Wednesday, August 24, 2011

An Elegy for the Age of Space

The orbiters are silent now, waiting for the last awkward journey that will take them to the museums that will warehouse the grandest of our civilization’s failed dreams. There will be no countdown, no pillar of flame to punch them through the atmosphere and send them whipping around the planet at orbital speeds. All of that is over.

In Houston, the same silence creeps through rooms where technicians once huddled over computer screens as voices from space crackled over loudspeakers. The screens are black now, the mission control rooms empty, and most of the staff have already gotten their pink slips. On the Florida coast, where rusting gantries creak in the wind and bats flutter in cavernous buildings raised for the sake of a very different kind of flight, another set of lauch pads sinks slowly into their new career as postindustrial ruins.

There are still rockets lifting off elsewhere, to be sure, adding to the globe’s collection of satellites and orbiting space junk. The International Space Station still wheels through the sky, visited at intervals by elderly Soyuz capsules, counting down the days and the missions until its scheduled deorbiting in 2016. In America, a few big corporations have manned space projects on the drawing boards, angling for whatever federal funding survives the next few rounds of our national bankruptcy proceedings, and a few billionaires here and elsewhere are building hobby spacecraft in roughly the same spirit that inspired their Gilded Age equivalents to maintain luxury yachts and thoroughbred stables.

Still, something has shifted. A tide that was expected to flow for generations and centuries to come has peaked and begun to ebb. There will still be rockets surging up from their launch pads for years or decades to come, and some few of them will have human beings on board, but the momentum is gone. It’s time to start coming to terms with the winding down of the age of space.

Ironically, one of the best pieces of evidence for that was the shrill reception given to an article in The Economist announcing The End of the Space Age. The irony was particularly delicious in that The Economist is a British periodical, and Britain has already been through its own retreat from space. During the first half of the 20th century, the British Interplanetary Society was among the most prestigious groups calling for manned space missions, but dreams of a British presence in space collapsed around the same time as Britain’s empire and industrial economy did. It’s hard to miss the schadenfreude in The Economist’s editorial stance, but it was even harder to overlook the bluster and denial splashed across the blogosphere in its wake.

A little perspective might be useful here. When the space shuttle first came off the drawing boards, the much-repeated theory was that it would be the first of a new breed of spacecraft that would make a flight from Cape Canaveral to orbit as commonplace as a flight from New York to Chicago. The next generation would swap out the shuttle’s disposable fuel tank and solid-fuel boosters for a fully reusable first stage that would take a shuttle-equivalent most of the way into orbit, then come back to Earth under its own power and get refueled for the next launch. Further down the road, but already in the concept phase, were spaceplanes that could take off from an ordinary runway and use standard jet engines to get to 50,000 feet or so, where rocket engines would cut in for the leap to orbit. Single-use rockets? In the minds of the space-savvy, they were already as outdated as Model T Fords.

Yet here we are in 2011, the space shuttle program is over, the replacements weren’t built, and for the five years of scheduled life the International Space Station has left, its crews will be getting there via the 1960s-era technology of Soyuz space capsules atop single-use rockets. As for the rest of the steps toward space everyone in the 1960s assumed we would have taken by now—the permanent space stations, the base on the Moon, the manned missions to Mars, and the rest of it—only the most hardcore space fans talk about them any more, and let’s not even discuss their chances of getting significant funding this side of the twelfth of never.

Mind you, I’m not cheering. Though I realized some years ago that humanity isn’t going to the stars—not now, not in the lifetime of our species—the end of the shuttle program with no replacement in sight still hit me like a body blow. It’s not just a generational thing, though it’s partly that; another large part of it was growing up where and when I did. By that I don’t just mean in the United States in the middle decades of the last century, but specifically in the triumphant years between John Glenn’s first orbital flight and Neil Armstrong’s final step onto lunar soil, in a suburb south of Seattle where every third family or so had a father who worked in the aerospace industry. Yes, I remember exactly where I was sitting and what was happening the moment that Walter Cronkite told the world that Apollo 11 had just landed on the Moon.

You didn’t grow up as a geeky, intellectual kid in that sort of setting without falling in love with space. Of course it didn’t hurt that the media was filled to the bursting point with space travel—turn on the tube any evening during my childhood, and if you didn’t get Lost In Space or Star Trek you’d probably catch The Invaders or My Favorite Martian—and children’s books were no different; among my favorites early on was Ronnie Rocket and Suzie Saucer, and I went from there to The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, The Spaceship Under the Apple Tree—well, you get the picture. (I won’t even get into science fiction here; that’s a subject that deserves an entire post to itself.) Toys? The G.I. Joe accessory I treasured most in those days was a plastic Mercury space capsule with space suit to match; I also played with Major Matt Mason, Man In Space, and plenty of less efficiently marketed toys as well.

