On to Mars
From the January 31, 2000 issue: America has been lost in space. It's time to find our nerve again.
Jan 31, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 19 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
If you were to say to a physicist in 1899 that in 1999, a hundred years later . . . bombs of unimaginable power would threaten the species; . . . that millions of people would take to the air every hour in aircraft capable of taking off and landing without human touch; . . . that humankind would travel to the moon, and then lose interest . . . the physicist would almost certainly pronounce you mad.
WHAT MANNER OF CREATURE ARE WE? It took 100,000 years for humans to get inches off the ground. Then, astonishingly, it took only 66 to get from Kitty Hawk to the moon. And then, still more astonishingly, we lost interest, spending the remaining 30 years of the 20th century going around in circles in low earth orbit, i.e., going nowhere.
Last July, the unmanned Lunar Prospector probe was sent to find out whether the moon contains water. It was a remarkable venture, but even more remarkable was the fact that Prospector was the first NASA spacecraft, manned or unmanned, to land on the moon since the last Apollo astronaut departed in 1972. Twenty-seven years without even a glance back.
We remember the late 15th and 16th centuries as the Age of Exploration. The second half of the 20th was at one point known as the Space Age. What happened? For the first 20 years we saw space as a testing ground, an arena for splendid, strenuous exertion. We were in a race with the Soviets for space supremacy, and mobilized for it as for war. President Kennedy committed all of our resources: men, materiel, money, and spirit. And he was bold. When he promised to land a man on the moon before the decade was out, there were only eight and a half years left. At the time, no American had even orbited the earth.
The Apollo program was a triumph. But the public quickly grew bored. The interview with the moon-bound astronauts aboard Apollo 13 was not even broadcast, for lack of an audience. It was only when the flight turned into a harrowing drama of survival that an audience assembled. By Apollo 17, it was all over. The final three moonshots were canceled for lack of interest.
Looking to reinvent itself, NASA came up with the idea of a space shuttle ferrying men and machines between earth and an orbiting space station. It was a fine idea except for one thing: There was no space station. Skylab had been launched in May 1973, then manned for 171 days. But no effort was made to keep its orbit from decaying. It fell to earth and burned. We were left with an enormously expensive shuttle--to nowhere.
The shuttle has had its successes--the views of earth it brought back, the repairs to the Hubble space telescope it enabled. But it has been a dead end scientifically and deadening spiritually. There is today a palpable ennui with space. When did we last get excited? When a 77-year-old man climbed into the shuttle in November 1998 for a return flight. That was the most excitement the shuttle program had engendered in years--the first time in a long time that a launch and the preparations and even the preflight press conference had received live coverage. Televisions were hauled into classrooms so kids could watch.
But watch what? The fact is that we were watching John Glenn reprise a flight he'd made 36 years earlier. It is as if the Wright Brothers had returned to Kitty Hawk in 1939 to skim the sand once again, and the replay was treated as some great advance in aviation.
The most disturbing part of the Glenn phenomenon was the efflorescence of space nostalgia--at a time when space exploration is still in its infancy. We have not really gone anywhere yet, and we are already looking back with sweet self-satisfaction.
The other flutter of excitement generated by the shuttle program occurred a few years earlier when Shannon Lucid received the Congressional Space Medal of Honor for a long-duration flight in low earth orbit. A sign of the times. She is surely brave and spunky, but the lavish attention her feat garnered says much about the diminished state of our space program. Endurance records are fine. But the Congressional Space Medal of Honor? It used to be given to the likes of Alan Shepard and John Glenn, who had the insane courage to park themselves atop an unstable, spanking-new, largely untested eight-story bomb not knowing whether it would blow up under them. Now we give it for spending six months in an orbiting phone booth with a couple of guys named Yuri.