July 1979 was the busiest month for American spaceflight I could remember, and it was a mixed bag. On the one hand, Skylab fell from orbit, pelting Australia with debris. Where the heck was the Shuttle, which was supposed to have saved it? That was bad. On the other hand, Voyager 2 zipped through the Jupiter system, returning more breathtaking (and freaking weird) views of the planet’s intricate zones and bands and crazy moons. (Voyager 1 had flown by Jupiter earlier in the year, making new data from Voyager 2 eagerly anticipated.) That was terrific.
July 1979 also marked four years since Americans had flown in space, three years since Viking 1 had landed on Mars and found no recognizable life, and 10 years since the first men had walked on the moon. The Shuttle was late, I couldn’t get a date, and the first Star Trek movie wouldn’t be out until Christmas.
Much has been made of the current “gap in U.S. spaceflight.” Some even bemoan “the end of U.S. spaceflight.” Poppycock. You call this a gap? I’ll tell you about a gap. I was in 6th grade when the last crew left Skylab (February 1974). A year and a half later Apollo-Soyuz flew. Then, nothing – no Americans in space at all – until April 1981, when I was a sophomore in college. On the plus side, somewhere in there I got a date.
There was no Internet then and no cable TV. Unless a mission was happening, space news was tough to come by. Heck, even if a mission was happening, it was hard to find out what was going on. NASA published infrequent mission updates on paper, and wasn’t always good about sending them via snailmail to space-cadet teenagers. I remember specific issues of magazines that contained a lot of space news because that made them unusual. They were like freak rain squalls in the space cadet desert.
Being able to remember the Apollo landings made the 1970s gap worse. Even though I had been about to start 2nd grade when Neil and Buzz cavorted on the Sea of Tranquillity, I had sensed that we were at the beginning of something magnificent. I lacked the words to express how terribly wrong it seemed when, just three and a half years later, Apollo 17 returned to Earth and the moon missions ended.
During The Great 1970s Gap, humans continued to fly in space. Soviet cosmonauts worked on board Salyut space stations, but their program was deeply mysterious. They claimed that they had never intended to send men to the moon. We had, they said, spent a lot of money and risked astronaut lives to race ourselves. Many spaceflight opponents repeated that propaganda on the 10th anniversary of Apollo 11.
Skylab’s untimely demise happened 11 days before the 10th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, spoiling the party. Not that anyone threw a party to celebrate Apollo 11′s 10th anniversary; there was nothing like Yuri’s Night in 1979. It seemed that no one mentioned Apollo 11 without also mentioning Skylab, as if the latter had diminished the epic significance of the former. They didn’t mention Voyager 2 much on the Apollo 11 anniversary, as I recall, even though it was inside the Jupiter moon system when Skylab fell. After all, the Voyagers were just machines operated on behalf of goofy scientists (this was before Cosmos and planetary scientist Carl Sagan’s rise to pop culture icon).
Fast forward to April 2012.
Nowadays, there is so much space information available, it’s like drinking from the Shuttle’s sound-suppression water system. No one can keep up with all of it. Sadly, some seem unwilling even to try. Gloom and doom is apparently so much easier than finding the facts.
The fact is, despite what you may have heard, U.S. spaceflight is alive and well, with more than half a century of experience under its belt. Sure, the Shuttle Orbiters are on their way to museums. They deserve their places of honor; 135 flights proved them to be versatile machines. It’s not their fault that 1970s penny-pinching coupled them with a makeshift booster system that destroyed two Orbiters and killed 14 astronauts. The Shuttle, however, lost its status as the be-all and end-all of NASA’s program long ago.
Americans have lived in space continuously for more than a decade on the International Space Station. There are no plans for them to stop. They reach the ISS on the world’s most reliable spacecraft, the Russian Soyuz. The U.S.-Russian space cooperation that began under the first President Bush is now old enough to drink. It has been the norm at least since Norm Thagard lived on Mir in 1995. Cooperation with other countries means that the second President Bush’s failure to support the Shuttle’s replacement is less significant than many seem to think.
If we want a backup for Soyuz while we build and test a new U.S. piloted spacecraft, we could invite the Chinese into the ISS fold. After all, efforts to spark a new Space Race with the Chinese as the new bogeyman are doomed to failure for the simple reason that no one outside of a small subset of the community of space cadets gives a damn.
The Solar System is brimming over with U.S. exploring machines. After a mission lasting more than three decades, the Voyagers are at the doorstep of interstellar space. MESSENGER orbits Mercury. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is mapping anew Earth’s anomalously large moon and imaging the Apollo landing sites in amazing detail. The Opportunity rover explores Mars, along with a pair of orbiters. Another rover, the car-sized Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), is en route to Mars. Dawn orbits Vesta, in the Main Belt, and will soon break orbit and make for Ceres. Juno is on its way to Jupiter. Cassini orbits Saturn. New Horizons is speeding toward Pluto and the Kuiper Belt.
Meanwhile, space observatories turn up hundreds of planets orbiting other stars and peer deep into the universe, far beyond our Milky Way. Kepler data points to systems with as many as nine planets, and it’s widely expected that we will locate a twin of Earth any day now. In the last month, NASA extended funding for eight of its nine space observatories.
While we seek new Earths, we also monitor and study our Earth. At almost no time in our history has our homeworld been under such scrutiny from above, and at no time has this been more important. We can’t launch our civilization into space without tending to the health of our launch pad, and we are doing precisely that.
Almost forgot – remember all that dating? Well, one thing led to another, as it generally does, and now I’m raising a daughter. If she lives as long as her great-grandfather, who will turn 100 later this year, then she will witness the 22nd century. What space missions will she see? Laser-boosted light-sail star-probes with real-time teleoperation of human-shaped robots via quantum entanglement? Long-baseline space interferometers mapping planets orbiting other stars? Multi-billion-ton revolving space colonies built from lunar metal and glass? Submarines on Europa and Titan?
When the 22nd century dawns, will she celebrate with a dip in a lunar swimming pool filled with eons-old comet water mined from permanently shadowed lunar polar craters? Or take a Gray Line tour of martian historical sites, such as the twin Vikings and the final parking place of MSL?
One thing is certain: the current non-gap in U.S. spaceflight will be entirely forgotten, just as the real gap of the 1970s is forgotten now.