Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Ballardian Fate for Virtual Spaceport?

Apollo 11, 40 Years On  
Location: Spaceport Alpha

I'm a space-program junkie...I wanted to see a Kubrick-style future like that of 2001 so badly that it afflicted my childhood.  Those who are not what Eric Strobel calls "Children of Apollo" and remember our young American gods in space suits cannot imagine the sadness of seeing humanity withdraw into the inner spaces of our networks and, yes, "places" like Second Life.

Update for 2/16/12: I located Strobel's article from SpaceDaily about those whose early impressions were profoundly shaped by the Space-Race years. Today we Children of Apollo "are uneasy; feeling vaguely cheated that the nation that went from Kitty Hawk to Tranquility Base in a single lifetime seems likely to go no further in their lifetimes. This sense of uneasiness is aggravated by the distinct potential of a less-than-mediocre future."

Now a virtual tour of that elusive future, SL's Spaceport Alpha, is threatened with closure. I loved sending students there, but part of me knew that these were not the technological dreams of their generation. Kudos to Hamlet Au for running this story, but he's a techno-optimist. I'll pour some Neo-Luddite tea for readers about this.

The potential closure moves me in some profound ways because it rubs an old wound. Since 1969, being a space-junkie has been a lonely addiction. I do not believe that government programs will give us that long-heralded "Third Industrial Revolution" and the Space Age is, in fact, in its final act. As a Peak Oiler, I fear that we won't be able to travel 100 miles easily on earth in 100  years, so going even 100 miles up will become a whispered legend.  The International Space Station will deorbit, the Russian and Chinese programs wither as energy crises consume all our ingenuity. Meanwhile,  climate change will bankrupt us even as it wrecks our coasts.  I don't think the US will ever, in my lifetime, build a new launch system beyond, perhaps, a few initial missions. Congress, public apathy, and national bankruptcy will see to that.

It might have been different, with solar-power sats and asteroid mining in the 1980s, had Americans not lost their reach. But we did. We might have made money up there and opened that final frontier. We are left with comsats and sub-orbital space tourism, plus a space station that is little more than a floating janitor's closet for the folks who service it while doing little useful science and no exploration at all. The wonderful unmanned missions carry the torch of exploration, but they do little to make us a spacefaring race living on many planets. This is the goal all Children of Apollo share.

And even Space tourism? So far it is a stunt for the wealthy....despite Richard Branson's good intentions, it remains bungee-jumping in a private rocketship. One lost rocket and it will end, too.

I hope that the fate of US space artifacts--physical proof that we are pygmies after an age of giants--is not as squalid as that of our old Russian enemies. Their space shuttle complex, storing the Buran orbiter, collapsed in 2002 after budgets for maintaining the building vanished. Under snow load the huge building came down and obliterated the relics of that project. What remains of the complex for building space shuttles now? "The former orbiter manufacturing plant was reportedly converted to produce buses, syringes, and diapers." (from an Aerospaceweb article).

Syringes and diapers.

Unless we get that long-awaited signal from space that shows us that we are not alone in an indifferent universe, I recommend a new monument in Second Life.

We need a J.G. Ballard "Memories of the Space Age" Museum, with decaying shuttles lashed to rusty gantries that sprout Spanish Moss.

Until I see humans climb to the heavens in any number, I fear that our space fever-dreams will prove as ephemeral as those of Spaceport Alpha. Our current techno-fetishism of thumbing our little phones is, compared to the Big Science of the 60s, pitiable.

It involves a downward glance, not the horizon-defying gaze of the rocket men.
To quote a Gordon Lightfoot lyric, "the Space Shuttle ends where the subway begins. There's a tear on the face of the moon."

I heard that in the 70s, reading it as a lament for the end of Apollo. And now we may lose the first virtual monument to that Golden Age of space travel. So, ISM, as the book jacket for the Arkham House edition of Ballard's Cape Canaveral stories proclaims, "Hail and Farewell!"

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