This Isn’t The Future We Were Promised

Way back when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, way back before personal computers, way back before cyberspace became the new frontier, there was Science Fiction and I was addicted to it. I read everything that I could get my hands on. I cut my baby teeth on Jules Verne and H.G. Wells but came to love all of Isaac Asimov’s works, read Heinlein until dizzy, lingered over Ray Bradbury’s prose-poetry, consumed A. E. Van Vogt, enjoyed Kurt Vonnegut’s quirky extrapolations, got into compare-and-contrast mode between Aldous Huxley and George Orwell’s dystopias, fantasized my way through Tolkein and C.S. Lewis and always made a beeline for anything written by Theodore Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick, Fritz Leiber, Harlan Ellison and Larry Niven. I was the first in line at the local news agent for the latest monthly editions of Amazing Adventures, Analog, and Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine.

At Disneyland, while other kids raced up Main Street to enter Fantasyland or Adventureland, I would always hit Tomorrowland first. Specifically, I headed straight for the “Rocket to the Moon” ride with its imaginative walk-through area showing an audio-animatronics mock-up of NASA’s Houston Control Center, where my father had been responsible for the real-life computer installation and set-up. Then it was into the ride’s circular rocket chamber amphitheater with in-the-middle movie screens on floor and ceiling “showing” your out-of-this-world flight to around the Moon and back. The seats were on a hydraulic system so that when you “blasted off”, you would “sink down” from the force of acceleration then lightly “lift up” to simulate a floating feeling of anti-gravity.

Then the Moon would come into view and we’d circle around to the dark side where there would always be the super-secret, tin foil hat, delicious discovery of an alien observation base all lit up and operational. The panicky chatter of our rocket jockeys over the intercom would swear all junior astronauts to secrecy. Great stuff and great fun!

Time, tide and fashion have since done away with that ride but the promise of what is out there still resonates with me. Early televised launches, where you were never quite sure if the rocket would get off the ground or crumble back onto the launch pad before exploding, made for great live television. The Eagle landing on the Moon in July of 1969 was incredibly exciting and the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster was horrifyingly sad.

And then the space industry got into a rut. The first space shuttle to go up had everyone cheering but shuttle after shuttle after shuttle, where nothing moved forward except payday for NASA engineers soon bored America silly. The International Space Station, which should have been a functionally working way station between the Earth and what should be by now our Moon base colonies, is just a nuts-and-bolts slum – housing the same-old, same-old of tired Third Grade science experiments of the effects of zero gravity on bean sprouts.

Where is that future that I and my entire generation were promised? After our triumphant Moon landing we were inundated with countless TV science shows and magazine articles which told us that by the year 2000 we’d be seeing human colonies on the moons of Jupiter! We don’t have so much as a Lunar colony yet and the 1969 technology to even get back to the Moon is either lost or has to be reinvented. And instead of Martian colonies, which would be a natural outgrowth of our Lunar bases and way stations for Jupiter exploration, we have some crude, range roving version of Wall-E trying to prove that there is water and microbial life on Mars when all you have to do is look at the surface to see water erosion or at the waxing and waning of icy white and greenery at the Martian poles to see that there’s seasons and life. (And where there’s flora, there’s a good chance that there is fauna!)

So it was with some surprise that I stumbled on an Associated Press article announcing the Friday groundbreaking ceremony of your-tax-dollars-at-work Spaceport America in Upham, New Mexico by Gov. Bill Richardson. Touted as, “…the world’s first commercial spaceport built with the idea of launching private citizens into space for profit.” Spaceport America promises that, “…the sky is not the limit. From the 10,000-foot runway, spacecraft will take flight attached to an airplane, then break free and rocket 62 miles into space before returning to the facility. The flights will last about two hours and include five minutes of weightlessness.”

Okaaaaay…the thing costs $200 million of taxpayer money, is out in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico and is that the stench of governmental pork that I smell? The man with the Midas touch, Sir Richard Branson, has even created Virgin Galactic to be the premier space flight company charging $200,000.000 per budding civilian astronaut and there are 250 lined up just waiting to experience the adult version of Disneyland’s “Rocket to the Moon” but without going around the Moon and back.

Yep, that’s it. After three days of training, you go up for two hours, float around for five minutes then come back to Earth. Eventually other space carriers will start in with the competition to bring prices down to a “reasonable” $95,000.00 per ride per space cadet but that old adage of “A fool and his money are soon parted.” is as true in the 21st Century as it was when we first looked up at the stars.

If Branson et al really wanted to give people something for their money, and thereby move all of Western civilization upward and outward; they should have a destination worth shooting for. If civilians are now allowed in outer space, why not give them a real bang-for-the-buck destination rather than uppity-up-up and downdidy-down-down? Transportation planners at the turn of the last century knew to put amusement parks at the end of city railways in order to lure fare-paying riders out to the country on their precious time off from work. Why not build a Lunar space port complete with ultra-deluxe hotels and casinos? Think of the R&R for Star Ship Troopers! Think of what acts Cirque du’ Soleil could do and what great fun it would be to chase around coins as they pour out of slot machines at lower gravity! Think of escaping Earth’s political gravity and of what life could be like on Jupiter and Mars.