Launched thirteen years ago, in January 2006, the New Horizons space probe today passed Ultima Thule, an icy rock 6.5 billion kilometres from the Earth; it is the most distant ever exploration of an object in the Solar System. It is fifty years, since the imagination of hundreds of millions of people was captured by the Apollo 8 mission that orbited the Moon; it will be fifty years this summer since the first Moon landing. The optimism of the late-1960s, when Neil Armstrong declared his belief that travel to the moon would be routine by 2000, was never fulfilled.
Perhaps the period of the Space Age was too optimistic. Joni Mitchell’s lyrics for Woodstock include:
Well, maybe it’s the time of year
Or maybe it’s the time of man
Maybe it was “the time of man”. The Apollo missions were expanding human horizons; the civil rights movement was asserting human equality; a social revolution was manifest in the emergence of the “permissive society.” The times were memorable, historical.
But the times seemed to stop. Our ability to go into space has been in a state of suspended animation since the days of the Apollo missions. Science seems to have been unable to make progress in building space vehicles that might travel at speeds that would enable manned space flight within the Solar System.
Where science has made huge advances is in those areas where there is a market; where people can shop for the products. Pharmaceutical companies have prospered, particularly where drugs have offered lucrative returns. Nothing can compare with the information technology revolution, computers, telecommunications, television and music systems; there are things we could not have imagined thirty years ago. There are times when it seems that the whole of human scientific endeavour has been directed towards attaining the point where spotty youths can send pointless media messages to friends they saw five minutes previously, or will see in five minutes time.
Scientific research is only possible with funding. Available public funds have been severely reduced. The private sector depends on profit so will tend to provide funding where research can be shown to contribute to a growth in income. The situation created, in blunt terms, is that science will produce whatever we will shop for. Extraordinary mobile phones are possible because there are people with money to pay for them, while elementary illnesses persist in Africa because the people cannot afford to pay to end them.