The future that most people imagined in those days had plenty of options primed to catch a young boy’s imagination, to be sure. Sealab—does anybody remember Sealab these days?—was the Navy’s attempt to compete with the romance of space, complete with breathless National Geographic articles about "a new world of limitless resources beneath the sea." (Ahem.) For a while, I followed Sealab as passionately as I did the space program, and yes, my G.I. Joe also had a wetsuit and scuba gear. That was common enough, and so were my less scientific fixations of the time, the monster lore and paranormal phenomena and the like; when you’re stuck growing up in suburbia in a disintegrating family and the only source of hope you can come up with is the prospect that the world isn’t as tepidly one-dimensional as everyone around you insists it has to be, you take encouragement where you find it.

You might think that a kid who was an expert on werewolf trivia at age ten would have gone in for the wildest of space fantasies, but I didn’t. Star Trek always seemed hokey to me. (I figured out early on that Star Trek was a transparent pastiche of mid-1960s US foreign policy, with the Klingons as Russia, the Vulcans as Japan, the Romulans as Red China, and Captain Kirk as a wish-fulfillment fantasy version of Gen. William Westmoreland who always successfully pacified his extraterrestrial Vietnams.) Quite the contrary; my favorite spacecraft model kit, which hung from a length of thread in my bedroom for years, was called the Pilgrim Observer: some bright kit designer’s vision of one of the workhorse craft of solar system exploration in the late 20th century.

Dilithium crystals, warp drives, and similar improbabilities had no place in the Pilgrim Observer. Instead, it had big tanks for hydrogen fuel, a heavily shielded nuclear engine on a long boom aft, an engagingly clunky command module up front bristling with telescopes and dish antennas—well, here again, you get the picture; if you know your way around 1970s space nonfiction, you know the kit. It came with a little booklet outlining the Pilgrim I’s initial flyby missions to Mars and Venus, all of it entirely plausible by the standards the time. That was what delighted me. Transporter beams and faster-than-light starflight, those were fantasy, but I expected to watch something not too far from Pilgrim I lifting off from Cape Canaveral within my lifetime.

That didn’t happen, and it’s not going to happen. That was a difficult realization for me to reach, back in the day, and it’s one a great many Americans are doing their level best to avoid right now. There are two solid reasons why the future in space so many of us thought we were going to get never arrived, and each one provides its own reasons for evasion. We’ve talked about both of them in this blog at various times, and there’s more than the obvious reason to review them now.

The first, simply put, is that the United States has lost the space race. Now of course it was less a single race than a whole track and field competition, with the first event, the satellite shot-put contest (winner: Russia, with Sputnik I), followed by the single-orbit dash (winner: Russia, with Vostok I) and a variety of longer sprints (winner: much more often than not, Russia). The run to the Moon was the first real US gold medal—we did half a dozen victory laps back out there just to celebrate—and we also scored big in the planetary probe toss competition, with a series of successful Mariner and Voyager missions that mostly showed us just how stunningly inhospitable the rest of the solar system was. The race that ultimately counted, though, was the marathon, and Russia’s won that one hands down; they’re still in space, and we aren’t.

Behind that unwelcome news is the great geopolitical fact of the early 21st century, the decline and imminent fall of the American empire. Like any number of empires before us, we’ve gotten ourselves wedged tightly into the predictable downside of hegemony—the stage at which the costs of maintaining the economic imbalances that channel wealth from empire to imperial state outstrip the flow of wealth those imbalances are meant to produce. Once that stage arrives, the replacement of the failing empire by some new distribution of power is a foregone conclusion; the only question is how long the process will take and how brutal the final cost to the imperial state will turn out to be.

The Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union was a standard contest to see which empire would outlast the other. The irony, and it’s a rich one, is that the loser of that contest was pretty much guaranteed to be the winner in a broader sense. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia had an empire wrenched out of its hands, and as a result it was forced to give up the struggle to sustain the unsustainable. The United States kept its empire intact, and as a result it has continued that futile but obsessive fight, stripping its national economy to the bare walls in order to prop up a global military presence that will sooner or later bankrupt it completely. That’s why Russia still has a functioning space program, while the United States may have trouble finding the money to launch cheap fireworks by the time its empire finally slips from its fingers.

