Editorial License - After 100
Years, A New
This month marks the end of another year, but it also marks the end of the hundred year of flight. Much of what we're doing seems to be looking backward at our proudest moments, recreating the launch of the Wright Flyer, opening another National Air and Space Museum, dropping more robotic landers on Mars. History doesn't run on a train schedule though, and the wind and rain at the historic reenactment kept the lovingly recreated flyer from achieving its goal, winding up in the mud instead. At the opening of the new Air and Space Museum protesters threw a "container of red fluid" at the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan to end WWII. Looking around the new space center I noted that none of the futuristic craft I'd grown up dreaming about is still in service. Not the SR-71, the Concorde, nor even (at this writing) the Space Shuttle).
Maybe looking backwards isn't the right direction for our gaze. It's a good thing that the first hundred years of flight is over, because we really need a new century of goals and achievements, or more specifically, the generations that will realize them need it.
For a while now I've wondered if going to space as an end to itself was a viable goal. Face it. Once you get out there, it's cold and lonely. If you want to live in a can, buy an Airstream Trailer and weld the door shut. You won't experience Zero G, but your bones won't get brittle and your blood won't pool around your face either. Best of all, you can do it on your own dime, and anyone who wants to can afford to. Actually, that's not true, but it's a lot more true than any government funded program providing access to space for all but a few technicians.
What I'm sure of is that NASA's time has come and gone. As an agency to provide America, or by extension humanity, access to space, it's failed miserably. The Apollo flights were a dog and pony show we never would have undertaken except to prove (to ourselves) that we were better than the other guy. The ISS is way over budget and unfortunately, pretty pointless anyway. The Delta X program got shelved by NASA after demonstrating that rockets really could take off and land vertically, like in 1950s SF movies, but as far as I can tell, it didn't cost enough to do it to make it attractive for a big agency.
If we are going to move into space, no other goal than economically viable access to Earth orbit will get us there. Building a space station, sending a manned mission to mars, even going back to the moon are all costly wastes of money that won't hold anyone's attention for more than a few weeks. Why go into space at all? It's still as valid a question as ever, but the answer won't come from anyone sitting on the ground. It will come from the bright and creative generations to come that we've given LEO access to by our efforts.
The most hopeful initiative comes from the private sector. On the same day that the recreated Wright Flyer wound up in the mud, SpaceShip One, a rocket plane built by experimental aviation pioneer Burt Rutan and Scaled Composites (www.scaled.com ) broke the sound barrier on its first powered run. Like the Wright Brothers, Rutan and Scaled Composites is working without government grants (so far as I know) and as a result, SpaceShip One will be far more affordable than the massive government rockets. Also like the Wright Flyer, what the ship really needs is more powerful and reliable engines. As currently designed it won't actually achieve orbit, but only near space. Still, it's a step in the wright direction.
The stars do not belong to us. The worst thing we can do is to pretend that they do - or that we will be able to hold them in our hands in our lifetimes. The best thing we can do is to build one more step onto the ladder that will let future generations climb to them.