We are fifty years and one day into the era of manned space flight. On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin's successful of into Earth's atmosphere and safe landing in the Saratov region of Russia made him a hero the world over, in Communist and capitalist countries alike. Everywhere, people sensed a new era of discovery and exploration coming into being; one that would make the Renaissance journeys of Columbus and Magellan look like strolls in the back yard. (Which, from an astronomical perspective, they were.)
Well, so much for that. I didn't want to write this on the proper anniversary of Gagarin's flight, which seemed like an inappropriate occasion for griping. But I wonder if anybody noticed the sick irony of yesterday's anniversary: That Gagarin's flight was made possible by a repressive Communist regime, and that the regime's accomplishments were only bested when the United States' government utilized its superior spending power to fund daring, impractical missions which, nowadays, would be laughed out of any budget proposed to our Congress. (In 1961, when the Apollo missions were first funded, they were estimated to cost $24,000,000,000. In today's dollars, that's $177,693,000,000.) Yet the anniversary of Gagarin's flight came on a day when the Kennedy Space Center -- surely the most noble human-made thing in our state -- is shuttering its shuttle program. For the foreseeable future, American space-farers will reach the heavens not in a vehicle built by the American people, but aboard either a Russian Soyuz module or in a Dragon capsule propelled by a Falcon 9 rocket.
The Dragon and Falcon 9 are manufactured by SpaceX, the private company created by South African businessman Elon Musk which has taken over much of NASA's heavy lifting. They're subsidized by tax payers, but the government has decided that the privatization of space exploration will ultimately prove cost-effective. Whether it will or not, it's certain that the government doesn't deserve its long-standing monopoly on manned space travel. The rockets we use to get our shuttles into orbit are the finest science the 1970s can offer. The lack of innovation in our space program in the last three decades bespeaks a terrible indifference on the part of the American people, and a terrible lack of vision on the part of those whose responsibility it is to excite us about our species' space-faring future.
When humanity first landed on the moon, those were your taxpayer dollars at work, accomplishing in eight years something that no humans could have thought possible during the vast majority of our 200,000 year history on this planet. If there are schools 1,000 years from now, children will learn the names "Yuri Gagarin" and "Neil Armstrong" long before they learn the names "Stalin" or "Kennedy." And if all goes according to plan, they will learn the name "Elon Musk." They will learn that he was the person who stepped in and salvaged human spaceflight when the public lost interest. Space flight was ours, they will learn, but we didn't care for it, and at the beginning of the 21st century ownership of that endeavor was transferred from a democratic people to a few visionary businessmen. Good for them. And shame on us.
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