I was very young when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon in 1969, so I have no memory of the landing, and only limited memory of the Apollo program in general. I think I remember seeing some of Apollo 17 on TV in 1972, the final flight to the moon. (At the time, my six year old self wondered why a huge rocket left and only a tiny capsule came back.)
For three years, we had men walking on another world. Shortly after that, we had a space station in orbit (Skylab), and the space shuttle was rumored to be around the corner. There was a sense that we were on the verge of a new age. The movie 2001: A Space Odyssey conveyed a future of rotating space stations in orbit with hotels and restaurants and large scale bases on the moon, with regularly scheduled flights between it all. In the early 1970s, this vision of the future seemed inevitable.
History has obviously not been kind to that vision. Skylab had a lot of problems, it was several years before the space shuttle was operational, and it was never the economical vehicle, with flights every two weeks, that it was sold to be. Indeed, the space shuttle is now generally regarded in the space industry as having been a gigantic waste of time and money.
In the early 1970s, the sentiment was that we’d be on Mars by the mid to late 1980s. Over the years, Mars has steadily been moved back. In the 1990s, I remember reading that it would be in this decade. Today we talk about Mars in the 2030s. It always seems to be 20 years in the future.
From the late 70s until the early 2000s, I had the most common attitude of space enthusiasts, that NASA after Apollo was hopelessly incompetent and simply lacked vision. As time went on, I came to recognize that their budget, adjusted for inflation, was nothing like it had been in the Apollo years. I then became frustrated that space was not a priority of the government.
In retrospect, despite being an incredible technological, organizational, and heroic achievement, it’s now clear to me that the Apollo program was also a gigantic cold war public relations project. We went to the moon to get there before the Russians, primarily because we were upset that they’d gotten to space first. Everything was orchestrated to put a man on the moon with an American flag behind him. Apollo 11 was the culmination of that effort that had lasted throughout the 1960s.
This is exemplified by the fact that we went to the moon, but did so with very little thought to building any kind of infrastructure to stay there. Apollo accomplished its main goal, a demonstration of American technological supremacy, the superiority of capitalism over communism. From that perspective, once the goal was accomplished, the collapse of funding in the 1970s seems inevitable.
I’ve often wondered what would be needed to spark the space age vision of 2001. We see some of the answer in the movie itself, which presents companies like Pan Am, Hilton, Howard Johnson, and the original AT&T, titans of the 1960s, operating businesses in space. The implication is that space is not only economical, but profitable.
However, space remains far from economical. Getting material into Earth orbit is appallingly expensive. Relatively new companies like SpaceX are attempting to reduce the costs, but even with those reductions, they remain staggering. And there’s no foreseeable solution in sight to reduce them by the orders of magnitude necessary for hotels and restaurants in space, at least for the middle class.
What space lacks is a strong economic incentive for governments and industry to make the huge investments necessary to operate in it. There’s often a lot of talk about the spirit of exploration and comparison with the “Age of Discovery” (more like the age of conquest for non-Europeans). But what’s often missing from those comparisons is what actually motivated rulers like Henry the Navigator and Isabella of Castile to fund exploration missions: economics, namely the promise of finding a route around the Ottoman Empire to the spice islands and other riches in Asia.
Men risked their lives and governments funded them because of the substantial economic benefits, the riches, that could be attained. Yes, finding the fabled Prester John’s kingdom, spreading Christianity, and general exploration were also goals, but it’s doubtful anyone would have funded the missions on just those objectives.
Space exploration needs its own version of the spice trade. Many see possibilities in asteroid mining, but it remains a speculative proposition, and the cost to get out there and know whether it would be profitable is a major obstacle. Whatever the economic impetus might turn out to be, until it’s found, the large scale space age often envisioned in science fiction will continue to be only an aspiration.
It might be that technological advances, such as more efficient propulsion methods, will eventually make things cheap enough to at least put crewed scientific stations on Mars and other locations around the solar system, although if artificial intelligence continues to advance, the benefits of risking humans in these locations might remain a dubious proposition.
While humans, except for those three brief years, have generally remained in low Earth orbit, robots have explored the solar system, and there are now multiple craft on their way into interstellar space. Space belongs first and foremost to the robots. It seems clear they will always be the pioneers. (Which isn’t decadence on our part. 15th century explorers, rather than risk their lives, would have sent robots in their place if they’d had them.) The only real question is to what degree humans will follow in their wake.
What do you think? Are there economic incentives other than mining? Or some other motivation that might drive humans out into the solar system?