Delusions of Space Enthusiasts
Submitted on Wednesday, November 1, 2006 in Read
by Neil deGrasse Tyson
Magazine, November 2006
Human ingenuity seldom fails to improve on the fruits of human invention.
Whatever may have dazzled everyone on its debut is almost guaranteed to be
superseded and, someday, to look quaint.
In 2000 B.C. a pair of ice skates made of polished animal bone and leather thongs
was a transportation breakthrough. In 1610 Galileo's eight-power telescope was an
astonishing tool of detection, capable of giving the senators of Venice a sneak peek at
hostile ships before they could enter the lagoon. In 1887 the one-horsepower Benz
Patent Motorwagen was the first commercially produced car powered by an internal
combustion engine. In 1946 the thirty-ton, showroom-size ENIAC, with its 18,000 vacuum
tubes and 6,000 manual switches, pioneered electronic computing. Today you can glide
across roadways on in-line skates, gaze at images of faraway galaxies brought to you by
the Hubble Space Telescope, cruise the autobahn in a 600-horsepower roadster, and
carry your three-pound laptop to an outdoor cafe.
Of course, such advances don't just fall from the sky. Clever people think them up.
Problem is, to turn a clever idea into reality, somebody has to write the check. And when
market forces shift, those somebodies may lose interest and the checks may stop coming.
If computer companies had stopped innovating in 1978, your desk might still sport a
hundred-pound IBM 5110. If communications companies had stopped innovating in 1973,
you might still be schlepping a two-pound, nine-inch-long cell phone. And if in 1968 the
U.S. space industry had stopped developing bigger and better rockets to launch humans
beyond the Moon, we'd never have surpassed the Saturn V rocket.
Sorry about that. We haven't surpassed the Saturn V. The largest, most powerful
rocket ever flown by anybody, ever, the thirty-six-story-tall Saturn V was the first and only
rocket to launch people from Earth to someplace else in the universe. It enabled every
Apollo mission to the Moon from 1969 through 1972, as well as the 1973 launch of Skylab
1, the first U.S. space station.
Inspired in part by the successes of the Saturn V and the momentum of the Apollo
program, visionaries of the day foretold a future that never came to be: space habitats,
Moon bases, and Mars colonies up and running by the 1990s. But funding for the Saturn V
evaporated as the Moon missions wound down. Additional production runs were
canceled, the manufacturers' specialized machine tools were destroyed, and skilled
personnel had to find work on other projects. Today U.S. engineers can't even build a
Saturn V clone.
What cultural forces froze the Saturn V rocket in time and space? What
misconceptions led to the gap between expectation and reality?