There are a couple of anniversaries coming up. On 20 July 1969, the astronauts of Apollo 11 landed on the moon. On 20 July 1976, Viking I landed safely on Mars. Next Wednesday, STS-114 is scheduled to launch.

I was watching From The Earth To The Moon, and Tom Hanks said that when he was a kid he fully expected that we would have Pan Am clippers rocketing into space as they had in 2001: A Space Odyssey. He made note of the fact that not only did this not happen, but Pan Am doesn’t even exist anymore.

I too, expected routine space travel by now. Estes made a series of ‘fantasy’ rockets that were models of what we might be flying now. There was the Orbital Transport, which had a shuttle on its back. There was the Trident, its passenger module separated from its engine module by a triple fuselage. The Scissor Wing Transport launched from Earth, and then extended its wings on reentry to glide to an airplane-like landing at the spaceport. And to protect us from invasion or from those pesky Communists, there was the Interceptor.

In addition to the toys there were the films. 2001 showed us a ring-shaped space station. How crude our space stations – Skylab, Mir, ISS – appear by comparison! The one in the film rotated so that occupants were treated to 1g at the outside. If we’re going to spend a long time in space, we really do need to create some gravity. UFO and Anderson’s follow-on Space: 1999 showed us Moon bases.

I’m watching the Cosmos series now. Amazingly, after a quarter-century there is little that needs to be updated. Carl Sagan showed drawings of proposed interstellar craft on the episode I watched last night. One could have been built when the show was filmed – except that it used hydrogen bombs for propulsion, and treaties prohibit nuclear weapons in space. Sagan said that using them for propulsion would have been the best use of these things that he could think of.

I was born during the Space Age. I think many of us who were little at the time thought that we’d be able to buy a ticket to the Moon by now. But it didn’t happen. The ‘live TV show’ from Apollo 13 wasn’t carried by the networks. I’ve heard that during one of the missions, people called the networks to complain that coverage of the mission pre-empted a rerun of I Dream Of Jeannie. A rerun! Going to the Moon? ‘Been there. Done that. What’s next?’ We were still involved in Vietnam, there was an oil embargo in 1973, the President was impeached, and the economy was taking a dive. Remember the commercials? ‘If they can send a man to the Moon, why can’t they…?’ Even during the first Moon Shot, people complained that there were problems to be solved on Earth that could have used the billions of dollars being spent on space exploration.

I’ve mentioned before that science is fascinating to me, and that there’s not enough time in a single lifetime to learn about all of the sciences I’m interested in. For me, space travel is reason enough to travel in space. If it increases our knowledge of the universe, it’s a valuable end in itself. If it leads to settlements off of the planet, so much the better.

But what about practical aspects of space exploration? What can we do on the Moon? Of what use is Moon Base Alpha, and why should we subsidise people to live there? A base could provide a launching point for ships travelling to Mars. With one-sixth the Earth’s gravity, it would be easier to launch a manned vessel from there than from the Earth. But you’d still have to get the fuel up there. And anyway, why not launch a ship built in space from Earth orbit? Or what about mining? It seems to me that anything we could get from the Moon could be gotten more cheaply and easily on Earth. What purpose would a Moon Base serve other than that of a scientific research facility – similar to similar stations in Antarctica, but studying different things?

I think that the main benefit to a Moon Base would be to prepare us to move to the Planets. If we can live on the Moon, then we can live on Mars. And why a Mars base? Well, a base wouldn’t serve much purpose other than scientific research; but a colony might provide other benefits. At the very least, we’ll not have the entire population in one place – all of our eggs (literally) in one basket (figuratively), as it were. If we want to survive as a species, we’ll eventually have to leave the Earth. Now, it’s going to be five billion years or so until the Sun becomes a red dwarf and the Earth will be a burnt-out chunk orbiting within it. We’ve only been around as Homo sapiens for a very short time comparitively. Who knows what we’ll be in 10,000 or 50,000 years, let alone a billion years from now! But an off-world colony might be beneficial in case of a comet strike on our home, which will certainly happen much sooner.

How different our world would have been if we had not stopped flying to the Moon in 1972!

“Space Babies” is what my wife Pepper Mill called our generation. Brought up in the wake of the PSSC revamping of science education and the panic after Sputnik went up. Suddenly we all had to learn more science, and there was lots of popularization.

I loved it. We followed each Gemini mission on the radio during the school day, then the Apollo missions on TV, eventually seeing the First Man on the Moon, and even live color video from the moon.
Then it all ended. No more returns to the moon. The brief Apollo-Soyuz fling in 1975, then nothing until the Shuttle launches years later.
Getting to space is, and always was, expensive. They could justify Apollo in the name of national prestige and of learning things they’d need for potential space satellites and weaponry. But a living colony in space would require enormous amounts of money. Unless some compelling need gets us out there (Magnetic monopoles a la Larry Niven? Really efficient strain-free crystal growth in microgravity? Harvesting Helium from the gas giants? The need to keep anyone else from building a Lunar Catapult a la Moon is a Harsh Mistress? A Big Black monolith in Tycho?) I can’t see anyone spending the money to do so. Which is a shame for lots of reasons, not the least of which is the potential out there for new discovery.

Thinking some more, how different would it have been if we and the Soviets were not ‘racing’ to the Moon? Some X-15 pilots earned their astronaut wings in that aircraft, when it surpassed the internationally-recognised, 62-mile alititude ‘boundary of space’. The X-20 Dyna-Soar also may also have been an early ‘space plane’, had it ever flown. Imagine if we hadn’t had to, for politcal reasons, go to the moon immediately. I think the X-15 may have been developed further, probably with a newer X-project replacing it, to achieve Earth orbit. Instead, we leap-frogged over this logical step and spent the '60s developing Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo/Saturn.

Of course there were other projects in addition to the X-15 in the '60s. The ‘lifting bodies’ flew from 1966 to 1975. These aircraft were instrumental in the development of the Space Shuttle. I wonder how the programmes would have progressed without Apollo? X-15 makes it to space. NASA sees that higher flights leading to orbit are desirable. The X-20 flies atop its Titan III launch vehicle and reaches orbit. Then the space stations…

From there, we could have gone ahead with Apollo to reach the moon. Or maybe we would have gained the experience working in space to build a Moon-going ship in orbit. Perhaps, if the Cold War had been colder, if the masses of people could see the value of space exploration instead of having to deal with rising prices and losses of jobs, if people were just more interested in knowledge for knowledge’s sake, then we may be much farther along than we are.

It seems to me that we’ve always been short-sighted. A couple thousand years ago there were people who made important observations about the stars. But Plato (and whoever it was that he learned from – Pythagoras?) turned Science into a Cult. They hoarded their discoveries (the dodecahedron comes to mind) and shunned physical experiements in favour of thought experiments. What if their rivals – the physical experimenters – had won the day? What if the Church had not adopted many of the Pythagorean/Platonian ideas? What if Leonardo had been able to fly his glider? What if Brahe had been more open in sharing his knowledge with Keppler, instead of seeing his guest as a potential rival?

If. As my dad used to say: ‘If the dog hadn’t stopped to take a sht, he would have caught the rabbit. If you hadn’t stopped to eat that sht, you would have seen the race.’

I’d like to see a telescope built on the far side of the moon, with a station of scientists to support it. What better way to block all that pesky earthlight and find a new Earth?

I’m also disappointed that after the initial success of Hubble, we didn’t launch more. Who knows what interferometry using a group of Hubbles might have found?

Much as I like the idea, I’m not sure that beanstalks are feasible on geologically active planets - how do you dampen the effects of an earthquake?

What’s going on with Hubble, anyway?