Fifty years ago today Yuri Gagarin spent just under two hours in space; a short jaunt by most standards, but one likely to earn him a lasting entry in the historical record. Hailed as a hero by half the world while the other half watched in shock, Gagarin's flight was a triumph on par with the Manhattan Project. As a feat of techno-nationalism, however, it didn't stick. In just thirty days the trick had been repeated, and before the decade was up, Gagarin was dead of a freak jet crash, and an American flag stood on the moon. Today there is reason to fear that the project of sending men into space may follow the same trajectory of its first hero.
After three decades of firing men and women into orbit, NASA is due to launch its final shuttle mission on June 28 of this year. The phasing out of the Space Shuttle is part of a larger move away from manned spaceflight. The reasons for this are manifold. First, space travel is dangerous; the story of Yuri Gagarin is not the only Icarus fable of the space age. In 1970 America watched as near disaster befell Apollo 13 on the dark side of the moon. In the years since she has seen two of her shuttles explode in the sky, one carrying a young schoolteacher. Manned trips to Mars and beyond promise to be perilous, expensive, or both. In light of these hazards astrophysicists tell us that robotic probes are our best bet for exploring the cosmos. Besides, it is urged, we have giant telescopes to see beyond where our electronic emissaries may venture. Lurking underneath these considerations is a still more troubling question: Have we been disappointed by space exploration?
If you see the first astronauts as natural descendants of yesterday's explorers, men like Joseph Banks and Amerigo Vespucci, it is easy to understand how our enchantment with adventure may have reached its ceiling with the atmosphere. The exploration of centuries past yielded vast slabs of land for its sponsors. New, fertile continents lay in the bounty, replete with gold, oil and wholly forgotten branches of the human family tree. By comparison, the cool colorless rock of the moon is a meager harvest. Beyond our solar system lie still more barren fields, littered with the monstrous wreckage of theoretical physics. The Hubble telescope, our looking glass to the far Universe, returns images wholly alien to a people just centuries removed from simple gazing at the night sky. Stars bloom and are then ripped apart in the teeth of colossal celestial infernos, all at a distance that defies our ordinary notions of space and time. We don't have the sensory vocabulary to describe what lies beyond this galaxy. Even Stanley Kubrick was reduced to cinematic jibberish when he tried to summon the aesthetics of the deep cosmos. Whatever its many mysteries, the human mind is still an engine that runs on experience. When we voyage, we long to end up on flower-scented shores where we can eat of the local fruit and fall in love with the natives. Look no further than Avatar for a glimpse of our platonic ideal of exploration; the yearning to participate experientially in new worlds. Alas, the pleasures on offer to the live human astronaut may be too abstract to sustain our imaginative largess.