I want to talk about a different type of mythology. I’m getting away from dictionary definitions here, because what I want to talk about has nothing to do with sacred narratives or ancient heroes striding into conflict with gods and titans. Rather, I want to talk about a far more recent past and heroes both more and less down to Earth.
This is a hilarious pun, as you’ll see in a moment.
When Neil Armstrong died on August 25, 2012, he was mourned by the entire world. He represented everything that was good about the USA: he was capable, but humble. Strong, but circumspect. He was a celebrity because of his scientific accomplishments, something that very few men (and perhaps no women) have ever achieved.
People in the spaceflight and planetary science communities mourned him for all these reasons, of course. They’re still people. But they also mourned him because of what he represented: a space-faring future that never was.
In retrospect, once we had beaten the Soviet Union to the moon, political will to power evaporated. We got the Space Shuttle, which was still impressive but felt like a step backward. Skylab was short-lived. Mir was only headline news when it broke. And yet, there was always hope, dimmed though it was, of the glory days of Apollo returning, where the future would once again stretch out before us to an impossibly distant horizon.
Armstrong’s death changed nothing concrete, of course. He’d been largely out of the public eye for years and had a minimal effect on policy. And yet, in the minds of people still yearning for Mars bases and space hotels and day trips to the moon, his death seemed in an instant to turn from all that from possibility to mythology.
Let us take a moment to admire an example of what we might have had.
My personal favorite is this design for a US Air Force space warship. She would have carried hundred of bombs, not as weapons, but as its propulsion system. Every five seconds, a bomb would explode behind the ship, propelling it forward like gunpowder propels a bullet. And she was armed to fight the ships that other nations like the USSR would invariably launch. I’m glad we don’t have warfare in space, but we’re not much closer to having the engineering expertise to build one of these than we were in 1970.
A more peaceful and realistic plan was to use leftover resources from the Apollo program to send astronauts on a yearlong mission to Venus and, at somewhat greater distance, to Mercury. This would have been by far the longest time men had spent in space, and would’ve taken them tens of thousands of times farther away than their lunar-lander comrades. Unlike the Air Force warship, we had the technology to do this, but we don’t any longer–much the knowledge required has been lost through the decades. We’re better at putting people in space for a long time, but not necessarily much better at getting them up there.
Here’s the real kick, though, and the reason why I find all of this so interesting: the future that it describes could still be ours. All we need is the will to make it. Neil Armstrong won’t live to see it, but if groups like SpaceX and the Planetary Society have their way, there’s no reason why you and I won’t. That’s why this is my very favorite bit of mythology: it didn’t happen…but it still could.