Inspired by a couple of blog posts at Tor.com and some discussion on Facebook, I thought I’d post my impressions on that day people first walked on the Moon.
Like the author Jo Walton, who has posted on the blog, I was four, and I remember the day vividly. It was sunny. We visited my grandparents, who had tv, and the tv was on, my grandfather glued to it. We didn’t have tv at home, and there was a meticulously enforced rule in our family that when visitors came, the tv was switched off. So wow, my grandpa was watching tv. And everyone sat down in the living room, despite the nice weather outside, and we all had to watch, and be quiet, because we Absolutely Had To See This. Because people were landing on the Moon. Ba humbug. People had been talking about the Moon, and going there, all my life. What was so special about that?
I was, of course, a child of the space age. What was very special to my parents and grandparents wasn’t to me, just like my kids now regard computers and mobile phones as extensions of their life, so was for me the feeling that people could do anything just natural. Cure cancer? Shrug. Eventually we’ll get to the bottom of it. Nanotechnology? Shrug. It will be useful some day. Genetic engineering? Shrug. Why not? Sending people to Mars? Of course. The universe is your oyster.
And then something happened.
Somehow, cutting-edge technology for the benefit of science, for the benefit of society in general, has become irrelevant. We, the me-generation, demand immediate return for investment in science. We rather see a better mobile phone than people on Mars. We are inclined to vote with our hip pockets. Long-term goals have fallen by the wayside. The space program has not been the only victim of this trend. Few countries maintain visionary programs for public transport. Most cities limp and fix outdated infrastructure rather than spend money on updates that will last for at least 25 years and are based on growth. Industry is expected to foot the bill for scientific research. Everything that encompasses ‘the public good’ has been steadily and stealthily eroded.
In this climate, it’s not viable to suggest spending large amounts on space exploration without that one thing people want: clearly defined goals. The characteristic of pure science is often that it does not have clear goals, but that afterwards, there are unexpected benefits. It would love to see continued space exploration, but I think that will only happen when the urgency returns. Another race between nations, maybe, or some event on Earth that jolts us into action. When that happens, will there be another Age of Wonder?