It’s our decidedly mixed luck, as discussed here more than once in the past, that America is entering on the downslope of its imperial decline just as a much vaster curve has peaked and begun to arc in the same direction. That’s the second reason that the space age is ending, not just for us but for humanity. In the final analysis, space travel was simply the furthest and most characteristic offshoot of industrial civilization, and depended—as all of industrial civilization depends—on vast quantities of cheap, highly concentrated, readily accessible energy. That basic condition is coming to an end around us right now. Petroleum has already reached its global production peak as depletion rates shoot past the rate at which new fields can be found and brought on line; natural gas and coal are not far behind—the current bubble in shale gas will be over in five or, just possibly, ten years—and despite decades of animated handwaving, no other energy source has proven to yield anything close to the same abundance and concentration of energy at anything like the same cost.

That means, as I’ve shown in detail in past posts here, that industrial civilization will be a short-lived and self-terminating phenomenon. It doesn’t mean, or at least doesn’t have to mean, that future civilizations will have to make do with an equivalent of the much simpler technological suites that civilizations used before the industrial age; I’ve argued at some length here and elsewhere that an ecotechnic society—a civilization that supports a relatively advanced technology on a modest scale using the diffuse and limited energy provided by sustainable sources, without wrecking the planet—is a live option, if not in the immediate future, then after the dark age the misguided choices of the recent past have prepared for us.

Still, of the thousands of potential technological projects that might appeal to the limited ambitions and even more strictly limited resources of some future ecotechnic society, space travel will rank very, very low. It’s possible that the thing will be done, perhaps in the same spirit that motivated China a little while back to carry out a couple of crisp, technically capable manned orbital flights; ten thousand years from now, putting a human being into orbit will still probably be the most unanswerable way for a civilization to announce that it’s arrived. There are also useful things to be gained by lofting satellites for communication and observation purposes, and it’s not at all impossible that now and then, over the centuries and millennia to come, the occasional satellite will pop up into orbit for a while, and more space junk will be added to the collection already in place.

That’s not the vision that fired a generation with enthusiasm for space, though. It’s not the dream that made Konstantin Tsiolkovsky envision Earth as humanity’s cradle, that set Robert Goddard launching rockets in a Massachusetts farmyard and hurled Yuri Gagarin into orbit aboard Vostok I. Of all people, it was historical theorist Oswald Spengler who characterized that dream most precisely, anatomizing the central metaphor of what he called Faustian civilization—yes, that’s us—as an eternal outward surge into an emptiness without limit. That was never a uniquely American vision, of course, though American culture fixated on it in predictable ways; a nation that grew up on the edge of vastness and cherished dreams of heading west and starting life over again was guaranteed to think of space, in the words of the Star Trek cliché, as "the final frontier." That it did indeed turn out to be our final frontier, the one from which we fell back at last in disarray and frustration, simply adds a mordant note to the tale.

It’s crucial to realize that the fact that a dream is entrancing and appeals to our core cultural prejudices is no guarantee that it will come true, or even that it can. There will no doubt be any number of attempts during the twilight years of American empire to convince Americans to fling some part of the energies and resources that remain to them into a misguided attempt to relive the dream and claim some supposed destiny among the stars. That’s not a useful choice at this stage of the game. Especially but not only in America, any response to the crisis of our time that doesn’t start by using much less in the way of energy and resources simply isn’t serious. The only viable way ahead for now, and for lifetimes to come, involves learning to live well within our ecological limits; it might also help if we were to get it through our heads that the Earth is not humanity’s cradle, or even its home, but rather the whole of which each of us, and our species, is an inextricable part.

That being said, it is far from inappropriate to honor the failed dream that will shortly be gathering dust in museums and rusting in the winds that blow over Cape Canaveral. Every civilization has some sprawling vision of the future that’s destined never to be fulfilled, and the dream of infinite expansion into space was ours. The fact that it didn’t happen, and arguably never could have happened, takes nothing away from the grandeur of its conception, the passion, genius, and hard work that went into its pursuit, or the sacrifices made on its behalf. Some future poet or composer, perhaps, will someday gather it all up in the language of verse or music, and offer a fitting elegy to the age of space.

Meanwhile, some 240,000 miles from the room where I write this, a spidery metallic shape lightly sprinkled with meteoritic dust sits alone in the lunar night on the airless sweep of Mare Tranquillitatis. On it is a plaque which reads WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND. Even if no other human eyes ever read that plaque again, as seems likely, it’s a proud thing to have been able to say, and a proud thing to have done. I can only hope that the remembrance that our species once managed the thing offers some consolation during the bitter years ahead of us.

