We landed on the Moon, for crying out loud.
Yes we did. Awesome, no? In just one generation mankind has managed to invert the expression “crying for the moon”, to: “We went to the Moon. Christ!” Thus, this dusty pebble in the sky has come to signify our technological, and yes, aspirational prowess. We can do anything. Even if it was all just part of a gargantuan pissing contest. The problem is, we haven’t been back since the last Apollo mission in 1972. That’s 40 years of slumber.
Slowly but surely “We went to the Moon” has taken on an ulterior hue, or compound sentences like “We did, right?” or “Look at us now.” To paraphrase Tom Wolfe’s magnificent rendering of the birth of the American space age, have we lost the right stuff? “Space” as we knew it from the early days of Sputnik, retreated from the limelight, to return occasionally to satisfy morbid fascination when yet another shuttle fell from the heavens in a fiery fury. There, in the basement of the collective mind, ‘Space’ made its most prominent forays into the unknown with such marvels as the Hubble telescope, and a pair of RC cars crawling about on the surface of Mars.
And while half a dozen astronauts continuously swoosh around the globe in the International Space Station, traveling in infinity became almost boringly routine, its funding munched upon by economic distress and public apathy. The Second Space Age. America’s four space shuttles have each been assigned to museums across the country. George Bush’s return to the Moon, a.k.a. the re-invention of hot water, has been cancelled.
Instead, a plethora of private entrepreneurs are revving up a bevy of increasingly sophisticated soapboxes to realize childhood dreams and, well, profits. From Richard Branson to Paypal founder Elon Musk: well-heeled individuals or companies will soon have a ticket to ride. Expect to pay between one and two hundred thousand dollars for a quick nip up through the stratosphere. And back, obviously, if all goes well. That’s a lot more than the price of, say, an iPad, but a far cry from the millions and millions that government agencies require to accomplish the same feat.
Going into space will no longer be the prerogative of a few trained government employees or visitors to the finer recreational establishments of Amsterdam. After the launch of the last shuttle later this year five hundred people will have flown in space. That’s ten per year since Yuri Gagarin on average. Expect about five thousand to earn their astronaut wings in the current decade alone.
As more go, prices will go down, and even more will go. The world will never be the same. The fleet of private rockets and space planes will be joined by a newly ambitious Russia, followed by Taikonauts from China scaling the long celestial ladder in a great, great hurry. The latter expect to visit the Moon around the start of the next decade. It’s too early to say what effect this will have on international cooperation /competition in space.
What is certain is a new phase of hyper-activity has started. Hearts and minds. The iconic Earth-rise over the moon’s horizon, shot by Apollo VIII in 1968, has not missed its effect. Or rather, completely missed its effect, depending on whether you’re the glass-is-half-full type or not. Fact of the matter is the global ecological movement, with all of its achievements and failures, can be traced back, at least in part, to snapshots of that brittle blue marble suspended in a black, hostile, nothing.
Yet, while in the first space age most of us ‘soared’ vicariously –a few guys in a ticker tape parade, or Hollywood’s masked and caped foes and pointy-eared warp-speeders- the next stage will be different. Most people born today will at some point in their lives fly in space, or know someone who has. Without resorting to misty-eyed exaltation, a new Copernican shift in human thinking awaits. The parallel is not so much the discovery of America, or even the invention of fire. It’s a change of habitat akin to climbing, or falling down from the trees. Again. Only now we’re going up, and staying there. Floating.