Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Remembering the Future: “Requiem for the Space Age” • by Bruce Bethke

This morning I learned that after 33 years in orbit, the Hubble Space Telescope has gone offline, due to the failure of one of its three remaining gyroscopes

Gee. What a shame we don’t have some sort of reusable, crewed, orbital launch vehicle—let’s call it a “space shuttle”—that we could use to fly a repair team up there, to perform the sort of in-orbit maintenance the Hubble was expected to need and designed to accommodate.

I’m speaking sarcastically, of course. I’m well aware that we had a space shuttle, and also well aware that those first-generation Enterprise-class brick airplanes were retired for good reason, after they killed two crews in in-flight accidents. The second-greatest failure of the shuttle program wasn’t the design of the ship, though. It was the decision by someone in the NASA hierarchy to pretend the shuttle was not an extremely dangerous experimental aircraft, and instead to try to sell the thing to the public as a flying magic school bus. As a consequence schoolchildren nationwide got to watch in horror as Ms Frizzle and the crew of the Challenger were blown to bits on live TV.

Still, the greatest failure of the shuttle program was not the loss of the Challenger, or even the loss of the Columbia. It was that those ships were not merely first-generation craft; they were the only generation.

Whatever happened to learning from tragedy and trying again?


I grew up on the Space Age. I grew up with the Space Age. I watched the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs unfold as news, not history, and followed aerospace news and the X-plane programs the way other kids my age followed major league baseball. I was that nerdy kid off in the corner with a hand-me-down copy of Aviation Week & Space Technology (what, didn’t everyone grow up with aerospace engineers and rocket scientists for family friends?), with my feet on the Earth but my head in the stars. Long before Star Trek ever went on the air, the idea of the Final Frontier had its hold on me. Western Civilization had already gone as far west as it could go. Now the only choices were to go down, into the oceans—yech, too cold and wet for me; maybe it would have seemed like a better idea if I’d lived somewhere where there were porpoises, not carp, and the water wasn’t about five degrees above freezing year-round—or else up, into space.

Besides, we had to get to the Moon before the Russians did. If they got there first, they might claim it as Russian territory! And put atomic bombs up there!


In retrospect, perhaps things would have been better if the Soviet Union had gotten there first. In the sober light of day, the idea of putting a nuclear missile base on the Moon is ridiculous. There would be no way to hide the visible signature of a missile launch. 

[“But what if they put it on the dark side of the Moon?!” my inner ten-year-old argues.

[“Even if they could somehow hide the light emitted by the launch burn,” my adult self answers, “and even if they could hide the launch vehicles from ground-based radar as they came out from behind the Moon, our entire defense industry would be working overtime to find some way to detect such a launch as soon as it happened. And given that it takes at least three days for a spacecraft to make the transit from the Moon to the Earth, by the time their warheads finally arrived here, the war would be over and the Soviet Union would be a smouldering radioactive wasteland.”

[“But… what if they used faster missiles?”

[“If they were launched from the dark side and had to slingshot around the Moon to get pointed in the right direction, it would still take at least three days. Because physics. Specifically, orbital mechanics.

[“Remember, the point of a nuclear deterrent is to have it close to your enemy, so they don’t have much time to react. If you’re going to give your adversary three days’ advance warning, you may as well not launch at all. That was why we were so alarmed when the Soviets tried to put nuclear-capable intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Cuba—and why the Soviets were so willing to give up their plan to put IRBMs in Cuba in exchange for our quietly withdrawing our Redstone missiles from Turkey a few months later. Both launch sites were too close; they were oops close. Neither side wanted to start Armageddon by accident.”

[“Huh—what? But I thought the Cuban Missile Crisis…”

[“Never mind. I’ll explain later.”]

Think it through, though. If  the Soviets had gotten to the Moon first and established any kind of presence there, there is no way our government would not have moved Heaven and Earth, and perhaps a little bit of Hell, too, in order to establish an equal-but-opposite presence on the other side, just to keep an eye on the Russians. What great advances in space exploration and a permanent human presence in space might have grown from that deep mutual mistrust!

Instead, we got there first, and discovered, in the immortal words of Earl Holliman in Forbidden Planet:

“Another one of them new worlds. No beer, no women, no pool parlors. Nothing. Nothing to do but throw rocks at tin cans, and we gotta bring our own tin cans.”

