Some people might have trouble believing it's been forty years. Four decades since the day that Neil Armstrong stepped off Eagle's ladder and landed on moondust, and thirty-seven since the last time sons of Earth were there.
It happened, and it's history. I've read accounts from some people of how much a betrayal the end of the Apollo program seemed at the time, how ridiculous and senseless it was that the United States would go to the moon and then, with the keys to the solar system in its hand, just stop.
That stop is all I've known. I was born in 1982, a month after the first flight of a space shuttle that had more than two people aboard. In the future that we were supposed to have, in the future that the sf visionaries of midcentury saw, there should have been men and women already living on the moon by 1982. Today, in 2009, there should have been a city. By that logic, the entire Earth space program as it has unfolded over the last forty years is a faint shadow of what could have been, and the modern Constellation program a cruelly dangled carrot on a stick, soon to be snapped by the pressures of deficit and recession. To put it simply, looking at the course of space through this lens, we have been cheated.
Maybe it's for the better.
Everything leading up to the Apollo landings was, first and foremost, a competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. There was nothing sustainable about it. The moon was reached with the philosophy of "rocket as ammunition" - of the 3,350-ton bulk of the Saturn V rocket, 6.4 tons returned in the form of the Command Module, the remainder discarded in space or left to burn up in Earth's atmosphere. Even then, after the fires of reentry the only careers the Command Modules could look forward to were in the exciting field of being museum pieces.
The space shuttle may have been a vehicle in search of a destination, but the reusability inherent in the system was what the space program needed. Instead of the relatively short, sustained burst of activity that characterized the rockets of Apollo, the space shuttle era was one of gradual, sustained buildup that has cemented a permanent human presence beyond Earth.
And now all possibilities are, in time, open to us. Some of us may gnash our teeth at how we've stepped back from the brink of space, but how much of this is born from disappointment that here, in the year 2009, we don't have colonies in L4 and L5 and on Mars and fusion-powered torchships capable of constant 1g acceleration? Think of it this way: in 1959, humanity's involvement in space was Sputnik 3, Vanguard 1, and nothing else. Today, the modern world lives and dies with its orbital infrastructure. We have had a space station constantly occupied for nearly nine years. Spaceflights are so routine that they are back-page news, and private companies have made their own steps into the spacelaunch and orbital development business.
In 2059, if we make it that far, we may not have as much to gnash about. The Platinum Desolation was written with this in mind - that this time, we might just stay.