One of the greatest achievements of science and engineering in the past century has been our transportation of human beings safely into the void of space and back again. This was not driven by necessity but by the pride of the superpowers of the time. The USSR and the United States, in the absence of direct military competition, vied for scientific superiority as a means of proving their ideological superiority, and the space race stood at the forefront of this.
Both sides were eager to outdo the other, despite the lack of any tangible payout or prize for winning. Their projects more spectacular results were broadcast to hundreds of millions each, capturing the public imagination. It was one of the most captivating and united communications of the results of scientific progress in history. It was prominent, high impact and it drove the nation to invest in industries that would further science, even if they returned no capitol. The works of science fiction existed as a feedback loop with public opinion. The US at one point sank 80% of its substantial defence budget into reaching for space. In hindsight we see the people of that time as being paranoid and obsessed with the concept of attacks by the communist power bloc, so to sacrifice so much defence capitol required some serious resolve on their part.
What drove them to these lengths? Why did the administration of the time get away with it? Because public opinion was with them. It is ideally the opinions of the voting populace that are supported in legislation and spending, and at the time people in general thought space travel was pretty awesome. Why? Because they were being communicated with. The public was unfailingly aware of the progress in this field, and it formed a core part of the lives of many. Science journalism and communication was capturing the imagination and optimism of the entire world, and it was telling the government that winning at science was as good as winning at war.
US R&D Spending as a % GDP vs. Time
After a number of incidents such as the focus on orbital facilities which were a frontier already conquered, the Columbia disaster, and indeed the well viewed Challenger disaster which raised a generation who witnessed the risk of space travel in their most impressionable years, exploration of space has been on decline and interest in it has accordingly suffered. Science fiction is no longer designed to be plausible, as stated earlier. And when was the last time you knew someone who wished to grow up to be an astronaut? The space program, having fallen out of the public eye, has fallen out of the public heart. No one is willing to investing in space exploration “because its awesome” anymore.
The Obama administration’s cancellation of the NASA “Constellation” program for another moon mission, while hailed his opponents as a sudden killing blow, is in my opinion simply a continuation of its slow decline. The new driving directive given to NASA has been to develop vessels for longer-term space exploration, delaying any new missions even further.
Though India and China both intend to have manned space programs in the immediate future, they intend to simply follow the steps of the earlier superpowers. Perhaps the desire for space exploration is just a phase. If so, how will we reach further, say, to Mars? Or construct a space elevator? Such projects will require a high level of interest and cooperation between economic powers to achieve, that doesn’t seem likely any time soon without intervention. Science communication must stir the same drive to succeed no matter the cost that was tapped in the 60s if we are to see the necessary capitol to shoot for the stars, or any other comparably large scientific endeavour. The public needs to dream big again.
Astronaut picture credits to Deathchuck
Spending graph recut from Karl Tate’s and Stuart Fox’s work at Livescience
Launch data retrieved from spacelaunchreport.com