Is the space age just beginning or almost over?

I was born in 1983, and although all the moon landings had already been done by then, my childhood occurred in an era where it was assumed space travel was the way of the future. The Space Shuttle was the wave of the future – there would be 2 shuttle missions a week – we’d be on Mars by 1996 and have a self-sustaining moon colony sometime early in the 21st century.
Well, of course, that Kubrickian vision has not quite materialized. Admittedly we DO have a space station, just finished now and I’m rather excited about it, but it’s a far cry from the big rotating one in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

It would be unfair to say that the space program has entirely declined since Apollo. After all, the (relatively) “low budget” approach to space exploration has led to such spectacular successes as the Pioneer, Voyager, Viking and Galileo missions. One of my formative experiences in appreciating science came when, as a kid during the '80s and '90s, I’d read about each new Voyager flyby (especially Uranus in 1987 and Neptune in 1989) and how the data retrieved instantly made every textbook on that planet totally obsolete.

But I’m from the post-Star Trek generation, and dammit, I want to see people walking on Mars before I die! Maybe I’m being irrational by saying that: can I really argue against using the money such a mission would cost for more humanitarian, down-to-earth purposes?

My gut feeling is that long-long-long term, assuming we don’t blow ourselves up, we will eventually reach the stars, because that is the best way for our species to perpetuate itself. But what about short term? Will there be a Mars Mission or a Moon Colony in our lifetimes (say, 2030-2050)? By the U.S. or any other nation/private concern?

Where did the space age go? Will it come back?

If the space age were a ball game we’d still be listening to the pre-game show. When the launch technology gets cheap enough that your average person can afford it (like a plane ticket), then the space age truly begins. Imagine the new Homestead add:

Live on Mars!!!

$500 get’s you a ticket to Mars. To anyone willing to develop it, 500 acres of Martian land will be assigned to you by the Solar government. Habitats and materials provided on site when you land in New York City, Mars.

It’s gonna be good.

DaLovin’ Dj

I prefer to think of it as in hibernation. We’re between the stages where we have the enthusiasm (Or at least the political motivation :rolleyes:) to overcome heavy obstacles, but before the stage where we have the technology to get into space cheaply. Give us another 20 years and I’m betting the space age will get started again.

Relax - once the price drops to the point where more commercial applications become profitable, things will take off (pun intended).

I agree with you in assuming that barring major catastrophe humankind will colonize our solar system and possibly explore beyond. My question is, why worry about it now? At the moment their are more pressing issues than the eventual transmission of our culture into the universe, like a global recession, the continued battle of East and West under the new banner of Globalization, and the threat of Global War brewing in the near east. I don’t recall Stanley Kubric’s film mentioning anything about a space age with those things.

As strange as it seems, maybe these turkeys (more commonly referred to as millionaires) that are paying to take rides into space will be what gets the ball rolling again.


New markets baby. That’s the cure for an ailing economy. The launch costs are the problem and once those are solved great new work areas will open up. A single asteroid contains substantial amounts of mineral resources. Vast amounts of solar power are available. Tourism. . .

Even without all this, there is one reason that is greater than any other. Because we can. Because humanity is at it’s best when we step forward boldly into that unknown darkness and shine the light of knowledge, risking what we hold most dear so that we may answer our most difficult questions. For the sake of knowledge and understanding. It’s genetic. We hairless apes always want to know how far and fast we can fly.

That’s a thousand kids. One large. Where’s my mutha-fuckin’ ring?

DaLovin’ Dj

Not the U.S., not Mars in that time period. Not unless they can dramatically drop the price. VP Dan Quayle led a task force to develop realistic plan and cost estimates to get there, this was about ’91. They came up with a 750 billion to 1 trillion-dollar price tag over 15 years. To be fair this included a bigger, better space station, a possible Lunar base, developing safe (?) nuclear rockets, test vehicles and a nuclear powered engine. There is just no way they are going to shell out +60-ish Billion dollars a year to NASA, (NASA’s 2002 total Budget is $14 billion raising to a whopping $16 billion in 2006)

IMO there is 1 other thing, besides a technological breakthrough dramatically bringing down the price, that can make the Mission happen: your friendly neighborhood Peoples Republic of China. Trash talkers extraordinaire on this issue they have missed, often by half-decades every milestone they have set for their space program. Having said that, they are persistent - they are talking openly about Mars missions and Lunar bases. Would it be acceptable to Trent Lott, Dick Armey et al. that the Chinese have set up a lunar base built nuclear rockets and are on their way to Mars while we dick around in L.E.O. with the Italians in the ISS?

