Growing up in the late 80s, I had a ton of exposure to optimism around huge scientific breakthroughs and progress. In particular, air and space travel seemed to be making huge leaps and bounds on a yearly basis. After a recent visit to the Air and Space museum in Washington DC though, I was reminded of just how much progress was promised, and how little actually happened. Have we entirely stalled progress and does that mean my children will grow up without scientific optimism?
Growing up in the 80s meant constant exposure to the space race, supersonic air travel, and the space shuttle. As a kid, perhaps because I grew up in the shadow of Washington DC, I frequented the Air and Space museum, saw the power of the entire Air Force on display at air shows, and even went to Space Camp down in Florida in one of the most formative experiences and best bonding times with my dad as a kid. Throughout all of this, I was taught repeatedly that with the advent of the concord, the space shuttle making frequent trips to the space station, and new propulsion technologies, it was just a matter of time before we’d all be living in a future with trips to the cosmos and faster than sound transport becoming the norm.
After a visit to the Air and Space museum now, it feels like we stopped forward progress in the 90s. A visit to the museum now feels more like a reminder of the promise we once had and just how little we’ve done since. The steady progress from the original Wright Brothers flier to the lunar lander promised a continual advance of progress, but on reflection now, we’ve done very little since I was a kid. The concord was scrapped after a series of accidents. Even with continual promises of another faster-than-sound passenger plane just around the corner, it doesn’t look like we’re any closer than we were in 2000.
Similarly, we haven’t been back to the moon, seem to lack the technology to do so, and have completely scraped the shuttle program. Instead, we rely on Russian rockets to re-supply the space station, and only recently has Space-X started running similar missions. Even with the just announced extra $1.5 B going to NASA to get us back to the moon and eventually Mars, it’s going to be a long time before we can even match what we did in the 70s, let alone surpass and reach the promise the 80s seemed to hold. Looking back at what the shuttle program promised, constant missions and experiments in space and the potential this meant for the advance of space exploration and travel have gone completely unrealized. Even the promised next generation of experimental reusable craft like the X-series from NASA never came into being. When I was a kid, NASA was the epitome of advanced technology and the pinnacle of what kids wanted to be when they grew up. Now, it’s Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon.
Unfortunately, the museum now feels almost more like a memorial to a distant advanced civilization than a connection to our current society. Maybe it’s due to fewer tax dollars funding upkeep, but exhibits like the lunar lander, experimental rocket planes, and the space shuttle feel like demonstrations of our failure to continue advancement. There’s still plenty to see and some inspiring exhibits, but I couldn’t help reflect on how much seemed to be ahead of us when I was a young kid, and how now, with my kids just about the same age, not much has changed.
Even the air show we visited that I frequented as a child demonstrated this. The Osprey, the plane which converts from helicopter to plane, was supposed to be ready back in the 80s when I first saw it as a kid. At least now it flies actual missions, but it took years of development and accidents to finally get there. The JSF plane is still undergoing development and only starting to begin deployments in the last few years. The only change to the lineup of planes since I was a kid was a Predator drone. I understand that the newest technology isn’t going to be on display to the public, but it says a lot that almost nothing has changed in almost 30 years.
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Perhaps the only bright spot in the area of air and space development is in private industry. Virgin, Blue Origin, and of course SpaceX have been making huge strides in taking commercial space flight from nothing to on-par and perhaps even beyond what our own space agencies are able to do now. With frequent launches from SpaceX and multiple successful re-uses of their rockets, they’re doing some exciting things with rocket launches. What they haven’t yet done though is drive excitement for space exploration or experimentation. With a target of resupply missions eventually leading to commercial flights and maybe trips to the moon, it’s going to be a long time before SpaceX sets its eyes on exploring the solar system or scientific discovery like NASA promised in my childhood. While the frequent launches are probably something I’ll try to take my kids to at some point, I’m just not sure it’s the same kind of inspiring vision that captured my imagination with NASA as a kid.
As a kid, I grew up with NASA and the space program as the pinnacle of science. With huge advances every year in the technologies and new launches frequently, there was a ton to be excited about and a seemingly huge potential for the future being just around the corner. However, many of these promises never panned out, and actually seem further away now than they did then. Whereas I had aspirations to grow up to be an astronaut as a kid in the 80s, my kids now are much more likely to dream of growing up to be programmers. It makes me sad that so many of the dreams of the 80s and promise of technology like frequent trips to the moon or Mars, faster than sound commercial travel, and life in orbital stations died after my childhood. While the government space agencies no longer inspire children in the same way, at least there’s some hope with the private commercial companies eventually improving to the point where they can even consider some of these bigger goals. In the meantime, I’ll have to inspire my kids with technology in other areas.