams. But at the time of the space-race we were in a military and ideological battle with the Russians. Space was just one aspect of that fight. So were the Olympics. It’s telling that the Russians never entered the Tour de France during those days, nor did many Americans. We had other stuff to do.

    Now we need to marshal our resources and focus our engineering prowess on different challenges. Apollo was, in essence, an engineering challenge, applying Newtonian physics on a grand scale. It’s time to apply the physics of the late-20th century–superconductivity; leptons, bosons, mesons; strangeness. I think we should cut NASA’s budget and increase the NSF budget–they, after all, administer competitive grants.

    You want romance? Read Asimov. You want science? Read Feynman.

  • jayhawkboy

    Great post but I think you’re a little bit pessimistic when you say “never.” Never is a really long time. As we get closer to that last barrel of oil someone will figure out how to make truly cheap energy. Once that little trick is figured out we’ll be able to restart the space program and do lots of other things we’re not even thinking about right now. Ok, maybe Asimov is unrealistic but Clarke is not.

    Sadly, everyone in this discussion will be very very dead by then so the point is moot.

  • Seth

    I can relate to the sentiment, Nemo. But I’m with Publius. In terms our contemporary culture can understand: sell NASA, buy NSF.

    (Fine print: by NASA I just mean the manned space program. NASA/NSF have a common interest in unmanned research missions which are quite economical and might eventually lead to the sort of discoveries — ‘dilithium crytals on Titan!’ — which could justify resuming manned space flight.)

  • l0ph4t

    thanks! i have similar feelings 😛 but more than that, this reminded me of john baez’ farewell to his quest for a theory of quantum gravity … and in its stead? – “now I want to work on more practical things”

    also btw, here’s neal stephenson – “Space Stasis: What the strange persistence of rockets can teach us about innovation”

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