A site with a timetable for Chins exploration. It notes it is “Unofficial” but speculates that it has some blessing of officialdom. So Space race II, Sputnik II might be a way to meet your timetable.


The extreme optimism about the prospects of manned spaceflight in the 60s was a product of the times, and turned out to be unwarrented.

As far back as the late 1930s, the handful of people seriously interested in rocketry calculated the cost and performance of chemically-fueled rockets, and concluded that they would almost certainly be impractical; given that you would need a huge rocket with only about 5% of it’s mass as payload. Most assumed that manned spaceflight would not come about until some form of controlled nuclear power made it possible to build high-performance rockets. This was the presumption by most scientists and science fiction writers into the mid-50s.

But by the late 50s, a number of innovations combined to make chemical rockets suddenly look more promising. The first was nuclear weapons. Although many were intially skeptical, it was an obvious idea to put nuclear warheads on some sort of super-V2. This stimulated interest in developing rockets, and fifteen years after Hiroshima, ICBMs were a reality.

Secondly, two important revolutions in electronics took place. One was solid-state electronics, which made possible first the transistor and then the integrated circuit. The second was the maser, essentially a fantasticly sensitive microwave receiver. Together, these made it possible to build an automated probe that could send back photos from Neptune. Almost all science fiction had presumed that we’d have to send a spaceman with a camera to snap photos and bring the film back.

In short, by 1960 we’d developed high-value payloads that made chemical rockets worth the cost. Still, there would never have been an Apollo program if the Soviet Union hadn’t shocked the hell out of the US government by being the first to launch a satellite into orbit. In the context of the Cold War, it was presumed that manned spaceflight would have immediate vital national security applications, and the Apollo program was instituted primarily to ensure that the US had a massive spacelaunch capacity.

By the end of the 60s however, the original impetus had petered out. Neither the US nor the USSR found it expedient to base nukes in space, and it became apparent that there was little a man could do that couldn’t be done almost as well and a lot cheaper by remote-controlled satellites. Treaties banned basing nukes in orbit or nationalizing other planets, and the national security justification for manned spaceflight waned.

In the 1970s, the USSR took the next logical step in spaceflight, a series of small-scale spacelabs culminating in their Mir complex. IF the Soviet Union hadn’t collapsed in 1990, it would probably still be in orbit today, but now Russia is simply too poor to continue a first-rate space program. The US manned space program languished after 1973, using up leftover Apollo hardware while waiting for the Shuttle to become operational.

The Shuttle, alas was the Edsel of launch vehicles. A compromise design from the start, it was neither as cheap nor as reliable as was originally hoped. After the Challenger explosion, the original ambitious goals for the Shuttle were drasticly scaled back.

Today, there are only two really profitable venues in space: (1) Communication satellites, which ironically are now facing stiff competition from earth-based communications networks; the ambitious Iridium and Teledesic programs have been cancelled. And (2)Earth-imaging, which was deliberately hampered for years by the US government not wanting high-resolution photos available on the open market until foreign satellites forced the issue. Space tourism might be the next venue. So far though, other prosposals such as zero-g materials processing or powersats have not panned out. In short, there isn’t any “killer ap” which would spark a gold rush into space.

It is absurd that we’re still paying thousands of dollars a pound for payload into orbit, when much cheaper launch systems such as “big dumb boosters” could be built. But spaceflight is currently the domain of the entrenched interests - NASA, the Pentagon, the defense contractors- who have no real interest in changing how things are done. Some conspiracy-theory buffs even claim the government is deliberately squelching all attempts to commercialize space. One concern is that the same technology used to launch satellites is applicable to military missiles.

The space age is just getting started. It won’t really get going until Zephram Cochrane gets a chance to test his newfangled theories.