213 comments:

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RainbowShadow said...

dltrammel, the reason "why" we collectively couldn't protect the space program is because most Americans today have only one vision, and one vision ONLY, of "the good life:"

Get a job in business, or economics, or in a factory, or in the military, or in any job that specifically does NOT improve the common good or the public interest (because any job where you can't "make a profit" is SOCIALISM!!! AAAAAAAAAAAAH!!!), then make lots of money by beating as many of your competitors (both outside and your own co-workers and bosses) as possible, then retire when you're "rich" but almost too old to enjoy it anyway.

The American people constantly voted in favor of business and, even more importantly, against everything ELSE. They voted to cut science funding, education funding, etc., in favor of protecting business, so of course there was no funding left over for the space program.

So the reason why, dltrammel, is because as Oswald Spengler pointed out, America has become a nation of "dollar-trappers." Unfortunately I don't remember the name of the book in which Spengler coined that phrase.

Joseph Campbell, the man who attempted to probe the underlying messages behind all world myths, also has a good examination of this phenomenon:

http://www.context.org/ICLIB/IC12/Campbell.htm

In short, it's because most people aren't as well-read or don't think in as much depth as John Michael Greer.

And not to worry, JMG, I'm not blaming the businesses or the corporations or any political party on this one. This is solely because the VOTERS have messed-up "value systems."

BC Richardson said...

Yes a bitter sweet time indeed. Your post reminds me of one of my mentors a scientist for the 1957/58 International Geophysical Year. Its stated mission below in quotes but my mentors true mission was to track the newly launched Sputnik that could only be done 24 hours due to its orbit from the south pole.

"Overall, the IGY was highly successful in achieving its goals, which were summed up in an NAS IGY Program Report:

...to observe geophysical phenomena and to secure data from all parts of the world; to conduct this effort on a coordinated basis by fields, and in space and time, so that results could be collated in a meaningful manner."

lagedargent said...

Hi JMG,
Today, I read an article in 'Der Spiegel' called "Outdated in Outer Space: Russia's Soyuz Program Crashes and Burns."
It seems the Age of Space's demise may be nearer than even you called for.

idiotgrrl said...

A friend of mine pointed out one thing about keeping someone in the household economy. If the person earning the money dies, leaves, or is disabled, the person in the household economy is quite out of luck. This, too, was discussed at great length in the late 70s, early 80s as the "Displaced Homemaker Problem" and it was quite real. I had forgotten that.

Then, too, there was the tendency of the person earning the cash income to think of it as "MY hard-earned money, which I will generously give a little of to my partner, who had better not waste it on trivial luxuries," and to treat - and talk to - the person in the household economy as a servant.

Hal said...

Don Mason, I think you made a very good point about the need to have a discussion which it is hoped could allow for the building of a political (maybe ideological is better?) agenda for dealing with the issues of collapse. (I hope I didn't read more into your post than you intended.) However, I don't know if the anti-war movement of the 60s and 70s provides a workable model for what you propose. The protests against the war were really asking for a whole new way for a hegemonic superpower to interact with weaker nations. That it arguably succeeded in getting us out of the war is no small feat, but how much did it really make a deep change the likes of which is needed now? Recent warlike behavior would suggest not much.

Likewise, I don't recall anyone standing in the streets demanding the creation of a government bureaucracy to oversee energy in those days. What was being demanded at the time was a complete rethinking of how humans, and especially residents of first-world nations, managed their relationship with the material world. (That might be over-stating the point, but let's just say, how we were going to use energy to make the type of life we wanted.) Naturally the political system was capable of giving what it could give, and asking the people to live more simply on less wasn't part of it. St. Jimmy the Peanut Farmer is remembered as a great reformer for taking a few symbolic steps such as the establishment of the DOE, and certainly looked good compared to what followed, but really he was only able to do what a government dependent on the franchise of the people can do.

As far as the women's movement is concerned, I believe it was about just a little more than moving women into the workforce. I'm not saying that wasn't one of the effects, nor that that particular outcome didn't have some serious negative consequent effects of it's own, but again, the problem isn't that the movement was successful in it's demands, which had a lot to do with reworking the way women and men share power in the world. What it succeeded in getting was the sort of superficial reforms that you described.

Bottom line: If we're going to try to build a political movement as you seem to be suggesting, we're not going to have the luxury this time of settling for a few half-measures. Having the discussion seems like a good idea, but I'm not sure it's feasible, given the resources available, not to mention human nature.

Angus Wallace said...

