Forty years after Apollo


Technological backslides are comparatively rare in history, and they nearly always involve the question of frontiers. One such example is China in the 1300s, when the massive junk-ships that roamed the world were broken up by order of the emperor. Another is present-day America: forty years after Apollo, and here we are barely able to venture outside of Earth’s atmosphere. Tom Wolfe had a great piece on this development (or lack thereof) in the New York Times; he wrote that NASA failed to recruit philosophers capable of articulating the true nature of the challenge. I find it tough to imagine a better job for science fiction writers.
Problem is, they’ve given up too.
It’s odd how my field catches the “realism” bug every now and then. Even as the profession chases the Singularity Grail?encouraging Kurzweil in his mad dreams of immortality?writers are talking up the Harrowing Dangers of Manned Spaceflight, and arguing that space colonization is just patently unrealistic. To which I can only say, who the hell’s talking about space colonization? That ain’t how frontiers work, O’Neill’s dreaming in the 1970s notwithstanding. The first people to go across a new frontier aren’t colonists. They’re explorers?prospectors if you will, people who are into hardship pay, reclusiveness, and the possibility of enormous wealth. Leveraged by robot labor, someone will make a lot of money off of space . . . eventually. Bubbles have formed in our economy on a whole lot less substance than what’s out in that vacuum.
The problem, of course, is what’s the rationale that gets it all started?that primes the pump, if you will. With the exception of space tourism, the initial phase of the off-earth economy is likely to require some serious government backing, because it won’t be profitable for a while. Meaning you can forget about the American space presence for the next decade or so . . . at least. We’re bankrupt, the dollar’s about to collapse, and the current Constellation program will inevitably taste the budget axe. In fact, at this point, the only thing that’s likely to get us focused on space again is . . .
Which unfortunately has always remained the best reason to get into space: because the other guy’s doing it. (As the Soviets proved back in the 1950s.) If China’s able to get to the Moon?or anywhere close?that will wake up a by-then-hopefully-revitalized America like nothing else will.
Particularly when you consider that while there aren’t immediate economic reasons for getting into space, there are plenty of immediate military reasons for doing so. U.S. conventional supremacy depends on control of the high ground . . . if you think you’d be lost in downtown Los Angeles without GPS, just imagine how you’d feel if you were driving a tank in hostile territory. Securing our orbital assets is likely to require an ever greater presence. To say nothing of what’s going to happen when speed-of-light weaponry attains maturity, as it’s swiftly doing. Sooner or later, the 21st century is likely to feature one hell of an arms race in space, but out of that contest?or maybe even in lieu of it–the first phase of a robust off-earth economy is likely to emerge. . . .
David J. Williams is the author of near-future dystopian thriller THE BURNING SKIES, and posts (almost) every Wednesday on Unbound Worlds. Learn more about his work at