Friday, January 7, 2011

T + 50: Whence the Vision and the Dream?

Left: An abandoned launch pad at Cape Canaveral.

A number of years ago I had what seemed at the time a rather strange and unbelievable idea for a story. It took place sometime in the future, and involved a couple of children who were fascinated by space travel--which to them was entirely a thing of the past, a sort of romantic historical curiosity, the way 20th century children viewed pirates or cowboys-and-Indians. Rather than futuristic, rockets and space for these children were quaint symbols of bygone days.

Today, with the looming retirement of the space shuttle, the cancellation of the Constellation program (and therefore no clear successor to the shuttle), and a general lack of public interest in and political support for space exploration (which has been the case since the moon landing some 40 years ago), that story premise no longer seems so far-fetched.

Back in the 50s and 60s, space exploration seemed like the obvious next step in human history. This was especially true for many in the U.S., a country which, as one of the world's two great superpowers, saw itself as leading the way for the rest of the world (at least the "free world"). All the frontiers of the United States had been explored and settled; a prosperous and (more or less) peaceful postwar American society, with ever-advancing technology and science, was poised to begin humanity's next great adventure: exploring outer space, which of course is simply to say the universe beyond our small planet ("this island earth", as the title of one 50s sci-fi film described it).

To understand what happened to the dream of spaceflight, it might be worth asking why we had the dream in the first place. Where did this idea--the idea that space exploration was the inevitable next phase of human history--come from? Or, to put it another way, how did space travel move from the realm of children's fantasy (a la Buck Rogers) to a realistic, serious expectation for the near future?

Some say it all started with the publication in 1949 of a book called The Conquest of Space. With its magical paintings by Chesley Bonestell, this hugely influential book sparked the imaginations of many children and adults and made space travel suddenly seem like a real possibility in one's own lifetime.

Then, in the early 1950s, Collier's magazine published a series of articles, again with many wondrous illustrations by Bonestell, elaborating how "Man Will Conquer Space Soon".

Both this book and these articles were written, and the ideas within them dreamed up, by what we might describe as a bunch of "space nerds". Foremost among them was the famed German rocket scientist Werner von Braun, who was instrumental in helping to develop modern rocketry.

But why did the ideas of a few brainy rocket scientists and space nerds, who had been laboring for decades in obscurity as members of "rocket" or "interplanetary" societies, so capture the popular imagination in the years after World War II? What exactly was it that so captivated our imaginations and excited us about leaving the safe, familiar confines of the world we had always known and venturing out into the great black infinite abyss?

Some would say that, despite all the practical justifications for space travel (whether economic, political, military, scientific, or technological), the essential reason we want to "go there", the truest and deepest reason, the real reason that we are too pragmatic and prosaic to admit... is simply because human beings have an innate urge to explore.

In this view, space exploration needs no justification outside itself... it is indeed obvious. Of course we have a drive to explore. Exploration and expansion to new territories, be they literal or figurative, are an essential and inescapable part of human history. It is part and parcel of human nature to be curious about what is "out there", beyond what we know, and to seek to discover for ourselves some part of reality as yet unknown to us.

But just because the exploration of the "final frontier" might be obvious as a desire or a goal does not mean that it is inevitable as an actual action or event. When one loses inspiration, motivation, and vision, one is not likely to achieve a long-held dream. The dream will not automatically turn itself into reality... but the dream must first exist before it can come true.

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