There was a time when science fiction ripped out of the pages of paperbacks and melted through the celluloid of moving film and took hold of our waking, banal everydays. That time when great rockets roared skyward and seemed to be the vanguard of a nascent imperium; the interstellar Empire imagined by Asimov taking its first steps to glory.
From the early 1960's the pledge of JFK to land a man on the moon was the spring driving the increasingly regular and efficient launches. Gemini followed Mercury, Apollo followed Gemini. It seemed to be an unstoppable progression. Tragedies and mishaps such as the Apollo 1 fire or the loss of Grissom's capsule after splashdown didn't appear to hinder the advance of the machine.
Then came the triumph of Apollo 11 in July of 1969. A genuinely outstanding moment in history; the first recorded voyage to and landing on another celestial body by human beings. The television broadcast must have set a record for the most-watched programme of the most abysmal visual quality. The headline on the West Australian newspaper was massive: MAN LANDS ON MOON.
The missions that followed were, as is now well-remarked, anticlimactic. But for the near-fatal events of Apollo 13, they would have received even less attention. That's one of the most astounding things about these events; people became blase about them in an eye-blink.
The last Apollo moon-mission was in November of 1972. An Apollo launch system and capsule which could and should have gone to the moon were wasted in the Apollo-Soyuz farce of 1975...a pointless exercise in the name of "detente". The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 showed what that was all worth. Caught between the Kennedy-hate of Nixon and the apathy and skepticism of Congress and the American public, the programme was extinguished. Its remnant equipment was used as "lawn furniture" at NASA establishments. As a Australian I can't damn the American taxpayers for this...they were paying for it and it would have proceeded only if they had really wanted to continue paying for it. Still, it was depressing to see.
The "space-race" provoked the imaginations of humanity, then became a historical landmark which was progressively receding. The expression "We can put a man on the moon..." became part of the treasury of cliche...it was usually hooked up with "but we can't - " followed by whatever the speaker felt was outlandish for being undoable. This saying is used less often now and I suspect that there are many now who have completely forgotten that it ever happened or never knew. Imagine that...a child who has never heard of it is probably not a rarity today.
From Perth, Western Australia, my home town, the Moon is now the only celestial body which is easily observable at night. Light pollution has progressed to the point where even the most prominent stars and planets are feeble in the clearest viewing conditions (except for Venus, goddess of UFO's). The stars of "our radiant Southern Cross" are winking out. No one seems to even think it's worth a comment. As for the moon, I feel that Stephen Baxter put it best in his short story "Moon Six"; it has become "just a light in the sky that no one cares about".
The initiative in lunar colonisation has passed from the democracies and is now being pursued by China.( I covered that in Post#22, way back when.) It's difficult to see how the withering away of will can ever be reversed. Perhaps the simple answer is that it won't. There's always going to be a Proxmire, a world recession or some damned thing to soak up government money. In the West private enterprise is the best hope for progress...if a profit can be demonstrated in the venture. Not much chance then.
The rockets are dormant now. Fizzled out. Snuffed out. By economic necessity; by failure of imagination. Those of us who lived in the years of the rocket had a great historical privilege. We heard those words:
"This is Tranquility base...the Eagle has landed"
For a moment we had a glimpse.