All the exciting parts of exploring the solar system have been leeched out. What's left is the drudgery of the everyday and the dreams of the rich.
I am a Space Shuttle child. I ogled big exploded view posters of the spaceship in classrooms. I built models of it out of plastic and assembled gliders in its shape out of foam. I sat silent with my classmates watching the television news on a VCR cart after Challenger exploded on January 28, 1986. Six years later, I worked as an instructor at the New Mexico Museum of Space History's summer "Shuttle Camp," a name that will soon seem retrograde if it doesn't already.
Last summer the last Space Shuttle took its last space flight, but last week it took its last worldly one. It ended my generation's era of space marvel, which turned out to take a very different path from that of our parents. During the 1950s and 1960s, space exploration was primarily a proxy for geopolitical combat. It was largely symbolic, even if set against a background of earnest frontiersmanship. First satellite, first man in space, first spacewalk, first manned moon mission, and so on. Space as a frontier was a thing for science fiction fantasy, although we dipped our toes far enough across that border to make it clear that such exploration was possible, even if not yet feasible.
In one of hundreds of images posed with Endeavour atop the SCA, employees at SpaceX clambered to the roof of their headquarters in Hawthorne, near LAX. They are the Shuttle Program's accidental legacy. Created by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk in 2002, the company produces the Falcon 9 two-stage-to-orbit launch vehicle and the Dragon capsule, the first commercial spacecraft to be recovered successfully from orbit. This fall, Falcon9/Dragon will commence deliveries to the International Space Station (ISS) under what remains of NASA's low-Earth space efforts, which goes by the workaday name of Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS). A cosmic UPS service.
Musk is a hero of the entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who have themselves taken over the role of hero from Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn and Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride. He's also perhaps the closest real-world counterpart to Tony Stark, the fictional playboy and industrialist who becomes Iron Man in Stan Lee's comic books. Musk started SpaceX shortly before selling PayPal in 2002. Like Stark he's a modest man, taking only the titles of CEO and CTO at SpaceX, in addition to his role as Chairman and CEO at Tesla Motors, the electric car manufacturer he founded a year later. SpaceX's contract under the NASA COTS program is worth up to $3.1 billion, more than twice what Ebay shelled out for PayPal.
Musk is in the space freight business, hauling materials and equipment from earth to sky, a kind of twenty-first century Cornelius Vanderbilt in the making. Elsewhere, rich men lust jealously for space now that Earth's challenges have proven tiresome. John Carmack, the co-founder of iD software and co-creator of Doom started Armadillo Aerospace in 2000, eyeing space tourism via a sub-orbital commercial craft. Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos helped found another private spaceflight company, Blue Origin, in the same year. And of course, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson established Virgin Galactic in 2004, to provide sub-orbital space tourism as well as orbital satellite launch. In 2008, Richard Garriott, the role-playing game creator and son of American Skylab astronaut Owen K. Garriott, paid Space Adventures a reported $30 million to be flown via Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the ISS. Just four years later, Branson's Virgin Galactic was selling tickets for sub-orbital rides on SpaceshipTwo for a mere $200,000. Ashton Kutcher and Katy Perry have already signed up. TMZ Galactic can't be far behind.
In grade school during the early days of the Shuttle program, I remember writing and illustrating "astronaut" as a response to the dreaded "what do you want to be when you grow up" prompt. I didn't really want to be an astronaut, but I knew that unlike my first inclination, garbage collector, it would be accepted as a suitably ambitious aspiration.
Space, once a place for governments and dreamers who would really just be civil servants, has become a playground for the hyper-affluent. Owen Garriott was an engineer from Oklahoma and a U.S. Naval Officer selected for life science service in space. Richard Garriott was a lucky rich guy with connections. We don't have flying cars, but we have a billionaire who sells electric cars to millionaires. We don't have space vacations, but we have another billionaire who will take you on a magic carpet ride for two-hundred large. Today, a kid who says "I want to be an astronaut" is really just saying "I want to be rich." Isn't that what everyone wants? All of today's dreams are dreams of wealth.
The official mission of the final Space Shuttle, STS-135, reads more like a joke from The Office than a science fictional fantasy: "Space Shuttle Atlantis is carrying the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module to deliver supplies, logistics and spare parts to the International Space Station." Among its tasks: the delivery of a new tank for a urine recycling system, and the removal of a malfunctioning space sewage pump. If only I'd known in 1982 that astronaut and garbage collector would turn out to be such similar jobs.
Despite what you read in comic books, even Stark Industries has to bend metal and mold plastic. Elon Musk will take over the task of shipping sewage pumps and waste processing units and air filtration systems to the ISS. Richard Branson will sell Justin Bieber and Mitt Romney tickets past the Kármán line. Eventually, inevitably, Mark Zuckerberg will slip a bill to the surly bonds of earth and start his own space enterprise, just to keep up with the Rothschilds. Quiet maybe-billionaire Craig Newmark will expand his eponymous service to taxi unwanted minibikes and toasters and other worldly junk into space, the Final Landfill.
It's not so much that the space program is broken in the sense of inoperative. Space is alive and well, for the wealthy at least, where it's become like the air and the land and the sea: a substrate for commerce, for generating even more wealth. Instead, the space program is broken in the sense of tamed, domesticated, housebroken. It happens to all frontiers: they get settled. How many nights can one man dance the skies? Better to rent out laughter-silvered wings by the hour so you can focus on your asteroid mining startup.
In the 1960s we went to the moon not because it was easy but because it was hard. In the 1980s we went to low Earth orbit because, you know, somebody got a grant to study polymers in zero-gravity, or because a high-price pharmaceutical could be more readily synthesized, or because a communications satellite had to be deployed, or because a space telescope had to be repaired. The Space Shuttle program strove to make space exploration repeatable and predictable, and it succeeded. It turned space into an office park. Now the tenants are filing in. Space: Earth's suburbs. Office space available.