Neil deGrasse Tyson, a science educator whom I admire, laments the loss of interest in the space program, which he equates to a loss of hope in the future. I can understand that. There was a time when I thought that the human future depended on the space program.
My thinking was shaped by reading science fiction in the 1940s and 1950s, and, in particular, Astounding Science Fiction magazine, edited by the visionary John W. Campbell Jr., and the young adult (then called “juvenile”) and Future History novels of Robert A. Heinlein.
While science fiction in those days was varied and imaginative, there was a kind of consensus future which constituted a kind of default setting and shared background for many (not all) SF writers of that day.
The common assumption was that the next stage of human history was the Age of Space, which would be for the Planet Earth as a whole what the Age of Discovery was for Europe. It was to begin with the construction of space stations and expeditions to the Moon, Mars and Venus, which would soon by followed by colonization of these worlds.
The default idea of Mars was a desert planet with frozen canals and an ancient extraterrestrial race with occult powers and secret wisdom. The default idea of Venus was a jungle planet, something like Congo or Amazon basins and something like Earth in the age of the dinosaurs. Mars was an old planet and Venus was a young planet. Other worlds of the Solar System also were thought to be habitable and ripe of human colonization.
The next step was to be discovery of a faster-than-life drive and the spread of humanity through our galaxy. Human beings would the leaders in the formation of a Galactic Federation, much like the Federation in Star Trek. This was to be followed by a Galactic Empire, much like the Empire in Star Wars. The empire would decline and fall, like the Roman Empire, and be followed by an age of chaos and the creation of a new and more advanced civilization.
Humans, not extraterrestrial beings, were to be the leaders and guides. Campbell was a humanity chauvinist; he had a rule that he would not publish a story in which aliens got the better of human beings.
I didn’t exactly believe all of this, but I did anticipate the Age of Space with great hope and curiosity. I thought this age was about to begin with the moon landings in 1969. I did not realize, as I do now, that the moon landings were a stunt, carried out for prestige, to prove that the USA was more advanced than the USSR.
I’ll say this: I felt proud to be a citizen of a nation with the sense of purpose and the capability to decide to do something so difficult, and to carry it out. But the moon landings didn’t lead to anything. What I thought of as a beginning was the high point.
Now hopefulness about the future has migrated to other nations, and we Americans, to the extent that we thing about the future at all, are very rightly concerned about averting catastrophe—economic decline, political collapse, environmental catastrophe, exhaustion of fossil fuels, mutant diseases, global climate change, et very much cetera.
Maybe there will be an Age of Space someday, whether or not the United States is the nation that leads the way. My heart is with Neil deGrasse Tyson. I don’t want to terminate the space program, either. But the younger generation doesn’t see the future in terms of Heinlein’s Space Cadet. Their vision of the future is Hunger Games.