So we went back to the Moon—and back again—and pretty soon the public lost interest, and the TV ratings dropped, and the Apollo program was canceled prematurely, like the last season of Babylon 5. I never got him to explain exactly what his personal connection was, but Dr. Jerry Pournelle was at times known to wax quite profane at the idea that his Saturn V—it was supposed to be either Apollo 18 or 19—never flew, but ended up as a museum piece, corroding away in the rain on the lawn of the Johnson Space Center.

I look at that sad sight and think of 1421, which is when (it is claimed) a Chinese fleet under the command of Admiral Zheng He discovered and explored the western coast of North and South America—and then, finding nothing of particular interest or value here, Zheng turned around and went back to China, never to return.


Back in the 1960s, we all knew that Wernher Von Braun’s vision of strapping astronauts into capsules perched on the noses of ballistic missiles was just a stopgap; an expedience; it was what we had to do to beat the Russians to the Moon. The Thor, Redstone, Atlas, and Titan launch vehicles that were the muscle of the Mercury and Gemini programs were all originally designed to deliver nuclear weapons to Russia. Only the Saturns were designed from the drawing-board up as manned space exploration vehicles, with no nuclear warhead payload. The real future of manned space exploration, we all knew, would evolve from the X-plane program.

For now, yes, brave men sitting in tin cans bolted onto the noses of giant bombs built by the lowest bidder; that will have to do. But in the future we will fly up to space, in proper hypersonic aircraft, live and work in space in comfortable giant orbital bagels, and then, when it comes time to return to Earth, we will fly down to a controlled and comfortable landing in a conveniently accessible place.

The obvious next step then was to build a space shuttle, designed to do exactly that, and to fly that mission profile. I remember following with great interest the arguments that were raging circa 1970 over which of the competing design concepts would be the best way to build a craft that could achieve those objectives. 

And then, because NASA is a government agency, they settled on a ceramic glider bolted onto the side of a giant bomb, with the initial liftoff thrust to be augmented by a couple of Minuteman missiles strapped onto the sides of the fuel tank. And all this to be built by the lowest bidder.

What could possibly go wrong?


The story of human progress is the story of risk. From the day our first proto-human ancestor thought, hey, maybe it would be a good idea to climb down from this tree and try walking upright, every step of progress has come with the risk of disaster. Sometimes it’s disaster for an individual; sometimes for an entire group. Sometimes the sabre-toothed cat gets you; sometimes you wind up wearing its pelt and discovering that it’s good to be warm and not naked. It may be possible to live a life that is completely without any risk at all, but I have to think such a life would be a stultifying, boring, and very nearly meaningless.

In the long run, I think it would even be an irrelevant life. The ones who chose not to take risks are still up in the trees, searching for fruits and insects to eat and hoping not to be eaten by jaguars. They aren’t our ancestors.

Our ancestors were the ones who came down from the trees. Our ancestors were the lucky ones, who took risks, prospered from their good choices, survived their bad mistakes, and learned from their experiences. Being social animals, the even-luckier ones were those who developed the ability to learn from observing the good choices and bad mistakes of others, and then to pass on what they had learned to their offspring. We are the product of 4.5 million years of hominid evolution, all of which seems to have come together to produce a creature unique in its ability to say, “Okay, that didn’t work. What else can we try?”

Note that I did not say the end product. I don’t believe evolution is done with us just yet. But it does seem to me as if evolution has taken a brief pause just now, as if to catch its breath, before we take our next great leap.


As we stand today we are biological learning machines, shaped by millions of years of evolution to be creatures willing and able to explore our world, to try to comprehend it as best we can, and to figure out how to either adapt to its conditions or to modify its conditions to better suit our needs. We are creatures designed to find new frontiers, and then to wonder what lies beyond them. We are explorers. We are learners. We are problem-solvers.

Yet here we stand, on the threshold of space, hesitant and seemingly afraid to take the next step. Okay, the brick airplane didn’t work. What else can we try?

