You’ve probably figured out by now that I post as much science fiction and fictional spaceflight as I do “real” manned spaceflight. Give me space shuttle Discovery, the Saturn V, the Eagle, the White Star, the Heart of Gold, the Millennium Falcon — I love them all. I’m a big fan of the retro-future, the places we might have gone and the ships that might have taken us there. That they don’t yet exist gives me no less desire to dream that they might, in the future. Perhaps in my lifetime. Perhaps not. I admit, although I hadn’t necessarily expected tourist travel to the Moon by now, I thought at least somebody would be going there in person, from some country. Alas, earwax.
I read something the other day that keeps coming to mind, as one reason I believe we haven’t gotten further in the conquest of space (along with a lack of understanding as to what exploration means, and why we should be doing it.) It’s a thing called risk. Our culture views risk-taking as a positive thing, when it applies to financial or entrepreneurial ventures, but abhors it when it applies to life and limb.
Here is the quote, emphasis mine:
Not as famous as the Wright Brothers, after all, is Lt. Thomas Selfridge, the first man in history ever to die in a plane crash, but by no means the last. The conquest of the air filled graveyards with pilots. Great futures exact great prices. If we have not conquered space, it is perhaps because we are unwilling to fill our graveyards with the number of astronauts such an ambitious dream requires.
— The Big Idea: John C. Wright
The Mercury 7, being test pilots, knew full well the risks they were taking, and that sudden demise was a distinct possibility. They rode the rockets anyway, and if they died, they died in pursuit of something they believed in. Amazingly, none of the NASA astronauts died right off — in fact, nobody died for a while, which made the Apollo 1 fire all the more shocking. Challenger and Columbia, likewise, shocked and grieved the American public, and the world. However, looking back, it’s amazing we did what we did with the US space program with so little loss of life. How silly is it for us, as a culture, to expect to skip all the grisly bits and proceed straight to streamlined, trouble-free space travel? We emphasize and remember the major accidents (Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia), and granted they were horrible, tragic events, but certainly people don’t make the same fuss over fatal plane crashes. Planes still crash, people still die — sometimes pilots, sometimes innocent passengers. I dare say, there is not the same public outcry toward the FAA as there is toward NASA when we lose astronauts.
Which is a long way of saying, I agree with the above quote. We are unwilling to pay the price*, and that is in part why we have not conquered space travel in the present, to the degree we expected sixty years ago. Heck, this isn’t the future we expected even thirty years ago. What happened to the weekly space shuttle launches?
So, what’s holding us back from our “rightful” place in the heavens? Our culture’s abhorrence of death? Failed leadership? Lack of vision? Money? Technological progress?
What are your thoughts? Please leave a comment below!
* And am I willing to pay that price, you might ask? Fair question — I don’t know. It’d depend on what sort of mission we’re talking about, and I’d have to think about it in any case. (Lunar mission? Maybe. LEO? Not so much.) I doubt many people have an instant answer as to whether or not they’d die for something. Choose your thing carefully.