Second Thought: Wednesday, September 1, 2004
Calling Flash Gordon

The final frontier is closer than you think.


Two months ago, an event occurred that should prove to be the defining event of the decade, perhaps of the century.

That was the successful execution on the summer solstice of the first privately piloted space flight. It was an astonishing accomplishment, completed just six months after the centennial of the Wright brothers’ “first power-driven ... free, controlled, and sustained flight” at Kitty Hawk, N.C., on Dec. 17, 1903.

Mike Melvill’s flight from the Mojave Desert in the reusable SpaceShipOne designed by Burt Rutan reactivated the quixotic visions of my adolescence, which — since we are both 62 — was Melvill’s adolescence, too. As important as the flight itself is the recyclability and relatively low cost of the vehicle. The ship and flight were financed by Paul Allen at a fraction of what they would have cost under NASA’s aegis. This means that the cost of exploring space can be far less than we have hitherto assumed and that — if not in my lifetime, at least in my daughter’s lifetime — space travel could become an actuality.

Indeed, the development of aviation has been dazzlingly swift. Within about a decade after the Wright brothers’ 1903 flight, the first passenger and freight airplane runs were already being made on the East Coast. In May 1927, less than a quarter-century after that first flight, Charles Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis won the prize offered by hotelier Raymond Orteig by completing the first transatlantic flight between New York and Paris. Just 20 years later, in October 1947, Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. In the ’60s, humanity’s first tentative steps into space were taken by Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard. Before the decade was out, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins were on the moon.

That first lunar landing seemed miraculous to me at the time. After all, I had read Jules Verne and the John Carter of Mars novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs in elementary school, and I had studied Robert Goddard’s pioneering rocketry experiments. In junior high, I had devoured the early fiction of Ray Bradbury and the scientific publications of George Gamov and Willy Ley. In the early days of television, I was enraptured by Buster Crabbe’s Flash Gordon serials; in the movies, I gazed in awe at Destination Moon. In those allegedly halcyon days of the ’50s, Life magazine’s cover illustration of a space base on the moon made such an indelible impression on me that I can still see it vividly in my mind today. For my high school physics project in 1959, I built out of scraps a primitive diffusion cloud chamber for photographing alpha particle tracks. In graduate school, I attended the initial reserved-seat showing of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Surely, I imagined, this great cinematic achievement had opened up not only provocative metaphysical horizons, but also a vision of the not-too-distant future that could be realized in my lifetime.

When astronauts walked on the moon the next year, it seemed that space travel was just around the corner. Yet after the ’60s a lethargy crept into our national consciousness. Our public (and private) schools plunged into decline. Our political discourse grew ever more petty and myopic. And space receded as a goal.

As a result, except for some brief enthusiastic commentary on CNN by Miles O’Brien (not the Star Trek engineer), the press coverage of Melvill’s flight barely made a blip on the radar screen of our consciousness. Apparently we have become so blind or jaded that we do not realize that the future begins with that flight. We seem to be so mesmerized by trivia that we have missed the fact that posterity will trumpet Melvill’s flight as the true beginning of the age of space exploration.

At least the Ansari X Foundation, based in St. Louis — uncoincidentally also the home of the financial backers of Lindbergh’s historic flight — has offered a $10 million prize for the successful completion of two orbital space flights in the same craft within a two-week period. If someone, probably SpaceShipOne, wins that prize, perhaps that will reawaken in American minds the drive to explore space. Such a drive would represent not only the possibility of technological progress, but also hope for the future.

But that hope may be frustrated. If that lamp of exploration goes unnoticed, who will keep it burning? Apparently not many of us, who, given a look at the future, have hurried past it without a second glance.

Bob Zaslavsky of Fort Worth is a retired teacher of Latin and the humanities and a lifelong fan of space flight.

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