43 years ago yesterday, on July 20th of 1969, humanity set foot for the first time on another world.
1 year ago today, July 21st, Atlantis’ mission, STS135, came to a close with the Shuttle’s safe return to Earth and subsequent finale of the Shuttle Program.
During our presentation at Fantasy and Sci-Fi Convention Polaris in Toronto earlier this month, we had the opportunity to meet several individuals who recalled being woken up by their parents in the early hours of the morning to watch as Neil Armstrong stepped off of the Lunar Lander. This moment in history would go on to be known when the whole world “looked up.” As we talked about Chasing Atlantis, the conversations at Polaris shifted to an expression of disappointment. Since Apollo, we have yet to visit other worlds. After watching the Moon Landing at age 10, one audience member relayed, it seemed reasonable that over 40 years later we’d have planted foot prints on other planets, asteroids, or moons at least within our own solar system.
At the Kennedy Space Center it is clear that the Apollo era is still dominant in how NASA brands itself. One of the largest displays is a Saturn V rocket. Tour guides, many of whom are retired NASA staff who worked during Apollo, recall how NASA’s share of the American GDP was close to 5% during the Space Race. NASA’s budget is now 1/10th that figure. Why? Some would argue politics. The Space Race was about beating the Russians to the Moon. When that was accomplished, there was no further impetus for pouring tax dollars into missions beyond the confines of Low Earth Orbit.
What’s next? Asteroid Mining with Planetary Resources? Mars? Whatever the mission, its success will demand public engagement. Lack of public support for NASA was what many of our interviewees cited as a reason why public funding has waned considerably. Why fund something if it won’t bring in votes? So the debate continues surrounding private entrepreneurship and whether the private entry into space exploration, with the advent of companies like Space X, and Planetary Resources, and space tourism companies such as Virgin Galactic, will bring a new push against the final frontier. Public engagement was a key focus of our documentary. We were excited to connect with both the Apollo generation as well as the current generation of sci-fi and space enthusiasts at Polaris to talk about shuttle; an icon that we realized was not as well recognized by today’s youth as by the previous generation. Perhaps that lack of resonance is partly due to the stagnation of space exploration over the last decades; something we continue to explore in our interviews.
Looking ahead, I am personally hopeful for a future where the next 4 decades see more giant leaps for humankind. The journey outward is about more than the curiosity of what’s beyond our planet, but also seeking a better understanding of ourselves in the process.