Commentary: The future of space travel ain’t what it used to be

“The future ain’t what it used to be.”

— Yogi Berra

Some events in our lives are so monumental that we remember where we were when it happened. Kennedy’s assassination, 9/11, or the Apollo moon landing. The 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing will be celebrated in July.

In this era of division, we may never be united like we were in those fading, epochal moments in history. John Kennedy spoke for the nation when he declared that America would reach the moon in that decade. His statement stands in stark contrast to later proclamations that ring hollow in the feeble light of what they actually accomplished.

On July 20, 1989, the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, President George H.W. Bush announced plans for the Space Exploration Initiative. You can still find it on NASA’s web site: “In a speech on the steps of the National Air and Space Museum he described plans calling for constructing Space Station Freedom, sending humans back to the Moon ‘to stay’ and ultimately sending astronauts to explore Mars.”

President George W. Bush also gave us a false promise of a new start that was never kept. Here’s what NASA still says about it. “The Crew Exploration Vechicle (CEV) [will be] the first craft to explore beyond Earth orbit since the Apollo days, the spacecraft would be developed and tested by 2008 and conduct its first manned mission no later than 2014.” That didn’t happen. For two years, the startup funds were voted down by Congress.

President Trump made his own delusional proclamation to a divided nation in December 2017. The White House web site has his proclamation today. “American Will Once Again Reach for the Moon: President Donald J. Trump has signed a space policy directive instructing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to pursue manned extraterrestrial exploration.”

Apollo now seems like an American summit. A summit where we are now sliding on the downhill side to who knows where. The only question today is whether the behemoth for-profit conglomeration between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, or the come-from-behind, for-profit SpaceX corporation with its double-entendre BFR rocket will win the race of for-profit corporations into space. Who now even remembers that either Bush or Trump ever made a proclamation?

With that said, the Apollo Project is a fascinating chapter in history that must rank with any human achievement – ever. But if you visit the Houston Space Center, you will see a shell of a Saturn V rocket lying on the ground for inspection by tourists. The enormity of something that big blasting into space is absolutely stunning.

But in another way, it’s incredibly sad. The rocket is not standing tall like the pictures you see. It’s lying on broken concrete like the corpse of a fallen hero — empty and defeated. Battleships and aircraft carriers are maintained like floating museums in American ports. Why can’t America’s most stunning achievement in the name of peace and scientific knowledge be presented with at least as much care and admiration as America’s achievements in the name of war and destruction?

The Chinese have now started a project to build a base on the far side of the moon. But for us, building “a big, beautiful wall” simply has more appeal.

Dan Mabbutt

Dan Mabbutt graduated as an electrical engineer from the University of Utah and retired from a career in data processing in Salt Lake City. He now lives in the Zion Park gateway town of Springdale.