The end of the Space Age
Inner space is useful. Outer space is history
Jun 30th 2011 | from the print edition
HOW big is the Earth? Any encyclopedia will give you an answer: its equatorial diameter is 12,756km, or, for those who prefer to think that way, 7,926 miles. Ah, but then there is the atmosphere. Should that count? Perhaps the planet’s true diameter is actually nearer 13,000km, including all its air. But even that may no longer be an adequate measure. For the Earth now reaches farther still. The vacuum surrounding it buzzes with artificial satellites, forming a sort of technosphere beyond the atmosphere. Most of these satellites circle only a few hundred kilometres above the planet’s solid surface. Many, though, form a ring like Saturn’s at a distance of 36,000km, the place at which an object takes 24 hours to orbit the Earth and thus hovers continuously over the same point of the planet.
Viewed this way, the Earth is quite a lot larger than the traditional textbook answer. And viewed this way, the Space Age has been a roaring success. Telecommunications, weather forecasting, agriculture, forestry and even the search for minerals have all been revolutionised. So has warfare. No power can any longer mobilise its armed forces in secret. The exact location of every building on the planet can be known. And satellite-based global-positioning systems will guide a smart bomb to that location on demand.
Yet none of this was the Space Age as envisaged by the enthusiastic “space cadets” who got the whole thing going. Though engineers like Wernher von Braun, who built the rockets for both Germany’s second-world-war V2 project and America’s cold-war Apollo project, sold their souls to the military establishment in order to pursue their dreams of space travel by the only means then available, most of them had their eyes on a higher prize. “First Men to a Geostationary Orbit” does not have quite the same ring as “First Men to the Moon”, a book von Braun wrote in 1958. The vision being sold in the 1950s and 1960s, when the early space rockets were flying, was of adventure and exploration. The facts of the American space project and its Soviet counterpart elided seamlessly into the fantasy of “Star Trek”（1） and “2001: A Space Odyssey”（2）. Other planets may or may not have been inhabited by aliens, but they, and even other stars, were there for the taking. That the taking would begin in the lifetimes of people then alive was widely assumed to be true.
然而没有这些推动太空事业发展的太空学员的满腔热情，太空时代便无法想象。工程师们为了实现遨游太空的梦想全身心地投入到军事机构中，这是唯一的可以获得使用的途径。比如工程师Wernher Braun，他为二战时期的德国V2计划和冷战时期的美国阿波罗计划分别建造了火箭。虽然他们中很多人是为了获得高额的奖金。工程师Wernher Braun在1958年的一本书中写道，第一个到达与地球同步轨道的人并没有得到第一个到达月球的人同样的花环。二十世纪五六十年代，当早期的意在探索冒险的太空火箭升空时，太空遨游的幻想就更热切了。事实上，美国的太空计划署和苏联的太空部门已经忽略了像“星际旅行”和“2001：太空冒险”这样的完美的幻想。
No longer. It is quite conceivable that 36,000km will prove the limit of human ambition. It is equally conceivable that the fantasy-made-reality of human space flight will return to fantasy. It is likely that the Space Age is over.
Today’s space cadets will, no doubt, oppose that claim vigorously. They will, in particular, point to the private ventures of people like Elon Musk in America and Sir Richard Branson in Britain, who hope to make human space flight commercially viable. Indeed, the enterprise of such people might do just that. But the market seems small and vulnerable. One part, space tourism, is a luxury service that is, in any case, unlikely to go beyond low-Earth orbit at best (the cost of getting even as far as the moon would reduce the number of potential clients to a handful). The other source of revenue is ferrying astronauts to the benighted International Space Station (ISS), surely the biggest waste of money, at $100 billion and counting, that has ever been built in the name of science.
毫无疑问，今天的太空学员们会强烈反对这个声称。他们尤其会提到希望以商业方式实现太空飞翔的个人冒险者，比如美国的Elon Musk和英国的Sir Richard Branson。这些计划冒险的人果真也会像太空学员们一样予以反对。但是这个市场似乎很小也很脆弱。一方面，太空旅行是一项奢侈的服务，不像冲出地球低轨道那么容易（这些如同与月球距离一般可观的巨额花费使潜在客人的数字减少到几个）。另外一方面，是把宇航员飞渡到蒙昧的国际太空站（ISS）所需要的资金来源，无疑是最大的浪费，已经花了千亿美金却还在增长，那个曾经是以科学的名义建立起来的。
The reason for that second objective is also the reason for thinking 2011 might, in the history books of the future, be seen as the year when the space cadets’ dream finally died. It marks the end of America’s space-shuttle programme, whose last mission is planned to launch on July 8th (see article, article). The shuttle was supposed to be a reusable truck that would make the business of putting people into orbit quotidian. Instead, it has been nothing but trouble. Twice, it has killed its crew. If it had been seen as the experimental vehicle it actually is, that would not have been a particular cause for concern; test pilots are killed all the time. But the pretence was maintained that the shuttle was a workaday craft. The technical term used by NASA, “Space Transportation System”, says it all.
But the shuttle is now over. The ISS is due to be de-orbited, in the inelegant jargon of the field, in 2020. Once that happens, the game will be up. There is no appetite to return to the moon, let alone push on to Mars, El Dorado of space exploration. The technology could be there, but the passion has gone—at least in the traditional spacefaring powers, America and Russia.
The space cadets’ other hope, China, might pick up the baton. Certainly it claims it wishes, like President John Kennedy 50 years ago, to send people to the surface of the moon and return them safely to Earth. But the date for doing so seems elastic. There is none of Kennedy’s “by the end of the decade” bravura about the announcements from Beijing. Moreover, even if China succeeds in matching America’s distant triumph, it still faces the question, “what next?” The chances are that the Chinese government, like Richard Nixon’s in 1972, will say “job done” and pull the plug on the whole shebang.
No bucks, no Buck Rogers（3）
With luck, robotic exploration of the solar system will continue. But even there, the risk is of diminishing returns. Every planet has now been visited, and every planet with a solid surface bar Mercury has been landed on. Asteroids, moons and comets have all been added to the stamp album. Unless life turns up on Mars, or somewhere even more unexpected, public interest in the whole thing is likely to wane. And it is the public that pays for it all.
The future, then, looks bounded by that new outer limit of planet Earth, the geostationary orbit. Within it, the buzz of activity will continue to grow and fill the vacuum. This part of space will be tamed by humanity, as the species has tamed so many wildernesses in the past. Outside it, though, the vacuum will remain empty. There may be occasional forays, just as men sometimes leave their huddled research bases in Antarctica to scuttle briefly across the ice cap before returning, for warmth, food and company, to base. But humanity’s dreams of a future beyond that final frontier have, largely, faded.
1） Star Trek is an American science fiction entertainment franchise created by Gene Roddenberry. The core of Star Trek is its six television series: The Original Series, The Animated Series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise.
2） 2001: A Space Odyssey is a science-fiction narrative, produced in 1968 as both a film, directed by Stanley Kubrick, and a novel, written by Arthur C. Clarke. Arthur C. Clarke was a British science fiction author, inventor, and futurist
3） Anthony Rogers is a fictional character that first appeared in Armageddon 2419 A.D. by Philip Francis Nowlan in the August 1928 issue of the pulp magazine Amazing Stories. A sequel, The Airlords of Han, was published in the March 1929 issue.