August 24, 1993

I AWAKENED ABOUT FOUR this morning and stood in the backyard and looked at the stars. The air was unusually clear and still; the stars didn't twinkle at all, and even with all the city lights I could see perhaps a magnitude fainter than usual. The Pleiades were high overhead, and with averted vision I could count five of them. Looking through small binoculars, I easily saw all the Seven Sisters and their attendants shown in the Dark Sky Association "light pollution" Pleiades chart. I thought of the Mars Mapper, which suddenly went silent on Saturday night, all alone out there confused and millions of miles from home. Maybe it will follow automatic programming and go into orbit around Mars, and whatever went wrong may eventually be repairable. More likely, unless it blew up as its tanks were being pressurized, it will hurtle past the Red Planet and be forever lost. This is a real blow to the Space Program. I'm not sure we'll get another billion dollars to try again, and subsequent programs, dependent on data gathered by the Mars Mapper, may also be cut back or modified to perform other tasks. Ultimately, a manned mission is still planned, but we can't take too much failure.

Coming after the spy satellite explosion, it's going to be harder and harder to justify spending billions on a space station and meaningful space program when millions of Americans are making demands on the system. Of course, we got off on the wrong foot back in the late 'fifties when Sputnik turned the whole thing into a matter of military prowess and national prestige.

Not only will we likely never set foot on the moon again, we may not even get a space station that's worth a hoot. Stuck here forever. What a drag. No frontiers, no place to go. No hope ever. Welcome to the stagnant bureaucratic tangle of the future. Look to China or ancient Egypt for a model of mankind for the next hundred thousand years. Nothing ever happens beyond endless, meaningless bureaucratic wrangling and pointless internal coups. We'll invent and forget, invent and forget forever.

Here's my theory. A benevolent race of superior alien beings has decided that mankind is not ready to join the galactic fraternity. Perceiving that we are, nonetheless, making significant progress in space exploration, they have resolved to scotch our fledgling efforts. Nothing crude or obvious. The wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time. Stupid mistakes. Stuff like that. The President decides to wipe Ivan's eye by putting a man on the moon, and with Jack's untimely death that wish becomes a sacred crusade. If we'd built a space station, by now we'd have a popcorn stand on the moon, but instead we plowed 21 billion dollars into some chest-beating and bravado and in 1972 dropped the whole thing with little to show for it but bragging rights.

Bureaucratic arrogance and a faulty dimestore part and the Challenger is all over the Caribbean. Technological hubris fails to check whether the most perfect mirror ever made actually fits the rest of the system, and Hubble gets a world-record case of myopia. Gallileo's antenna doesn't quite open. The Mars Observer mysteriously gets four redundant transistors that are all from the same faulty batch, and falls off the edge of the universe. Mix in a lot of good old porkbarrelling, incompetence and stupidity, and there you have it.

The Red Planet has always been a tough nut to crack, I'll admit. More than a dozen Russian missions were failures, with few successes. Four years ago, the Phobos 1 and 2 spacecrafts malfunctioned in the vicinity of Mars, one victimized by an erroneous ground command and one disoriented by a computer glitch. The Russians are planning more ambitious attempts next year and in 1996.

When Russian and American spacecraft went to Mars in the early 1960s, they suffered one disaster after another. The Russians were in the lead and had the most failures; botched landings, strandings in Earth orbit and inexplicable communications losses. The first American attempt, Mariner 3 in 1964, was no more successful. When its twin, Mariner 4, was nearing Mars, it experienced a long communications blackout, recovering in time to send photos back in 1965. The Viking missions were successful, but served to some degree to dampen enthusiasm because they failed to discover life.

The public doesn't care one way or the other, and politicians, obsessed as always with bread and circuses, would rather pour money down some vote-garnering rat hole than build mankind's future. This is the window, and if we don't reach out to the stars now, we never will. Stuck on the Mudball forever with the hewers of wood and drawers of water. Opportunity lost, but the stars will return tonight and every night for us to wish on, even if we can never meet them in the black vacuum of space.

Yep. Those aliens sure are doing a great job.



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