I look at NASA and see an enormous bureaucracy that lacks a vision and a purpose, beyond the sad purpose of perpetuating the continued existence of the bureaucracy and all those well-paid government jobs. I look at the EAS and see about the same thing, only smaller and with less money. I look at Roskosmos and try not to laugh: we were afraid of them

I look at Virgin Galactic and don’t understand what I see. Is this a serious space exploration company? An expensive publicity stunt? A really bad music video? 

I look at SpaceX and admire their chutzpah, at Boeing’s Starliner and hope it pans out, at Lockheed Martin’s Orion and hope that after 26 billion taxpayer dollars spent it actually flies some day. But of all three I think, great, cool, we’re almost back to where we were when the Apollo program was canceled, nearly 50 years ago.

Now what about flying into space, and flying back from it? Sixty years later and we still haven’t figured out a better way to get into space than by putting a capsule on top of a giant bomb and lighting the fuse, nor a better way to come back down from low-Earth orbit than by popping a bunch of parachutes and hoping we don’t hit the ocean too hard? We are by nature problem-solvers. Isn’t anyone working on a way to solve these two problems? 


I don’t remember doing this, but apparently my father thought it was so cute that he wrote it down, and I found it in his notes as we were cleaning the house after he died. When I was very young, someone asked me if I wanted to be the first person to go to the Moon. I said no, I wanted to be the first person to come back from going to the Moon.

I no longer believe that’s going to happen. I’m getting too old. This body of mine is wearing out. When I was young not only did I believe I might someday actually go to the Moon, I believed the manned exploration of Mars was only a few decades away and something I would see happen in my lifetime.

I no longer believe that, either.

What I do believe is this: that as a society, we face a choice. We can either let this be 1421 all over again, or we can take the next step, and go back up and even further out into space. Even if it involves great risk. Even if missions fail. Even if sometimes entire ships and crews are lost. 

I believe that we were not made to stay put forever on this good planet Earth. I believe that we were made to explore, to learn, and to come back if we can, to tell the tales of the strange and wonderful places we have seen. We were made to be voyagers, sailing on the sea of stars.

Not me. Not now. My time has passed. But perhaps my grandchildren, or my grandchildren’s children, will be the ones to take those next steps. Evolution isn’t done with us yet. I believe we are on our way to becoming something new; something better. Call our descendants Homo astronauta, or Homo cosmicus, or Homo stellaris, or whatever you will.

Whoever they are, they’re going to be fantastic. I wish I could be there to meet them. Even if it means my being on the wrong side of the unbreakable glass in the Monkey House, in the primate wing of the Intergalactic Zoo… 

Just, please don’t lose your nerve and go 1421 on me. We’re meant to be better than that.


In science fiction circles Bruce Bethke is best known either for his 1980 short story, “Cyberpunk,” his Philip K. Dick Award-winning novel, Headcrash, or as the editor and publisher of Stupefying Stories. What very few people inside the SF/F fiction bubble have known until recently is that he spent most of his career in software R&D, doing things that were fascinating to do but almost impossible to explain. What even fewer people have known is that he actually got his start in the music industry, as a composer, performer, and a member of the design team that developed MIDI, among other things, and he has an enormous repertoire of stories that begin, “This one time, this band I was in…” all of which are far too raunchy to tell in any medium his children or grandchildren might someday read.

Yes, he still has his 50-year-old cherry red Gibson SG with P-90 pickups, as well as his original 1971 ARP 2600, and he fully intends to get back to doing music, one of these days…



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GuyStewart said...

Ya know, I think the way you inspire me is that I'm NEVER sure if you're dead serious or spouting stuff long enough so that when I jump to my feet and shout, "I believe!", you point your finger and burst into hysterical laughter...and start the opening notes of Queen's "Another one bites the dust", substituting the words, "Another one is a chump"...

Which, for me...and perhaps a few others...forces me to hang my head, muttering, "Oh, yeah? I'LL SHOW HIM!!!"

I think...the latter...

Anonymous said...

“ … I don’t believe evolution is done with us just yet. But it does seem to me as if evolution has taken a brief pause just now, as if to catch its breath, before we take our next great leap.” That caught my mind. Evolution is a very slow process, and already in process. I keep waiting for the hair to stop growing where we shave. Look at the gender bending going on. Theres no pause, evolution is lurching forward.