For all intents and purposes, the American manned space program is over, at least for the foreseeable future. After over 30 years as a space truck, with two gut wrenching accidents killing two seven-person crews, the last Shuttle flight has been successfully launched and is circling the earth joined to the ostensible international space station as I write.
There is the general feeling that the end of America’s manned launching capability tangibly manifests a much deeper decline. The question is, what is the way ahead—not merely for this most visible and symbolic expression of vision and technological achievement—but for the world, now that the once clear and undisputed leader of the world is no more?
I’m old enough to remember, as a nine-year old boy, the excitement of Alan Shepard’s sub-orbital flight. Less than a month before, the Russians had orbited the first man, Yuri Gagarin, though Shepard’s flight was a mere plop into the Atlantic after reaching the edge of space.
Nevertheless, the country was ecstatic; America was in the space race! That same month–May, 1961–John F. Kennedy said, “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” Though JFK would be assassinated less than three years later, the United States did achieve his extraordinarily ambitious goal.
Those were tumultuous times, but heady days for the country, and for an imaginative teenage boy. I closely followed every Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo flight, and put together models of the rockets and capsules. I even had my own little launch pad with gantry, which came as a special car on the back of my Lionel train set. Now that I think of it however, my launches resembled the Soviet ICBM design more than American space shots.
In the early 90’s I met the founder of one of the first telecom companies, MCI, a man who was one of the first to commercially use microwave antennas. He became fabulously wealthy, but it was his work on designing and targeting America’s ICBM’s that really hit a nerve.
Once he matter-of-factly told how he personally reset the target designations for some of America’s nuclear weapons. Initially, there had been at least the pretext of targeting military sites, but soon the decision was made to target Russian cities, and Moscow was of course the first one he reset.
I’ll never forget the look on my female companion’s face as he described his pivotal part in the Cold War. Her mouth literally dropped open. When he saw her reaction, this octogenarian genius said, “I never felt good about that—I wasn’t raised that way.” Who was raised to wipe out millions of people with one weapon, I wondered?
My mother was a fervent anti-communist when I was young. She often said, “When the Russian people throw off the chains of communism, we Americans will be there to help them.” Their mothers must have told them the same thing, because when I went to the USSR in January of 1990 after starting a joint-venture company with an emerging businessman and touted example of perestroika, they rolled out the red carpet (pardon), believing I was the first of the promised tide. What a bitter lie that turned out to be for all concerned.
Having retained an interest in all things celestial (though after the Russian experience my passion became much more spiritual and philosophical), I made a high-level friend in a leading American aerospace company in Silicon Valley, where I lived in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s. American execs knew big changes were afoot, and the VP’s at Ford Aerospace were very interested in anything the Russians were willing to sell.
I told my partner about their interest when I was in Moscow. The next night he took me to one of the nomenklatura’s favorite restaurants. He said he’d met with officials from the Soviet space agency, and they were very interested in selling anything from components to rockets.
At the time there was still enough superpower enmity, and enough space race dream and gleam, to make the prospect of cooperation between the US and USSR compelling. Now we have a big conglomeration of hardware orbiting the earth, parodying international cooperation, while America has to use Russian rockets launched in Russia if it wants to send men and women into space.
I heard one the few female shuttle astronauts say today that she hopes that Americans will be the first people to walk on Mars. Planting a nation’s flag on the moon was a display of perennial human silliness; doing so on Mars would be a show of intractable human stupidity.
Competitive nationalism in its most extreme form—the nearly half century Cold War between superpowers armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons—drove the race to the moon. Nationalism is still a driver of passions, especially in the developing world, but identification with country is history now.
That’s why the idea of the first man or woman on Mars being an American, eclipsing Neil Armstrong as the first man to walk on the moon, doesn’t just ring hollow. It sounds absurd.
Humans don’t have to travel to the planets and stars, but we do have to look beyond our shrinking horizons, because we’re withering as a species.
What is the new horizon, now that even outer space has become commonplace? Isn’t it inner space, and a breakthrough in the human species itself?