“But there’s something far more radically wrong now. If space flight were still a live proposition, by now some of it would have been taken away from the army again. There’d be some merchant shipping maybe; or even small passenger lines for a luxury trade, for the kind of people who’ll go in uncomfortable ways to unliveable places just because it’s horribly expensive.” He chuckled heavily. “Like fox-hunting in England a hundred years ago; wasn’t it Oscar Wilde who called it ‘the pursuit of the inedible by the unspeakable’? “Isn’t it still a little early for that? I don’t think so. But if I’m rushing us on that one point, I can mention others. Why have there been no major exploratory expeditions for the past fifteen years? I should have thought that as soon as the tenth planet, Proserpine, was discovered some university or foundation would have wanted to go there. It has a big fat moon that would make a fine base—no weather exists at those temperatures—there’s no sun in the sky out there to louse up photographic plates—it’s only another zero-magnitude star—and so on.

That kind of thing used to be meat and drink to private explorers. Given a millionaire with a thirst for science, like old Hale, and a sturdy organizer with a little grandstand in him—a Byrd-type—and we should have had a Proserpine Two station long ago. Yet space has been dead since Titan Station was set up in 1981. Why? He watched the flames for a moment. “Then,” he said, “there’s the whole question of invention in the field. “On xenobacteriology. Sure. That’s not space flight, Seppi; space flight only made it possible; their results don’t update space flight itself, don’t improve it, make it more attractive. Those guys aren’t even interested in it. Nobody is any more. That’s why it’s stopped changing. “For instance: we’re still using ion-rockets, driven by an atomic pile. It works, and there are a thousand minor variations on the principle; but the principle itself was described by Coupling in 1954! Think of it, Seppi—not one single new, basic engine design in fifty years!

And what about hull design? That’s still based on von Braun’s work—older even than Coupling’s. Is it really possible that there’s nothing better than those frameworks of hitched onions? Or those powered gliders that act as ferries for them? “Are you sure you’d know a minor change from a major one? “You be the judge,” Wagoner said grimly. “The hottest thing in current spaceship design is a new elliptically wound spring for acceleration couches. It drags like a leaf-spring with gravity, and pushes like a coil-spring against it. The design wastes energy in one direction, stores it in the other. At last reports, couches made with it feel like sacks stuffed with green tomatoes, but we think we’ll have the bugs out of it soon. Tomato bugs, I suppose. “There’s one more Top Secret I’m not supposed to know,” Corsi said. “All right, try this one. We have a new water-bottle for ships’ stores. “Sure it does. And this foil tube is already standard for paste rations.

All that’s new about this thing is the proposal that we use it for water too. The proposal came to us from a lobbyist for CanAm Metals, with strong endorsements by a couple of senators from the Pacific Northwest. “Then I’ll wind it up as fast as I can,” Wagoner said. “What it all comes to is that the whole structure of space flight as it stands now is creaking, obsolescent, over-elaborate, decaying. The field is static; no, worse than that, it’s losing ground. By this time, our ships ought to be sleeker and faster, and able to carry bigger payloads. We ought to have done away with this dichotomy between ships that can land on a planet, and ships that can fly from one planet to another. “The whole question of using the planets for something—something, that is, besides research—ought to be within sight of settlement. Instead, nobody even discusses it any more. And our chances to settle it grow worse every year.

Our appropriations are dwindling, as it gets harder and harder to convince the Congress that space flight is really good for anything. You can’t sell the Congress on the long-range rewards of basic research, anyhow; representatives have to stand for election every two years, senators every six years; that’s just about as far ahead as most of them are prepared to look. And suppose we tried to explain to them the basic research we’re doing? We couldn’t; it’s classified! “And above all, Seppi—this may be only my personal ignorance speaking, but if so, I’m stuck with it— above all, I think that by now we ought to have some slight clue toward an interstellar drive. We ought even to have a model, no matter how crude—as crude as a Fourth of July rocket compared to a Coupling engine, but with the principle visible. But we don’t. As a matter of fact, we’ve written off the stars.

Leave a Reply