Hi John,

This is completely off-topic wrt your post this week (which I liked, btw).

There are some who argue that descent down the far-side of Hubbert's peak will be much steeper than the ascent was, due to (for example) collapsing financial and social systems. Would you please comment on your reasoning behind thinking that the peak will be approximately symmetrical?
If you have done this previously, apologies -- I have looked at your historical blog-postings, but they do not apparently go back to your initial posts.

Thanks!

Ric said...

lagedargent: It seems the Age of Space's demise may be nearer than even you called for.

That may certainly turn out to be the case, but I wouldn't count the Russians out just yet. I remember a quote from the early 1990's from a Russian aerospace engineer that went something like: "You Americans build airplanes like fine Swiss watch. Drop watch, watch stop. We Russians build airplanes like Mickey Mouse clock. Drop clock, clock stop. Pick clock up and shake, clock start."

It may be "old-fashioned", but the Russian launch system has proven extremely reliable, and the Russian space program works nothing like NASA.

[Note that I'm not saying that the economic props under the Russian space program are immune from sudden collapse (like the Soviet Union itself), just that a third-stage failure of a cargo launch is unlikely to ground the Russian space program in and of itself.]

Don Mason said...

@Idiotgrrl and Hal:

Political movements are always limited by human nature; and human nature, being what it is, places severe limitations on the positive impacts of government, but places almost no limits whatsoever on the negative impacts of governments.

Think of Germany under Hitler and the Nazis, Italy under Mussolini and the Fascists, the Soviet Union under Stalin and the Communists, and Japan under Tojo and the militarists; and how these countries fared as they interacted with each other and with other nations that were governed reasonably well (like the U.S. and Great Britain). And even the countries that were governed reasonably well were having huge economic and social problems – and that was back when we had huge reserves of petroleum.

So I see political organizing in the coming decades as trying to avoid making the worst of an incredibly bad situation.

If America can simply avoid a catastrophic war (or a series of catastrophic wars), I would count ourselves lucky.

That goal may or may not be achievable, given the delusional state of the American public – and if we got ourselves involved in a catastrophic war, the American public could easily become even more delusional, rather than less delusional.

But I am eternally hopeful.

We did eventually withdraw from Vietnam, and the 70’s saw an American public that was (briefly) less interested in foreign military (mis)adventures.

As far as the women’s movement, a lot of my thinking was shaped by Ivan Illich’s “Gender”. Although it’s much too complicated for a quick discussion, I essentially agree with his analysis that the industrial system destroyed vernacular gender and replaced it with the illusion of unisexual equality revolving around the cash nexus.

My hunch is that as money starts to get scarcer and society revolves more and more around muscle-powered agriculture, then we will see a return to more traditional gender roles.

Is this good or bad? Who knows?

If it looks like it will help get more people through this mess alive, then I’d vote “Yes, a return to Vernacular Gender is a Good Thing.” If it looks like it will get more people killed, then I’d vote “No.”

At this point, my politics pretty much revolves around analyzing the effects of a policy change on increasing or decreasing the body count. Everything else pales in comparison.

Brian Kane said...

the link below is a video art installation, "Go For Launch" which a friend and i made for an exhibition a few years ago in santa fe. we had envisioned it as a testimony to the power of the space program, but having read this essay maybe we were creating a memorial instead. if you enjoy this or have comments, please let me know.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lGfGFnQz060

thanks for writing this thoughtful essay.

. josé . said...

I know the discussion has moved on to Science Fiction, but one sentence in this thread caught my attention:

John Michael Greer wrote, "I'm an optimist -- I think that humanity has enormous potentials ahead of it, once it gets past the childish notion that big fast noisy machines are what matters in life."

I think that's what makes your writing (this blog, Star's Reach, and now I'm reading The Druidry Handbook) so compelling. In the face of impending disaster, you show us a way to a more human, more humane future.

Something to work toward.

katsmama said...

Started working yesterday, got about 2500 words in on a story about a green witch and her apprentice. I am loving this challenge.

Dornier said...

If this is a double post I apologize and ask you just delete it.

In my hometown paper this morning via the Chicago Tribune. A sad comic commentary on the end of the space age.
http://www.chicagotribune.com/media/photo/2012-04/69490037.jpg

btidwell said...

JMG,
I'm reading your blog from the begining and enjoying it very much (well as much as one can enjoy a sad subject). I haven't commented before because the time for that seems past. This post however, is so poignant, bittersweet, and well written, that I couldn't let it go without saying "Bravo!" It left me quite choked up.

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