David Brin, in the midst of speculating about Obayashi Corp.’s plan to build a space elevator, stopped to ask how we ended up squandering the spacefaring momentum of the Apollo program:
Were those early dreams just fantasies? Were the Apollo landings flukes? Or evidence that an earlier generation was better, or more daring, than us?
Well now, here’s the thing about sudden tech spurts and long, frustrating plateaus. You may be deluded by the spurts, but you can also get too accustomed to plateaus! In fact, as models of reality they are just as unrealistic.
What’s more accurate is to realize that Apollo was way, way premature. Given the technology of the 1960s — your phone has more computational power than all of NASA had, back then — it’s amazing they didn’t blow themselves up every time. It was a perfect example of human determination and ingenuity overcoming all obstacles of technology or common sense.
Brin’s comment reminds me of the question raised by Samuel Eliot Morrison in The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages — Why did so many years elapse between Columbus’ voyages and the beginning of intensive European colonization of North America? Perhaps the answers will prove to be related.