Little things haunt me. We used to have an SST. No more. We revolutionized astronomy with the Hubble. Its replacement, the Webb, has been cancelled. We used to visit the vacuum of perpetual night in a spacecraft straight out of Amazing Stories — and the last one will shortly make its last flight. The International Space Station is scheduled for “deorbiting” in the next ten ears. There is no plan to replace it. Humanity, which once crossed oceans in hilariously tiny boats, has turned inward, and instead of reaching for the stars, now stares morosely at the ground, its shoulders bent in a shrug of despair. No more vision, no more courage, no more faith in our own destiny.
Sounds kind of quaint, doesn’t it? Words like “vision” and “destiny” seem to belong to a more innocent, more naive era, in which Camelots and gaudy cars with huge tailfins sprung from the fertile imagination of a nation accustomed to limitless expansions. Now, we are told we cannot afford such waste, such indulgence, such — hubris. We must understand that we are using up our planet, that we are not the giants we were taught to be by our starry-eyed leaders, whose ambitions stretched to the moon and beyond. We are, in fact, humble mites on the surface of mighty Gaia, and we must learn our place.
The stars are not for us. Not now, anyway. For now, we must focus on the urgent problems that no other generations have confronted. People are without food and shelter. Sick people are denied treatment. Despots rule. Corruption is rife, and rich nations barter between themselves the wealth that properly belongs to the entire world. We have no time now for the silliness of science fiction fantasies.
Pure research? We need action–oriented efforts that address real problems, not the hypothetical daydreams of fanciful and unproven theories. And even though this new practicality is painful to people who still have a neurotic compulsion to disregard clear limits, it would be irresponsible in the extreme to dedicate energy and resources to projects and efforts that the great body of humanity has no share in, and benefit only those in ivory towers and the lush quadrangles of academe.
Technology is stifling us. The marvelous machines that liberated people from their own small towns now choke our atmosphere with poisonous gases. The great factories that brought the complex engines of convenience — washing machines, hair dryers, electric mixers, synthetic fabrics — to the masses consume energy at frightful rates, eat resources at a pace unimaginable in bygone times. The pure science that brought us the miracles of the silicon chip, laptop computers, life expectancy into the 80s and genetic modification is no longer affordable.
There are 6 billion people on earth, and even at that level, we are told that we must reduce our consumption in order for the earth to survive. What happens when there are 10 billion? That’s what most projections show for 2050, only 39 years from now. And 20 billion?
A famous science fiction writer (some say Asimov, some Heinlein) once noted that “Earth is just too small and fragile a basket for mankind to keep all its eggs in.” Another, Larry Niven, said “The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space program.” Maybe we can delay, maybe we can kick this can into the future, but survivors know that the time to make a bold move is when you are still strong, resources are still plentiful, and there is no immediate time pressure. Here’s hoping that humanity, which now seems to have its head so far up its ass, can pull it out in time to look at the stars again.