Where’d the future go?

You remember it, don’t you? It’s the one with moon bases and intrepid Mars colonists and asteroid miners, with spaceports and space elevators and sprawling habitations up at the Lagrange points. The one we read about when we were kids, the one written about by the likes of Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein, with thrilling chronologies that had us on Mars or beyond by now, or at least heading that way.

You know, the future.

We got to wondering where it went amid last week’s space news: The Discovery landed safely, a private company said it plans to fly tourists around the moon, and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter lifted off from Cape Canaveral.

We read all these stories the moment they popped onto our screens, just as we’ll read all the space-exploration stories to come — we love this stuff. But that said, those stories didn’t deliver the same thrill they would have 25 years ago. And we doubt very much that the next quarter-century will be much different. (We assumed we’d see men on Mars by now; at today’s pace, we’d be pleasantly surprised if our grandkids do.)

Start with the space shuttle. Without taking anything away from the astronauts, the biggest accomplishments of the Discovery mission were that a) it came back; and b) an astronaut pulled bits of cloth out from between tiles. Moreover, NASA had already announced future flights will be grounded because the agency can’t keep foam from falling off fuel tanks. The first of the shuttles took off in 1981; for minor space repairs and a safe return to be front-page news today shows how poorly the program has fared, and how dangerous even modest space missions remain.

Then there’s Space Adventures’ plan to ferry two tourists around the moon for a cool $100 million. The idea has been touted as a step forward for private-sector exploration of space, which gets some people very excited — particularly people convinced that governments can never accomplish anything. But leaving aside our doubts that even a Gates-Buffett-Ellison-Prince Alwaleed private-sector dream team could get us to Mars, Space Adventures’ plan strikes us as private-sector exploration with a really big asterisk: After all, the company is essentially a middleman connecting the Russian government with techno-zillionaires.

Space Adventures CEO Eric Anderson has said the trip will inspire countries, citizens and young people. He’s right, and Lord knows we could use that inspiration. But that was also true when Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders became the first people to orbit the moon — something they did in 1968, when 8-track tapes were new and whizzy. So what that Space Adventures’ tourists will be private citizens? The only difference we can see is that maybe now kids will dream of growing up to be techno-zillionaires instead of astronauts.

At least there’s more wow factor to the news from Mars: The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is on the way, and in November 2006 should begin taking high-resolution photographs of the surface, letting us see objects smaller than a compact car. What’s more, the orbiter is part of a larger plan: It will serve double duty as a communications satellite to speed transmissions between Earth and Mars.

The last two years have brought fascinating dispatches from Mars, most notably the overwhelming evidence from the Spirit and Opportunity rovers that Mars once had liquid water, which has led to all sorts of tantalizing speculation about whether liquid water might still exist today, and support some kind of life. (Heck, maybe the new orbiter will confirm Mr. Clarke’s only-half-joking sighting of Banyan trees.)

Wonderful stuff, but given the rest of space exploration can’t seem to get back to 1981, we hope we’ll be forgiven for wanting more — and for wanting it now. After all, Jace was seven and Tim was three when the Viking landers were digging around in Martian soil in 1976; we figured the place would be necklaced with orbiters and cris-crossed by rovers by now. Maybe there’d even be astronauts (or cosmonauts or taikonauts) tracing the courses of unimaginably ancient rivers. Plucky rovers are great, but by now Sir Arthur’s Banyan trees should either be long since revealed as geological illusions or studied in every high-school biology book.

More here.