Sixty years ago today, the first human went not only into space, but into orbit. Two decades later (by coincidence–it was scheduled to occur two days earlier than the anniversary, but a computer timing issue delayed the flight), the Space Shuttle first ascended from a launch pad.
At the time, the Shuttle was viewed as a huge advance over the expendable rocket that got Yuri Gagarin into orbit, and the key to getting us back on track in advancing into space after the end of the Apollo moon missions almost a decade earlier. It was to be just the beginning of a series of new types of launchers, and most assumed that it would operate for only a decade or two until it was replaced by something better.
One of the Apolloists’ key errors was in viewing the seemingly rapid progress from Gagarin to the lunar landings, in less than a decade, as normal, and linearly extrapolating it into the future, with dreams of NASA lunar bases and Mars missions in the 80s. But while the Shuttle was indeed a harbinger of the future of human spaceflight, it was not the exciting one that its proponents imagined. Instead, because the vehicle flew so rarely, and cost so much to fly (in defiance of the original program goals), NASA languished in low earth orbit, and in December of next year, it will have been half a century since a human walked on the moon.
This happened because Gagarin’s flight kicked off a race, where the goal was not to open space to humanity, but to demonstrate technological superiority between two adversaries in what was viewed as an existential war, at any cost. With Apollo, the US won that race, but at the cost of establishing a compelling, but unsustainable and, in fact, un-American model for getting humans beyond earth orbit. After the expense of Apollo, few could imagine that any entity other than the government of a superpower could get humans into space, creating for decades a false perception that inhibited private investment in commercial hardware for human spaceflight (a perception that NASA often encouraged when investors would ask its “experts” if they should invest in a private space company).
Less than five years after its debut, in early 1986, Challenger fell into the Atlantic, killing all aboard, including a school teacher. Few realized it at the time, but it was the beginning of the end of the program, though there was recognition that it was never going to live up to the promise of delivering all payloads to orbit, or operating out of the west coast, or carrying tourists. But institutional inertia kept it flying, with many failed programmatic attempts by NASA to replace it until, a little after two decades after its maiden voyage for the fleet, the loss of Columbia in 2003 made it clear to all that the program must come to an end.
Despite that event, some persist in their devotion to the failed Apollo model of NASA spending unthinkable amounts of money to deliver a handful of astronauts to another body, which is now exemplified by SLS/Orion. Sadly, while they are few, they are also powerful members of Congress, or former ones, about to become NASA administrator.
But fortunately, as Columbia was being sundered by a hurricane of plasma in the upper atmosphere, a new private space company was starting to develop its own rockets in southern California, with the goal of creating human communities on Mars. Almost two decades since that sad event, the company has taken over delivery of NASA astronauts to the International Space Station, ending our dependence on the Russians. It is testing with its own money prototypes in south Texas of a much more practical vehicle that will be capable of affordably carrying humans en masse into the solar system. Decades after the false dawn of the space race, the American space industry is finally starting to do space in an American way, and the future is brighter than it has ever been for human spaceflight and the expansion of humanity into the solar system.
[Update a while later]
Yes, I fixed the math on the date of Apollo 17.