As I write this, the last flight of the last operational Space Shuttle is in progress, and there is only about a week to go before Atlantis lands and retires to a museum. It is a good time to take a retrospective look at the way the United States has gone about doing manned space flight over the last generation.
In aid of this retrospective, I viewed a reissued DVD of the old Disneyland TV show aired by the Walt Disney organization back in 1956. This particular episode was dedicated to the future of man in space, and featured interviews with space-flight popularizer Willy Ley and rocket designer Wernher von Braun. In less than an hour, anyone who was watching ABC that March evening (only one of three networks back then, remember) learned about Newton’s law of action and reaction, what type of fuel space rockets could burn, how staging works, and the amusing problems of eating in a weightless environment.
By today’s standards, the artwork was crude, the animation primitive, and the slow pace would be snore-inducing, especially to young people. But the remarkable thing about this show was that the producers, with the obvious help of von Braun and other rocket scientists and engineers, managed to predict most of the high points of the U. S. space program for the next forty years. The viewer saw giant versions of von Braun’s V-2 rocket engines boost a multi-passenger spacecraft into orbit after a night-launch countdown; maneuvers to dock with an orbiting earth-sensing solar-powered satellite; and a manually-steered landing of a Shuttle-like vehicle carrying the astronauts safely back to earth. A later show in the series went into more detail about how man would eventually fly to the moon and back. Von Braun confidently stated that if we devoted enough resources to the project, we could put humans into orbit and return them safely to earth within a decade.
Of course, history proved him right, but since von Braun was a pivotal figure in the entire space program, it was a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Still, without the advance preparation of visionary productions such as those Disney TV programs and allied magazine and newspaper articles, it is unlikely that the general public would have stood for the tremendous expense of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs that landed men on the moon by 1969. Not only did the public stand for it, but throughout the 1960s the U. S. space program was generally one of the most popular government activities going: an island of unity in a decade that was characterized by increasing dissent and social unrest.
Over half a century later, I cannot imagine any combination of media effort costing less than billions of dollars that would present a similar idea to the public as effectively as von Braun and his colleagues presented their visions in the 1950s. Back then, technological limitations limited the media options, and anyone who managed to get on national TV at all was guaranteed at least a third or so of the viewing public. In today’s atomized media world, gaining some access is easy -- my ten-year-old nephew has a website than anyone in the world can view with the right URL. But addressing a large audience in a single large country such as the U. S., now divided by so many factors -- political, social, economic, religious, and otherwise -- is a feat that even the largest corporations can’t accomplish without spending billions. And even then there’s no guarantee it will work.
The fragmentation of media has made a number of things harder, not just getting a consensus about the space program. This fragmentation, itself a product of engineering advances, has radically affected how politicians run for office, necessitating their devotion of huge amounts of time and effort merely to raise enough money to be re-elected, along with the potential for corruption that goes along with that. Space enthusiasts have now become just another one of thousands of special-interest groups with their own websites, politicians, organizations, and like-minded supporters who can isolate themselves by selecting the media they pay attention to and ignoring everyone else. It is an unintended consequence of advances in electronic media that national unity about anything, let alone the space program, has become much more expensive, more difficult, and -- paradoxically -- more necessary.
It is necessary because the vastly more complex world we live in requires a political and cultural environment in which certain basic things get done right, or else the whole mess unravels. A dystopic vision of what the U. S. might become if national unity continues to decline can be gleaned from countries like the Philippines, where the advantages of high technology are limited to a small fraction of elite families, while the vast majority of the populace lives in underemployed and undereducated poverty. We are far better off than the Philippines in many ways, but there are disturbing trends such as continued high unemployment, the shrinking of the middle class, and the breakdown of the family that are moving us in that direction.
Adages become adages because they embody durable wisdom. E pluribus unum (“from many, one”) and “United we stand, divided we fall,” are as true now as they were centuries ago. I am glad that the United States were united enough to achieve the historic breakthroughs in manned space flight of the 1960s through the 1990s. But I can’t help wondering whether we are watching the torch of manned space flight pass from this country to others, perhaps never to return again.
Karl Stephan has worked in the industry as a consulting engineer. He currently teaches college-level engineering courses at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas.