Sunday, November 06, 2005

4 Years Ago

It's always sad when you glance at the cover of Clarke's masterwork, 2001: A Space Odyssey, the one that was turned into a movie classic by Stanley Kubrick, whose theme became synonymous with vintage sci-fi flicks, whose psychologically-maladjusted supercomputer HAL became IBM's unofficial mascot.

Look at the year, read the book, take a glance into the real world, and examine the state of it today. Clarke was always zealous about what he called "failures of imagination" and "failures of nerve", crimes he said have been committed throughout history by snobbish rich scientists whom which such automatic dismissals of the new and untried have become pure instinct. Clarke has committed the opposite; he was too optimistic, perhaps. Computers as advanced as HAL do not exist; secret missions to Jupiter have not been launched (or have they?); and nothing like a large black plastic rectangle has been discovered either on the Moon or orbiting the system's largest planet.

The last manned mission to the Moon was Apollo 17, in 1972. With the beginning of Detente came a successive scaling-down of the space program conducted by the only nation then capable of sustaining such a campaign. Missions were limited to passive scientific undertakings. No man has set foot on any world save Earth, even though Mars Society president Robert Zubrin formulated a low-cost, effective plan that would get humans on Mars - by 1996. The ISS is a white elephant, and NASA operates under a Congress more interested in Osama and the economy.

Clarke wrote 2001 in the 1960s, before the first manned mission to the moon. His imagination, while expansive, reached too far. He was too much of a visionary. He didn't take into account the underlying diplomatic factors of the Cold War - the primary impetus for astronautical development in the first place. After the Soviets were thrown onto the ground by the victorious forces of American capitalism, it was the economy, stupid. Then it was Osama. Manned flights to Mars have been postponed to dates like "by 2020", and the next Moon landing (by Americans, in any case) will be in 2013. It seems like the Taikonauts will claim space now and upstage the Americans, and even though space recognizes no national jurisdiction, individuals are not barred from extraterrestrial land ownership.

Space will be the wild frontier of future centuries, but the sheer difficulty of sending men and women up there has muted the enthusiasm of the hardy souls who are wont to proliferate into this vast, uncharted expanse of mystery and wonder. There will be no gold rush like that which tore up the virgin West and paved it over with highways and gas stations. As long as nations have the economic clout to mantain a stranglehold over space research and exploration there will be almost negligible progress in this vital next step in human development.

It may be that the quest for space once again takes on a psychological and ideological significance; the day when China seizes the reins of space is the day when it truly becomes the premier superpower of the world.


Mythical said...

Excellent analysis. It's even sadder when you read 'The Deep Range' and his other hard SF novels. I remember that 'Islands In The Sky' was my first hard SF novel. Clarke, after all, did invent the geosynchronous satellite.

toitle said...

my sentiments exactly. although i dont quite understand how a nation can possess "economic clout to maintain a stranglehold over space exploration"

Nova said...

The story goes that the first moon astronauts were actually tempted to report back the discovery of a "large black monolith".

Unfortunately, they didn't, and no one ever will.

Mythical said...

Truth is stranger than fiction; there could be a diamond the size of Mars in the heart of Jupiter, if the theory is correct...

The Arbiter said...

There are diamonds in the cores of some white dwarfs..