I grew up in the post-Apollo era of space exploration. Skylab launched when I was in elementary school, and the Shuttle made its debut when I was a freshman in high school. What this all means, among other things, is that I have spent most of my life hearing ambitious plans for space exploration which never happened.
I recall a book in my elementary-school library called Space Station 1980, about the permanent, nuclear-powered orbital station we didn't launch then. I remember how the Shuttle was supposed to make access to space affordable. I still have a copy of Tom Heppenheimer's book Colonies in Space, about the permanent orbital colonies and power satellites we didn't build during the 1980s and 1990s. I remember the cheap and reusable "Delta Clipper" rocket, which didn't become operational in the 1990s. I remember the missions which didn't go to Mars in 1987, 2004, 2007, 2016, 2011, and probably several other years as well.
And yet . . .
A month ago I was visiting a friend who was an early investor in Planetary Resources, the startup which aims to begin asteroid mining within a decade. He was telling me some of the amazing discoveries they've made, of orbital-mechanics tricks to ship payloads back to Earth with almost no fuel, and of ways to use the electrically-charged surface of asteroids as a tool for mining.
Two weeks ago at the International Astronautical Congress meeting in Adelaide, Elon Musk gave a talk about his company's new "BFR" rocket, which will be bigger than a Saturn V Moon rocket and fully reusable. He said it will be able to put more than 100 tons into orbit for $10 million a pop — that's $100 per kilogram! That's about what it costs to ship the same mass to Singapore by FedEx. Musk claims his company is already tooling up to build that rocket, and it is the keystone to his business plan for the next decade.
Last week I was in Huntsville for the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop, listening to scientists and engineers talking about interstellar probes which could launch within this century (though probably not my lifetime). The notion was so far from crazy that two U.S. Congressmen showed up to discuss the idea. While I was at the convention, the National Space Council released a new set of goals for NASA which explicitly included expansion into the Solar System.
The result is that now I'm wondering, has the future I was so eager about in 1976 finally arrived? Will I actually see humans — Americans, even — return to the Moon, land on Mars, and perhaps send our first ships to the stars? Is the age of zero-sum thinking and "Only One Earth" finally giving way to looking outward again?
I'm torn. I want to be excited about these developments. I want to hope. But I've seen too many failed dreams and unfulfilled big promises in the past forty years. Will Elon Musk be able to retire to a city he built on Mars? We'll have to wait and see.
Or we can just curl up and enjoy a good ebook like Monster Island Tales.