Plus 50 Years and Counting
by Sylvia Engdahl
June, 2012: The Space Age began more than half a century ago in the spring of 1961, when Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space and Alan Shepard the first American. Less than nine years later, in 1969, its promise was spectacularly fulfilled when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. The event was hailed then as the giant leap for humankind that it was; but as space advocates know all too well, despite some valuable achievements of the space shuttle, progress in terms of extending our presence in the universe has been stalled. Only a few weeks ago, I would have titled this page "Plus Fifty Years and Holding," and while the successful mission of the SpaceX Dragon to the International Space Station has made me hope that forward steps will now resume, my renewed optimism may be premature.
And yet, there is another reason why I am not as discouraged as I have been these past few decades. Last month, while revising my 1974 nonfiction book The Planet-Girded Suns (now subtitled The History of Human Thought About Extrasolar Worlds) for republication, I was struck by the parallel between our era and the emotional reaction prevalent in the early 17th century among people who were realizing that the universe was much larger, and less neatly arranged, than had previously been supposed. I had expressed similar ideas in my 2006 essay Achieving Human Commitment to Space Colonization: Is Fear the Answer? But I had not noticed the historical comparison, or perceived that the long hiatus in space exploration is not only natural, but unavoidable--should in fact have been predictable to those of us knowledgeable about the history of ideas--and that like all stages of human evolution, it is of limited duration.
To quote from my new Afterword to Planet-Girded Suns, "Possibly I see now what I did not see earlier only because I am past the age of hoping that I will live to watch humans travel beyond the moon (or even that far, unless a privately-funded expedition gets there). Yet to me it is reassuring to realize that, barring some major disaster to Earth’s civilization, the present unwillingness to accept the challenge of space will pass. That it is not a aberrant prolongation of the Critical Stage as I have long feared, but simply a pause to prepare humankind for the momentous journey ahead."
In any case, I believe this alternate view of our slow progress is worth considering. The Afterword, titled "Confronting the Universe in the Twenty-First Century," is rather long--about 3500 words--and for the time being I am not posting it online; as it stands it may not be entirely clear to readers unfamiliar with the history to which it refers. It can be found in the book, which is available in both paperback and ebook editions here at my site as well as at Amazon.com. [As of July 23 it also appears in The Space Review.]
It has been several years since I had time to update my website, as my editing work plus the writing of my adult science fiction novels has prevented me from working on it; but I have done so now. Below are some comments, including one moved from the Space and Human Survival page that has now been redesigned, which aren't long enough to warrant pages of their own. For a long time I haven't written much about space; one grows weary of saying the same things, most of which have been widely discussed on the Web by other space advocates, over and over again to readers that remain unconvinced. But I have not lost my belief--which I have held for well over fifty years--that it is vital for us to become a truly space-faring species before it's too late to save Earth, and ourselves, from eventual ruin.
Space advocates know and love this song, "Hope Eyrie," written by Leslie Fish and performed by Julia Ecklar. Since discovering that it's available on YouTube I've been wanting to add it to my website, as it expresses the deep feeling many of us have about the Apollo moon landing:
The Eagle has landed,
"We had no idea how lucky we were with Sputnik," Krauthammer says, and goes on to point out that it led not only to Apollo and the moon, but to other major technological advances such as ARPANET, which became the Internet, and to the establishment of the principle that orbital space is not national territory. But the main point of his op-ed is something less widely recognized, something that I myself fully grasped only a year ago, and commented upon in an article at my website [Achieving Human Commitment to Space Colonization: Is Fear the Answer?] which is now also included among the reports at the Lifeboat Foundation's website. The public's lack of willingness to proceed with space exploration is not mere apathy. It is fear, I suggested, "that has been holding the majority back, not conscious fear, but the stirring of an unconscious recognition that the universe is very much vaster, and more scary, than most people like to think."
Before Sputnik, Krauthammer points out, "We always assumed that one step would create the hunger for the next--ever outward from Earth orbit to the moon to Mars and beyond. Not so. It took only 12 years to go from Sputnik to the moon, which we jumped about on for a brief interlude and then, amazingly, abandoned. There are technological, budgetary and political reasons to explain this. But the most profound is psychological." Those of us with enthusiam for space and a longing to see humankind venture further have been slow to realize this, as for us, the attitude predominant in our society is hard to understand. And yet Krauthammer is right when he says that the famous photo "Earthrise" did not just spur the environmental movement. "With surpassing irony," he observes, "it created at the very dawn of the space age a longing not for space but for home."
"This is perhaps to be expected for a 200,000-year-old race of beings leaving its crib for the first time," he declares. And it is, of course. It's surprising, I guess, that we did not expect it, and have interpreted it as a discouraging sign that humankind may be doomed to eventual extinction through dependence on the limited resources of a single world. To accept the thought of long delay isn't easy for those of us who are no longer young enough to see society's outlook change within our own lifetime. Yet I hope and believe that Krauthammer is also right when he concludes, "We will, however, outgrow that fear. It was 115 years from Columbus to the Jamestown colony. It will take about that same span of time for a new generation--ours is too bound to Earth--to go out and not look back."
For many years it has troubled me that even ardent advocates of space exploration generally state that its prime purpose is to seek scientific knowledgethat in fact, not only is its funding sought on this basis, but in virtually all categorizations of subject matter, Space is listed under Science as if that were its sole significance. This strikes me as comparable to listing Lewis and Clark under Science because of the data they collected about flora and fauna, or to listing everything related to computers under Science (which once seemed reasonable) because they are indispensable to scientists.
I am a strong supporter of scientific research. I do not question the need to pursue it in space or in any way doubt the immense value of the knowledge that can be gained there about the universe. But as Shostak points out, this often fails to resonate with the public. And that is hardly surprising, since it is no real answer to the questions of those concerned about immediate problems such as starvation, disease and imminent war. Yes, scientific advance will help to alleviate these problems in the future; and yes, the fundamental human urge to explore is in itself of value to our well-being and must not be discounted. But why rely on these arguments when there are far stronger ones for maintaining a human presence in space? Why not recognize the scientific knowledge to be gained from the space program as the byproduct it is, and start educating the public about why moving beyond our home planet is vital to the survival of future generations?
If you have not read my essay Space and Human Survival, please do so now!