No More Space Stations ... Screw That. The Contrarian View
Space ... get over it. That's the message carried aloft on the winds of today's change, like a message in a zeitgeist. "We don't need no stinkin' space marines," they say. Been there, done that, being the message. Screw that. I say we need space marines now more than ever.
After nearly a half-century of slapping ourselves on the back because (holy crap) man has walked on the (freakin') moon, we, as a society, have largely moved on. In the 50s and 60s, the mere suggestion that another nation (the now-defunct Soviet Union) might make it to the moon before us was enough to send the entire United States educational system into a frenzied overhaul of science and math curricula. Two decades later, the burgeoning Space Shuttle program, designed to be the first use of a re-usable space vehicle capable of launching into orbit and landing on its own six wheels prompted another S&M blitz culminating in the much-wowed-over, but ultimately tragic launch of an educator into space.
Now here we are. After 30 years and more than 100 missions, the Space Shuttle is being retired and China - widely recognized as the biggest, current, potential long-term threat to Westernized Democracy - is going to the moon. Does anyone care? It would seem not. We have better things to worry about. Like managing our iTunes playlists.
It seems that every year the cultural gulf between the time that formed me and the times I live in today grows as wide as the chronological difference itself. When I was young, every kid I knew wanted to be an astronaut when they grew up, including me. Sure the requirements were steep, but a child's ambition knows no pre-requisites. Sure the astronaut corps is largely comprised of career military pilots and near-genius-level scientists and engineers. No matter. I had a telescope and a dream, dammit. I was going to make it happen.
Well, I didn't. As far as I know none of us did, but those childhood dreams informed our fantasies well into adulthood. My generation pioneered the space station videogame, after all. If we weren't going to make it into space on our own merits, then by gum, we'd do it digitally. Films like Aliens didn't spark the fire, as many have alleged, they re-kindled it, picking up the tail of the dream and whipping it from the realm of faint possibility into that of full-bore fantasy. My parents' generation has been called the Baby Boomers. The generation before that, "The Builders," the greatest generation. So if we're talking about my generation (if I were trying to put us down) I'd call us "The Space Nerds." Back then, being an astronaut was the most glamorous and exciting career imaginable. Today, however, not so much.
According to Forbes, a 2009 survey of kindergartners revealed most kids want to be superheroes. (Princesses come in a close second.) The good news is that a good number of Forbes' kindergartners have slightly more realistic career ambitions. Firefighter seems to be a popular choice at that age, as does police officer. All good choices. The bad news? The older children get, the more unrealistic (and useless) their career ambitions become. According to a study conducted in 2005, the most popular career choice for middle-school-aged children is "professional athlete."
So what about space stations, then? What of the childhood dream of becoming an astronaut? One could argue that advances in technology have made it more likely, not less, that we might all some day live in space. But then, that's exactly the problem, isn't it? Much in the same way that GPS and Google Maps have eroded the allure of growing up to be Davey Crockett, commercial space endeavors have largely de-mystified the act of entering orbit, and the chance that some day soon, many of us may be able to purchase a ticket and go there ourselves means that maybe we don't really need to study all that hard to pass the test. Maybe all we need is a high-paying job. (Professional athlete?)
Yesterday we dreamed of becoming astronauts, but some day soon, that dream - albeit slightly modified - may become a reality. What will we dream of then? Of what do astronauts dream, apart from going home? Becoming Kobe Bryant, perhaps.
Times change. Proposing one stand in the way of that change brings to mind images of tilting at windmills. But I, for one, won't go quietly into the dark night in which dreams of space travel include mandatory TSA pat-downs and checked bags. In my dreams (the ones that don't involve zombies), I'm still riding a hundred-foot tower of fire into a low-Earth orbit and beyond. And my favorite games are still the ones in which space remains the final frontier.