Reason Magazine just posted a must-read article from its February 2012 issue by Timescape author Gregory Benford, in which he examines the expansive dream of space exploration propounded in the early 1950s by Wernher Von Braun. And he concludes that even though NASA seems to be scaling back and our dreams of interplanetary exploration have come to a standstill, there's still hope — including a possible Mars expedition by 2033.
Congress came to see NASA primarily as a jobs program, not an exploratory agency. Slowly, NASA complied with the post-Apollo vision-safety-obsessed, with few big goals for manned flight beyond low Earth orbit. Very little useful science got done in the space station. NASA never did the experiments needed to develop the technologies required for a genuine interplanetary expedition: centrifugal gravity to avoid bodily harm and a truly closed biosphere. The station was about camping in space, not living in space. In that respect it resembled the earlier Russian Mir Station, where crews were allowed a weekly vodka, cognac, and cigarette ration to pass the time...
Science fiction writers didn't predict the fade-out of NASA's manned space operations, and they weren't prepared with alternative routes to space when that decline became undeniable. Allen Steele, a journalist who once covered NASA and now writes award-winning stories and novels about it, remarks: "Those who equate NASA with space exploration can't see any other options. They got scared away from writing about space, or else became cynical about the whole thing and claimed that space exploration is a failure."
Benford puts most of his hopes into commercial space exploration, and believes that "economically literate" science fiction authors will focus on privately funded, rather than government-funded, space missions. But he also writes, inspiringly, that the passion in science fiction springs from "a deep-rooted human need: to reach out, to prefer movement to stasis, to understand." The whole thing is well worth reading. [Reason Magazine]