2003 and Still No Space Odyssey

Is the U.S. space program shying away from its ambitious missions of the 1960s and 1970s?

February 8, 2003

Is the U.S. space program shying away from its ambitious missions of the 1960s and 1970s?

The 1968 movie "2001: A Space Odyssey" has been acclaimed by movie critics and fans alike as one of the greatest visionary achievements in cinematic history.

The movie's heady vision of a 21st century where we take permanent lunar bases and even inter-planetary voyages across the Solar System for granted seemed eminently realizable.

After all, millions of Americans — who had already been born when the Wright Brothers flew for the first time in 1903 — were still alive when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon in July 1969.

My own father, born in 1911, embodied the wild, galloping pace of technological progress of the first two-thirds of the 20th century.

He had been the first radio mechanic in the southern Irish city of Cork as a young man — and enjoyed repairing our neighbors' television sets in the 1960s in his spare time. At the age of almost 50, he had learned how to fly and qualified as a pilot with a non-commercial accreditation.

Yet, on that extraordinary night of July 25, 1969 as the first live images were beamed back to earth of ordinary men walking on the lunar surface, he said to me, "I look up there, and I know it's true. But I just can't believe it."

Despite that moment of amazement, for the past 30 years, U.S. space travel — for all the showy extravaganzas of media-friendly shuttle flights — has stagnated and even regressed.

As a matter of fact, the United States can no longer make the magnificent Saturn V boosters designed by Werner von Braun and his team that propelled Apollo 11 and later spacecraft to the Moon anymore. Incredibly, many of the key plans and blueprints have simply been lost — because of bureaucratic incompetence over the years.

Most Americans and Europeans were weaned on the great modern myth of inevitable onward-and-upward human progress. As a result, they do not realize that general space capabilities, even — or especially — in the United States, are now far inferior to what they were 35 years ago.

I admit that this very notion seems contrary to simple common sense. After all, scores of millions of homes across the world now have personal computers that make the sinister, paranoid computer, HAL, in “2001: A Space Odyssey” look like a grumpy, old fool.

Space shuttles have plied their path between Cape Canaveral and low earth orbit for 20 years. And low-orbit space stations are more than a quarter of a century old by now.

But it will be at least 20 years — and probably longer — before those great big spinning-wheel space stations will be anything more than a pipe dream. They are the ones that are supposed to generating their own artificial gravity 22,000 miles out.

In the meantime, the list of space accomplishments is meager. No human being has walked on the surface of the moon for 30 years since December 1972. And it may be at least another 20 years before the first manned mission to Mars is launched.

More than 30 years after Stanley Kubrick produced what is widely accepted by critics to be the greatest science fiction movie of all time, his vision of humankind colonizing and exploring the Solar System appears far further from realization than it did a generation ago.

He never dreamed that an era of technological stagnation at least twice as long would follow. But it started only a few years after his movie was released.

Maybe the crazed “2001” computer HAL in Kubrick’s movie had the last laugh after all.