When Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin walked on the moon fifty-one years ago, it appeared that the world was beginning a new Space Age. Several more teams of American astronauts returned to the moon—one team, Apollo 13, suffered from technical difficulties and had to return without landing on the moon—but since that time, the space program has not advanced as expected. Space stations were formed, and shuttle missions were launched. Computerized machines were sent all over the solar system to record information and report back to Earth. But the science fiction stories that seemed ready to change from fiction to fact did not come true. Colonies were not living on the moon by 2001. No one has gone to Mars or to any other planet. Space stations remained tiny capsules orbiting the Earth—no vast city in space has been developed to launch travelers to the moon or Mars or any other destination out there in space.
Why has space exploration faltered since the grand successes of the Apollo missions to the moon? Noble talk of exploration being worth any cost and any risk has not led to glorious deeds. Explosive growth in computer technology has been devoted almost entirely to earth-bound endeavors, especially in the areas of communication and entertainment. Competitive juices of the Cold War no longer fuel programs to open new frontiers and to go where no one has gone before. Our dreams may be as big as ever, but our investment in those dreams has dwindled.
In the 1960s, Dick Tracy communicated to headquarters with his watch and Maxwell Smart kept in radio contact through his shoe. Now most of us carry or wear devices that facilitate communication, take pictures and videos, allow access to libraries of digitized information, and permit us to play games any time and any place. Our cars cannot fly, but we can start them from inside the house and have the heat or air conditioning running while we finish getting ready to leave. We know where we are and how to get where we want to go with exact precision—precision that everyone from government agencies to advertisers can use to keep track of us all the time and to know what topics we are researching and what questions we want answered. We can buy and sell at the click of a button, and our financial information is available to us (and to many other people) any time and any place.
Our hunger for space travel was fed, not by the Apollo missions and the space shuttle, but by the Star Wars franchise and its many companion stories. Faster-than-light travel is no more possible now than when Gene Roddenberry imagined warp engines for the Enterprise. Time travel is still limited to one day at a time into the future. Meanwhile, nature has not yet been conquered on this planet: it can still hit us with a storm or an earthquake or a plague, seemingly at will.
This is the future, or at least it was the future when Neil Armstrong recited, “That’s one small step for [a] man; one giant leap for mankind.” What now remains in our future remains to be seen. We will face more challenges; we will encounter more adventures. New technology will surprise our children as new technology surprised our parents. The tools we use today will amuse museum visitors fifty years from now. No one can guess when the human spirit will rise again to look at the stars, to explore new frontiers, or to solve the problems that stymie us today. So long as there is a future, though, we still have a chance to dream. J.