Why the U.S. human spaceflight program won’t be over any time soon

When the human spaceflight program began in the U.S. varies depending on who you are and when you were born. For me, it began with the publication of the July 1939 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Of course, others will say that it began on May 5, 1961 just as others will claim it ended on July 21, 2011. The fact is that the human spaceflight program probably began long before that July 1939 issue of Astounding. But that’s when it began for me because that’s when people began to imagine–in a scientifically reasonable way–that human spaceflight was really possible. The technology might not be there yet, but we would get there. We’d have to be serious about science, serious about engineering, serious in considering all of the ramifications of human spaceflight–but we’d get there.

Astounding Science Fiction, July 1939

Science fiction, to me, is the literature of the affect of technological change on society. By 1939, science fiction writers had already started to explore the impact of this change on society in the stories they wrote. Isaac Asimov’s story, “Trends” (his third published story) appeared in that 1939 issue of Astounding and that story took a unique view (at the time) of attempts to reach the moon. The story imagined a society in which such attempts might be frowned upon, opposed for a variety of reasons. Some of those reasons we’ve seen come to pass. But the fact that we were thinking about these things decades before we ever flew in space illustrates my point.

At the time I was born, ten people had walked on the surface of the moon. Nine months later, the last two men to walk on the moon would take their final steps there. At the time, I imagine, many people thought we’d be back. We haven’t been back but we’ve done quite a bit since. Not all of it seems as dramatic as standing on other worlds, but then again, how dramatic was Lewis and Clark’s journey across the continent in comparison to , say, Columbus or Magellan? There are giant leaps and there are baby steps. Somewhere in between is a walking pace that allows us to move forward at a steady rate.

After the moon came the space stations and Apollo-Soyuz, bordered on both sides by dramatic pauses in spaceflight. Then came the space shuttle and for a period of three decades we hit our “walking” strike. Over the course of 133 missions, we began to learn what it was like to live in space, what it took to survive there. Twice, we learned how to deal with the tragedy that is inevitable in any great endeavor. Leaning how to deal with such tragedy allows us to move forward in spite of it.

Columbia Launch.jpg

I was in second grade when Columbia made its debut on April 12, 1981. I was 17 years out of college with a little boy of my own and a little girl on the way when Altantis made her final return to Earth. During that time, we didn’t take giant leaps. Nor did we take baby steps. We found a stride with which we were comfortable and we learned how to handle the environment around us to a much finer degree than ever before.

When Atlantis returned to Earth, there was an outpouring of nostalgia, as if for some long lost period of exploration. Scientists, science fiction writers, friends and colleagues seemed equally in agreement that the U.S. human spaceflight program was at an end and that this was a sad thing. But I don’t see it that way. The human spaceflight program is not at an end. As far as I can tell, it will never be at an end, not anytime soon, and not while we still call ourselves human. It is inevitable that we will head back out into space. We have to. Barring our self-destruction, we have to, it seems to be ingrained in our nature to explore the unknown, to answer age-old questions, and if nothing else, seek the glory and adventure in the quest to do so.

Science fiction writers haven’t stopped writing about human spaceflight. Pick up the latest issues of Analog and you’ll see: they are writing about them more realistically than ever. They are thinking about the difficulties that will have to be overcome to begin the next wave of human spaceflight. Not all of those difficulties are technical. Some are sociological, others political, others economic. But there are people out there exploring how to handle these challenges, just as there are people out there thinking about how we can overcome the engineering challenges. Will it be Mars next? An asteroid? I don’t know. But that there will be a next, I am certain. And until that “next” comes, I can content myself with our successes so far, and know that any time I like, I can immerse myself into human spaceflight by turning to a science fiction magazine, or reaching for one of the countless science fiction novels available in bookstores, virtual and otherwise.

The U.S. human spaceflight program isn’t over. We are just in one of our periodic pauses. There are more giant leaps for us to take. But more importantly, we have yet to really hit our stride. The space shuttle program was a good start. I expect to see a lot more.


  1. I understand the fascination with the human spaceflight program, but most people don’t realize that there wouldn’t be such a program if it were not for a lot of the other things NASA and other space agencies do to learn about space and how to build increasingly sophisticated spacecrafts. Robotics missions are no less fascinating and much less expensive.

    In my science fiction vision, humans don’t actually go to Mars until a small army of robots have already established the equivalent of a small city. The trip is just too long to go for a short visit, so you’d have to establish a base ahead of time. Space Station is very different and relatively speaking, very close.

  2. Well, unfortunately I disagree, though I sincerely hope you’re right. I think we’ve arrived at the economic barrier that Gerard K. O’Neil posited in the 70’s; the cost to continue is far too high to justify politically. We needed to be up there in a sustainable fashion a couple of decades ago to “prove its worth”, and we never made it.
    Maybe another country, but here in the US – except for touristy things, I think we’re done.
    I place the origin of manned flight earlier than yourself. Somewhere around 1904 to be exact when Oberth wrote his paper laying out the possibilities. You can make a good case for a direct line between that and Apollo, with the movie Frau im Mond along the way, complete with rocketship based on his concepts. Von Braun worked with him, and we all know what he did.

    1. Steve, I have no solid basis for this opinion of mine. It is a very unscientific gut feeling, substantially based on how I want things to turn out. But I have noted that this kind of thing is cyclical and if we can figure out the economic issues–not an easy task, I grant you–then I really do think we’ll see a second space age more spectacular than the first.

  3. JTR,

    I have no issue with your desires – I feel the same way. (In fact, I’m kind of angry about the way things have gone down – we should have followed the von braun plan to the letter – space station, moon base, mars, etc. LEAVING people in place provides a tremendous incentive to keep on supporting them and largely counters budget considerations.

    Another problem is almost entirely shuttle-derived: we tried to make things commonplace and ‘safe’, treating space not like a frontier where nasty things can happen (routinely) in the pursuit of advancement. If we had had more “successful failures” like Apollo 13, the ‘adventure’, human spirit, etc., would have been more rewarded (publicly). Instead of saying “we should spend the money down here”, people would be saying “we need to do better up there”. (Not that I want people to die in space for publicity’s sake, but when you make something look easy, and then you run into issues, people are more apt to give up than if you make things look hard from the get go.)
    So far as human endeavor in space – my fear is that it will continue, but not by the US. China has some ambitious plans, which, to my cold-war-raised-mentality means nuclear missiles pointed at us from the Moon. (And once someone is established there, it will be very difficult to kick them off, or even get permission to land if the stakeholders aren’t so inclined.)
    In all seriousness, I wish someone would find a gold-plated asteroid or a diamond-filled crater on the moon. Nothing like avarice to spur things on.


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