Sputnik 1 to SpaceShipOne -- 10/04/04

Today ScaledComposite's SpaceShipOne successfully flew a second mission to space within a two week window, thereby winning the X Prize. They deliberately picked today because it is the 47th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite.

I can remember that night. I was goofing off in our den, listening to rock & roll on the radio -- Allen Freed on 1010 WINS New York. I was fourteen years old, high school freshman, science fiction addict. There was a news report on the radio and I went outside -- a little bit chilly, like tonight, a taste of early October crispness in the air. I've just stepped out to look up at the sky just now. There is a slight overcast of thin clouds, almost more of a haziness than a real cloud cover, but it does mean that only the brightest stars are visible tonight. My memory tells me that there were more stars visible that night, but memories are fallible. I remember I wanted to look up and see it. Oh, I knew that it was not visible to the naked eye but -- perhaps the news had said that it would be over the eastern seaboard around that time (and, even assuming that they had said that, who knows if they were even close to being accurate) but I just wanted to be able to look up at the night sky and think about that, that there was a man-made object up there, orbiting the Earth. History was being made.

Of course later I would think about how if they could put a satellite into orbit, they could also use that capability to toss H-bombs at us. That was a somewhat less welcome thought.

Less than twelve years later the United States would land men on the moon.

For a little over three years we were a space-faring nation. Six lunar landings (Apollo 11 thru Apollo 17, minus Apollo 13 of course).

This past Thursday Adam (my eldest) celebrated his thirty-sixth birthday. He was a pre-schooler the last time man walked on the moon. (Once, when he was about four, he walked into the living room while Walter Cronkite was anchoring some news special. "Oh," he remarked. "Are men on the moon again?") The younger two are 19 and 22 and, of course, have never seen a lunar landing, have never seen manned space flight other than near-Earth orbital Shuttle missions and some grocery deliveries to Mir and then to the International Space Station. Adam has gone through nursery school and grade school and junior high and high school and college and several years as a freelance photographer and then working for an advertising agency and getting married and becoming a father... and in all of those years NASA has not managed to return to the moon (in fact, has lost all capability of returning to the moon), despite far superior computational capabilites and vastly improved materials science (take a look at what SpaceShipOne is made of) and yet today NASA could get a manned flight no further from the Earth than they could thirty-six years ago when Adam was born.

I thought for certain that by now there would be hundreds (if not thousands) of people living on the moon, multiple scientific research stations, lunar mining, industrial prototyping, perhaps even tourism. (Hey, we're three years past 2001.)

JFK challenged NASA to put a man on the moon. LBJ turned it into a federal pork project for Texas. Congress, along with all subsequent administrations, have made NASA what it is today -- a massive multi-billion dollar federal jobs program for well-connected congressional districts and a juicy subsidy program for some aerospace defense companies.

At last private enterprise is reaching for space. Oh, sure, SpaceShipOne does not have all of the capabilities of the Shuttle -- but it cost less than one tenth of one percent of what the Shuttle program has cost -- and the next version will be bigger and better. Now Virgin Galactic is going to order space vehicles from ScaledComposites for tourist flights to the edge of space by the end of the decade. And Bigelow Aerospace is proposing a tourist-oriented hotel in orbit. And other X-prize teams, despite missing out, still intend to continue their efforts.

Private enterprise may make good on NASA's broken promise and give us the moon, the planets, the stars. Well, unless, of course, Big Nanny stops it -- you know, the bureaucratic do-gooders and the concerned activists, and the big government regulators, and John Edwards and the ambulance-chasers in the American Bar Association. And if, when you think about it, you worry about how easy it would be for them to bring all the dreams to an end and trap us all here, remember that's just in the United States. What about those thieves and back-stabbers at the U.N.? Ah well, time enough to worry about them tomorrow... for tonight I just want to think about the successes and about the potential for the future.

Go SpaceShipOne!

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