I still remember clearly when I was 12 years old in July 20, 1969, watching the first moon landing on TV. I was in Germany then, so it was around 2:00am. I had special permission by my parents to stay up. Even as a 12-year-old I was aware that I was witnessing history, the first steps of man on another world. Over the next few years there were several more landings, and the photographs taken are now etched into our thinking of the 1960s. When Apollo 17 left the moon on December 14, 1972, I was not aware, and neither was anyone in the world at the time, that we had seen not just the first people on the moon, but the last ones, for a very, very long time. I am now 55, and I speculate that I may not see another human on another world in my lifetime.
In the 1940s science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke forecast that man would reach the moon by 2000. He was 30 years off on the pessimistic side, but he too didn’t think that would be the end of it.
Neither did I expect that in 2012 the U.S. would be without the capability to launch humans into space and bring them back safely. Only the venerable Soyuz capsule, which first flew in 1966, is still available to carry U.S. and other nations’ astronauts to space and to the International Space Station. It is, after all, a Russian – Soviet era – space craft that is the most cost-effective and safest space vehicle ever designed. Today, the U.S. is paying Russia $450 million a year for the service of the Soyuz.
There is a push in the current administration to privatize space transportation. SpaceX is poised to make the first fully commercial flight to the International Space Station later this year. A lot hinges on its success. Of course, NASA never actually built spacecraft itself. Those were built by companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin under “cost-plus” contracts. But NASA controlled all major aspects of the program. This is shifting. When SpaceX successfully reaches the International Space Station, it will be the first time an organization that is not a nation-state is making such a flight.
We expect now that it won’t be until 2020 that the U.S. will have capability to launch humans into orbit again.
I consider this situation a failure of vision by the last several U.S. administrations, including the current one. We have lost a critical edge of technology that we had held onto for a long time. We don’t show the will to succeed anymore, the will to win, and the will to excel as a nation, other than slapping around third-world countries in the middle east.
We seem to be fine focusing on controlling our deficits – and we’re terrible at producing results with even such prosaic visions and goals.
Go, SpaceX, go!