Transcendental Bloviation

Politics, Space, Japan

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Dude: In Space, Nobody Can Hear You Yawn

Young Americans (18-25) are apathetic about space, according to a survey reported on space.com. Going to the Moon and Mars doesn't hike their pulse much.

I can think of some reasons. Here are some.

The Moon Race happened during the 60s, and that was a real decade, not like some we've had since. It was a time of change, ferment, revolution, and ... now I'm making you yawn if you weren't around then, because you've heard it all before, but you didn't get to live it.

The Moon Race was an excellent bit of theater, with a suspenseful build-up. Going to the Moon in a series of ever more ambitious test flights kept people's interest. There was episodic, conspicuous, even dramatic, progress. By contrast, watching ISS getting built was like watching paint dry. Grey paint.

Sure, the cancellation of Apollo flights was a let-down, but frankly, I thought watching Schweickart rapturously somersaulting the length of Skylab, in his shirtsleeves, and in slow-motion, was a lot more exciting than watching the Apollo astronauts, with their ungainly bounces on the Moon. And we had the Shuttle coming up, with promises of $200/lb to Earth orbit, a flight every two weeks. Space would open up fast, surely. L5 started in the mid-70s, based on what was proven (real enough) and what was promised (a pack of lies and wishful thinking, as it turned out.)

Somewhere along the way, space travel became routine enough to stop attracting much notice, but not routine enough to allow for dramatic progress. It's a bad space program that gets its maximum news exposure from disasters, not accomplishments. We expected accelerating technological progress, but if anything, things slowed down. The future isn't what it used to be.

The universe itself let us down. (Or rather, SF had raised our expectations too high.) When I was a kid, Venus seemed like it might have steamy oceans beneath its cloudy veil, and while Mars was a desert planet, there was still hope that it had seen better days and would reveal a long history of life, maybe civilization. Well, we now know the truth: if Mars had life, it didn't make much of a mark. Venus is certainly dead, and probably always has been.

Not only is there less grist for imagination now, but the spectacle value of space seems mostly confined to pictures from robotic missions. When I was following space programs in the 60s and 70s, they were the most thrillingly futuristic thing going. Now we have SF special effects in an arms race for greater photorealism. You can make excitingly futuristic things seem to happen far more easily than you can make any corresponding future happen. And in that medium, not even limited by what's physically possible.

Is space a yawn, now? I don't really blame the young for thinking so.

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