The End of a Dream
Somewhere in the billionfold archives of the London Daily Mirror is a photograph taken in February 1964, and published in that estimable newspaper, of a small but enthusiastic crowd of Londoners on the grounds of the Soviet embassy in Britain's capital city.
They had assembled to greet Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman ever to be sent into Earth orbit. Among the faces in the crowd can be made out that of my own youthful self. That was the first time I ever made an appearance in the major news media of any nation — memorable enough at the personal level, even if somewhat embarrassing, given the location, for a future National Review contributor.
The shy, pleasant, rather square-shaped Ms Tereshkova had orbited the Earth for three days the previous June, the sixth Soviet cosmonaut to go into space. The U.S.A. was two launches behind (unless you counted suborbital flights, which we space buffs didn't). Her London trip was a goodwill visit, light relief for us Brits from the travails of the scandal-plagued Conservative government.
Then a college freshman, having just emerged from an adolescence spent reading nothing but science fiction, I thought a cosmonaut was a very glamorous thing, well worth riding the Tube across London to see in the stocky Soviet flesh. I'll admit, though, that the draw of the thing for me was also slightly political. I was your average lefty student — was, in fact, taking an elective Russian course at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, next door to my own college.
No doubt the Soviets under Stalin had, as the saying went, "made mistakes," but their technocratic egalitarianism clearly had a better claim on the future than the musty moth-eaten creaking Toryism of Sir Alec Douglas-Home. The triumphs of their manned-and-womanned space program proved it, didn't they? I strained to catch the valiant Ms Tereshkova's Russian words through the frosty, filthy London air.
That program had of course begun with the flight of Yuri Gagarin in Vostok 1 just fifty years ago this week. It was very melancholy to hear on my car radio this Tuesday a brief commemoration of Gagarin's mission, followed immediately by a related news item: NASA had announced the disposal of the four space shuttles following their decommissioning later this year. The last two shuttle flights are scheduled for late April and late June. After that the four spacecraft — assuming there still are four: the shuttle's safety record is dire enough for there to be reasonable doubt — will be shipped off to museums in California, Florida, Virginia, and New York City. (Houston has a problem with the decision.)
And that will be the end of manned space flight. What a marvelous dream it was! — a dream which, as I stood stamping my feet against the cold in the courtyard of the Soviet embassy that day, I had been dreaming most of my life, inspired by Dan Dare, Kemlo, Tom Corbett, Destination Moon, Journey into Space, the Science Fiction Book Club (six shillings and threepence per selection), and of course the pulp magazines — New Worlds, Science Fantasy (my favorite), Authentic, Astounding, Galaxy, and Fantasy & Science Fiction.
Back in 1964 manned space flight seemed like the beginning of a new era, humanity's first steps towards the stars. In fact we can now see that it was just a transient phenomenon of the time, a glory project for big nations with lots of surplus cash, managerial industrialism having attained its most productive phase while welfare socialism was still too young to suck up the trillions of tax-harvested dollars.
Whoa there, Derb (I hear you cry). What's this about "the end of manned space flight"? It's still going strong, isn't it? There are six — count 'em, six — astronauts on the International Space Station at this very moment. The Russians still have their program, the Chinese are working like gangbusters on theirs, and private-enterprise manned space flight is crawling out of its cradle here in the U.S. of A. Sure, Apollo and the shuttle program may have been dead ends, but there's still plenty of action ahead, isn't there?
I'd be as glad as anyone to think so, but I don't believe it. The International Space Station exists for no other purpose than to give the shuttle something to do. It will now have to be supplied by the Russians. But …
Russia has no economy. Their state survives by extracting stuff from the ground, work which has natural finite limits — ask a British coal miner. They face grave demographic and geostrategic problems. Manned space flight is a luxury item even for healthy, successful nations. Russia's program has no future. (Their shuttle program was even more of a comprehensive a flop than ours has been.)
China is treading the imperial-grandeur track; but it's a circular track, as the pyramid-builders of Egypt — not to mention China's own eunuch admiral — discovered. China's natural condition is uncreative slumber in opium dreams of cultural solipsism, and that condition will soon be resumed, as water finds its level.
Our manned-space entrepreneurs may get some business going with wealthy tourists curious to sample weightlessness; but if there is any other commercial point to putting human beings into space, I have yet to hear about it.
And whether or not there is any sensible reason to put human beings into orbit, we no longer have the capablity. Western civilization — the only civilization ever to attain the levels of confidence, imagination, and creativity that are necessary for manned-space-scale endeavors — is manifestly in decline. Civilizations have their inevitable life cycles just as human persons do. Bruce Charlton has nailed it:
Of course, the standard line is that humans stopped going to the moon only because we no longer wanted to go to the moon, or could not afford to, or something … — but I am suggesting that all this is BS, merely excuses for not doing something which we cannot do.
It is as if an eighty year old ex-professional-cyclist was to claim that the reason he had stopped competing in the Tour de France was that he had now had found better ways to spend his time and money. It may be true; but does not disguise the fact that an 80 year old could not compete in international cycling races even if he wanted to …
It was around the 1970s that the human spirit began to be overwhelmed by bureaucracy …
Who, reading that, does not recognize the truth of it? Western Civ. is a busted flush. Our own intellectual classes, the "conservatives" just as much as the liberals, hate it — hate their own ancestors. Show them a picture of the Apollo 11 mission control room in 1969 and see them blush, frown, cringe, and turn away in disgust and shame. Yet Western Civ. is the only one that counts, other than for poetry, religion, and the decorative arts. When we enter a period of decline, nothing much will happen elsewhere.
If the human race survives the present century — a doubtful thing in itself — it will be as a squalid, degraded species of moral and intellectual midgets. Manned space travel was a last brave flourish of human capability before the darkness falls.
We should honor it for that, but not hope to see it develop further. Not for a thousand years, anyway; perhaps a million.