Mood Swings

I think we were too optimistic about space in 1969 and we are too pessimistic about space now.

Optimistic Years

On Dec. 17, 1903, the Wright Brothers made their historic first flight. Less than 24 years later, the world celebrated the triumph of Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic. A mere 20 years after that, Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. And 22 years after that, Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon. In 1973 SkyLab was launched into orbit.

In the 70 years from the Wright Brothers through SkyLab there was rapid, continuous, and amazing progress in aerospace. People saw this great progress and expected it to continue.

Pessimistic Years

In the 30 years from SkyLab till now, there has really been very little progress. Space Shuttle was supposed to be amazing in lowering the cost of getting into space. In practice, it is actually more expensive per pound and so fails to deliver as advertised. The Saturn V of the 1960's was cheaper and probably more reliable. Both the Saturn V and the Shuttle take off with about 7.5 million pounds of thrust, but the Saturn V delivered 120 tons of payload to orbit while the Shuttle gets about 20 tons there. So while the Shuttle is partly reusable (or rebuildable), it does not work out cheaper. Given that there has been so little progress in the last 30 years, even space enthusiasts are expecting rather slow space development going forward from 2003.

Wrong again?

I think that the next two decades will have amazing advances, probably more impressive to people living through them than the advances of the 50's and 60's were to those people. The reason the coming years are going to be so impressive is that private enterprise will be able to justify space development for things like space tethers, space tourism, and mining asteroids. Space won't be mostly a government thing any more. So it will be very competitive, cost effective, and advance rapidly. Historians of 2023 will look back and say the average person was too pessimistic about the future of space in 2003.

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Copyright (c) 2002, 2003 by Vincent Cate. All rights reserved.