Human spaceflight may be dead, but the future's still death from above.
…and here, dearly beloved, down here in the deep valley of expectations – over whose sides The Future slides like a slab-avalanche of flaming diarrhoea – is where we sit and look up overhead to see the grand dame of the Promised World Of Tomorrow being toured around like an incontinent dowager getting a last viewing from the relatives before being locked away in the old people’s home to drown in her own piss. And not one of us, dearly beloved, not one of us points up at that thing, that Space Shuttle, and calls it out for what it really is: NASA’s crucifix pendant.
Five cosmonauts died in the Russian space programme. A programme of largely unsteerable launch vehicles made to much the same standard as tractors and fuelled with terrifying muck that you'd think was too good to spray on scorpions. The American Space Shuttle alone killed 14. That’s what everyone’s been applauding, by the way – a flying death box that killed 14 people, seven of whom died for the noble and future-facing cause of a good media window.
This leaking thing, paraded across America to joy and applause from a people who don’t even see the lie to them that it represents, will have no eventual museum information board explaining that the Shuttle was the first and only crewed American space vehicle to have no launch escape system. That a limited bailout system was added only after Challenger exploded. There will be no guides reciting the story of how Shuttle killed human spaceflight in America. Also, of course, there will be no large plaque proclaiming that This Isn’t The Real Story.
The Shuttle was sold on the lie that it was the Future, when it was no such thing and never intended for that purpose. It was a domestic political tool for the most part. But it’s also a great object lesson.
The future is what happens when you’re not looking.
There is a real Valley Of Expectations. It’s called the Gartner Hype Cycle.
Take a look at that. Enjoy the term “Trough Of Disillusionment”. I do. For our purposes, though, focus your eyes on the Peak Of Inflated Expectations. That is the area filled with things that we are told are The Future. That’s the stuff that’s officially Next. This is how Shuttle was sold. Here it is, The Official Future. Now consider the things that happened when the Shuttle turned out to be a bit crap, and then a death trap, and then a thing that had to have the International Space Station built just so it had somewhere to go.
While everyone was watching that, plain old-fashioned expendable launch vehicles lofted GPS satellite constellations, which led directly to a fairly stunning fraction of the world’s population carrying around in their pockets incredibly accurate world maps that actually know where they are. (Unless you’re on Apple Maps on iOS 6.)
Not as thrilling, on the face of it, as a landing on Mars. Although I did watch a robot land on Mars via the internet, the other week. That said, we’re only now really beginning to consider the impacts of GPS and digital mapping. Even the little things are eerie when you stop to think about them. When writing my book Gun Machine, I needed to refresh some decade-old memories of New York. And spent a night at my laptop in England, walking through Manhattan in Google Street View, and knowing full well that I could have gotten friends in town to do the walk for me and then watched them move on a second screen in realtime.
Which is, of course, how the drone throws its shadow.
…here, dearly beloved, down here in the deep valley of expectations, did you ever look up and notice how much the Shuttle resembles some styles of drone? That happened when we weren’t looking.
Follow Warren on Twitter: @warrenellis
Image by Marta Parszeniew