Next year will be 2001. That year also appears in the title of a famous movie. 2001: A Space Odyssey predicted a future that would include comfortable space stations, laborers on the moon, and manned travel among planets. I would now like to be among the first to make the bold forecast that this movie's predictions will not come true—that we will not, in fact, have the space stations and the rest of it in place by next year.
Still, in the year that movie was released (1968), all of those predictions for 2001 seemed quite plausible. And though we did go on to land humans on the moon and create space stations that were at least survivable, that's as far as we got. Should we be disappointed?
Not at all. In fact, the freedom we have exercised to turn our technology efforts toward other goals (like improved computing and communications) shows that the world of our 2001 is better than the world that Stanley Kubrick and Arthur Clarke—writers of the movie—would have envisioned.
In 1968, why was it so reasonable to believe that people 33 years in the future would have spent the resources on such an aggressive move into space? To be sure, there are payoffs to be won in earth's immediate neighborhood. They include scientific knowledge, resources like metal or water in the moon or asteroids and lots of room. However, the first of these—scientific discovery—can be performed with machines or temporary missions. That leaves just two scenarios that could justify the investment in an ongoing, large-scale human presence in space. Either we would run out of resources and have to look for them out there...or else we would run out of room for our population and need to build homes off the earth.
But neither of these scenarios came to pass. In our 2001, the kind of natural resources that space could provide are still plentiful here at home . . . and even though our population has grown, earth still offers ample room.
We could master space if we needed to. Technological details would have to be worked out, but all of the fundamental knowledge necessary for expansive space stations, lunar outposts or trips to the outer planets is already in our possession. It's just that these undertakings would be expensive. And as turns out, we're still a long way from having the need to pay that price.