Today, SpaceX launched its Demo-2 mission, the first manned mission leaving from US soil since 2011, and our first capsule launch since 1975. If all goes well, the Dragon will dock with the ISS tomorrow morning, then spend the summer there before a splashdown in September. In this post, I’d like to talk about my feelings and opinions about this historic moment and what I think it means for all of us.
As you may have guessed from reading my posts here and elsewhere, as well as my books, I am a space nut. I don’t deny it. Space has captivated me since I was a child, when I would read books about the Apollo missions, encyclopedia articles about the solar system and the planets. Cartoons involving space, most of them made in the early ’60s (before we had ventured beyond Earth orbit), captivated me. TV and movies mostly meant Star Trek, Star Wars, and eventually the Stargate franchise, as well as the far more realistic Apollo 13—still one of my favorite movies—and even Space Camp.
Since those days, I’ve expanded my repertoire. I’ve read Andrew Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon, the go-to account of the Apollo program and its precursors, at least a dozen times. I eagerly watched its TV version, From the Earth to the Moon, a few years before that, and my eyes were glued to the screen for 2007’s When We Left Earth. Add in the other historical accounts, the futurists’ ideas, the rocketry textbooks, and even games like Kerbal Space Program, and you get the picture. Space will always grab my attention.
But the real-life space program is often depressing. NASA is, in certain circles, a running joke. “Boldly going nowhere since 1972” is a faux slogan I’ve seen and spread in reference to what was, in my teenage years, the only government program I truly supported. The Russians aren’t really any better; they at least have the excuse of communism and its aftermath. The Chinese are too secretive and suspicious, and no one else is even bothering with manned spaceflight.
I thought the X-Prize would change that. I watched the Scaled Composites flights with stars in my eyes, believing this would finally be the dawn of a new Space Age. Because the first one was, in my opinion, one of the three most pivotal periods in modern human history—the others being the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, in case you were wondering. The heady days of 1957-72 directly begat the Information Age of 1992-2016, as well as our present time, which I feel is better labeled a Misinformation Age. A new space race, even one driven mostly by capitalistic concerns of profit and shareholder value, will bring a new technological revolution. There’s no doubt in my mind. And the benefits will be felt far beyond the space-loving community. Apollo made computers popular. What will the first mission to Mars give us?
In 2004, it looked like that was coming true in real time. SpaceShipOne was reaching the Karman Line, the boundary between our world and the vast void beyond, and pocketing a few million dollars in the process. Richard Branson was hyping trips around the moon. Robert Bigelow had inflatable space stations and lunar colony modules on the drawing board. Elon Musk, Peter Diamandis, Jeff Bezos, John Carmack…entrepreneurs were getting in the game, and so were tech giants. Google announced a prize for an unmanned lunar lander (nobody won it, alas), and one of the team leaders even shared my name. The dream was alive.
And then it wasn’t.
The Great Recession was a setback for space as much as any other sector. Launch dates began to slip faster than the stock market. SpaceX had a few bad accidents, plus a lot of red tape. Even the government stuff was going badly: important science missions like SIM and TPF were scrapped, Kepler barely got off the ground, and we still don’t have that Europa lander. The Obama administration didn’t help matters, as they prioritized earth science and political causes such as global warming and diversity over the core mission of NASA.
In 2008, I looked back on the Bush presidency with an opinion that has remained unchanged over the past twelve years: the Vision for Space Exploration was the only truly good thing he did. That was killed early in Obama’s first term—he campaigned on it!—and replaced with…nothing. Seriously. Rather than reach for the stars, our previous president was content to go in circles. There’s a metaphor there. I think it’s pretty obvious.
The final Shuttle launch was a sad time for me, a dark time. Sure, I’ve had much darker moments since, but that day felt like…well, like I was watching a friend die, and I could do nothing to stop it. It was a day that a childhood dream was finally, fatally crushed. Astronauts were going nowhere, and now they couldn’t even do that without hitching a ride from our former enemies!
In the years since, I had to get my space fix wherever I could find it. I went back to reading science fiction, which I had avoided for years because of the sheer despair it caused when I thought about how far away we are from doing anything like what I was reading. Eventually, reading became writing, a process that culminates with the imminent release of Innocence Reborn, my first novel set in space.
But I keep following SpaceX. They’re the only ones left from those wonderful early days of the commercial space race, and they’re actually doing something. Elon Musk has grand plans, along with both the will and the means to pull them off. Whether his team can, I don’t know, but I’m hoping.
We need space. Space is our future, in both the literal and the metaphorical senses. Moon missions, Mars missions, asteroid mining, and space hotels all offer something to humanity as a whole. We gain scientific knowledge from exploring new places, material resources from the untapped riches awaiting us, and an important intangible: something to strive for.
Every night, we can look up and see infinity. Pinpricks of light impossibly far away, for the most part. But some of the things in the sky are much closer. They’re within our grasp, but only if we want to reach. Today should long be remembered as the day America finally started to stretch out its hand again.