Manifest Destiny or Pipe Dream?

“I started out as a child” – William H. Cosby, Jr., Ed.D.

I have been ruined by the timing of my childhood. Grew up with the space race; 3 years old when Sputnik launched, 7 when Gagarin and Shepard flew and JFK promised the moon, allowed to stay up late to watch if Ranger or Surveyor were going to be successful, watched Gemini through grade school, Apollo through High School, and somewhere in between read a host of science fiction stories.
SF definitely ruined my life; captivated as I was at an impressionable age by Asimov, Clark, Heinlein, and so very many others. Watched “Destination Moon” a thousand times along with every other B grade SF movie ever made. Then, of course, came Star Trek. After that show went off prime time network programming, one of the local TV stations in my area showed reruns every night. So I watched Star Trek reruns every night – every night! – all through high school. There was a time I could quote the dialog from any episode verbatim. My social life suffered accordingly.

Read about Goddard in his tree reading War of the Worlds and deciding to find a way to go to space.  “It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.”
Long after he was dead, JFK’s speeches were the proof text for the future. Space – its exploration and exploitation – was the future. I read and re-read the works of Gerard K. O’Neill and believed. I had no doubt. It was our Manifest Destiny to explore space.
One of my middle school friends proclaimed in about 1967 that we would never reach the moon, it was impossible. Somehow he and I lost touch over the years but I expect he has become one of those fringe types who believe Apollo 11 was filmed on some sound stage in Arizona. I reveled in the fact that he was wrong.
Both fact and fiction pointed to an inevitable future.
Somehow it hasn’t quite worked out as expected.
2001 came and went without lunar bases, without any excavation of black obelisks in Tycho, without manned spaceships heading out to Jupiter or Saturn. I suspect that Zefram Cockrane wasn’t born last year, and I fear that warp drive might just not be possible in the universe we inhabit.
What happened to those flying cars which we should have by now? At least we should have the hover board. But no.
In a year when one’s birthday ends in a zero, brooding comes easily. Thinking about how there is more runway behind than ahead. Wondering if a career’s worth of work and worry were well invested or wasted. Wondering when – or if – the promise will come true.
It becomes easy to fall into cynicism, to write the whole thing off as a stunt. A one-time geopolitical ploy rooted in a particular time and policy made for reasons which no longer exist. Leaving us with the rump vestige of a dream which lives on merely to siphon off public money into some sort of jobs program. Something which exists merely to exist.
Hardnosed taxpayers want to know what they are going to get for their money. Spending billions to plant a flag on some distant point in the universe merely for prestige does not constitute a business case which shows a return on investment. They insist that the ISS better come up with something more important than videos of astronauts in zero G chasing water globules around with straws.
Space travel could just be a pipe dream. Something like believing in fairies or unicorns. Something for children which adults dismiss.
Certainly makes it hard to listen to idealistic pronouncements of ‘horizon goals’ and the inevitability of our future in space.
Ok then, shut ‘er down, put the pieces in a museum, and tell kids to study finance and marketing because that’s where the big money lies. Gordon Gekko was right after all: get filthy rich by any means necessary, win every contest by any means available. That’s what counts. That’s all that counts.
But you know . . .
Pessimism never improved the human condition. Cynics never accomplished anything positive. Real and lasting satisfaction only comes when heart and strength are given to something bigger than yourself.
Roddenberry showed us the future could be better than the present. Heinlein really got it right; it’s not about money. It’s about freedom, achievement, and the joy that comes from accomplishing something hard and worthwhile. There has to be meaning in life or it is not worth living.
Those who go forth into the world – into the universe – have at least the chance to succeed. Those who stay home in fear or greed inexorably fall into stagnation, into dissolution, decay, and finally destruction. Grow or die, that is the law of the universe.
So what if the timeline runs a little longer than we expected? Does that mean we stay home, let the cynics run the world, and wait for Malthus to say ‘I told you so’?
Today we are chasing our tails because the space experts debate destinations: Moon, Mars, or asteroid? O’Neill and I say do them all. The ‘horizon goal’ isn’t Mars, it is the entire solar system. When we have built colonies on every habitable niche, then maybe we will find a way to go to the stars.
I didn’t say bankrupt the treasury. Don’t squander other people’s money; figure out how to do it anyway.
Nobody said that it would be easy. But what is our choice?


It’s been a long road, getting from there to here.
It’s been a long time, but my time is finally near.
And I will see my dream come alive at last. I will touch the sky.
And they’re not gonna hold me down no more, no they’re not gonna change my mind.

‘Where My heart Will Take Me’ written by  Diane Warren

About waynehale

Wayne Hale is retired from NASA after 32 years. In his career he was the Space Shuttle Program Manager or Deputy for 5 years, a Space Shuttle Flight Director for 40 missions, and is currently a consultant and full time grandpa. He is available for speaking engagements through Special Aerospace Services.
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22 Responses to Manifest Destiny or Pipe Dream?

  1. I wonder why we automatically assume humans in situ. Might be we can’t settle worlds beyond Earth because of hypogravity or some other potential showstopper, but we can explore still them. And we might as well explore them the cheapest way, which is by humans through robot proxies.


  2. I wonder why we automatically assume humans in situ. Might be we can’t settle worlds beyond Earth because of hypogravity or some other potential showstopper, but we can still explore them. And we might as well explore them the cheapest way, which is by humans through robot proxies.


    • waynehale says:

      I think I said, colonize all the habitable places in the solar system. There is no argument here with using robot presence where it is inappropriate to send humans.

      • Thanks for clarifying that. Myself, I get as excited now about each new robotic mission as I did about Apollo as a kid. It’s all about seeing things no one has seen before and understanding this crazy wonderful universe we live in.


  3. Jay Friant says:

    You lured me in and I was unable to stop reading this blog entry. You are ~10 years my senior but I found myself thinking about my younger years, reading about yours. Living next to the Scobee’s on Edwards AFB and watching the moonwalks were my early inspirations. Your piece is also very timely of course! I finally feel like we’re heading in the right direction once again in the space business and I look forward to helping launch humans on American rockets before I decide retirement is a good idea.

    Jay Friant
    ULA HLS Prop

    P.S. Star Trek Enterprise, the theme song lyrics you quote at the end, was one of my favorite Trek series. Perhaps our grandchildren will witness something close to that (okay, maybe without warp technology).

  4. Dennis says:

    Great piece (as always). Do them all. We don’t need to break the bank, it’s just a matter of priorities and national will. If we can’t find 1-2% of the Federal budget to do great things, we need to acknowledge that we are a country in decline. I’m not ready to capitulate; this is still America.

    BTW, I was in college during Apollo, volunteered for MOL shortly before it was cancelled, and spent the last 8 1/2 years of my career as a systems engineer at Ames..

  5. ken anthony says:

    It takes an immense effort of imagination … to see beyond these initial difficulties of opening a new frontier.

    It’s not imagination. You can borrow imagination from a visionary. The problem is a culture that absolutely believes you must have government to bless you or fund you. A culture that believes wealth is stolen from others rather than created from trade. Fundamental truth is mocked by today’s culture. But even that’s ok, because we don’t need them.

    New frontiers are always conquered by minorities who show the way for others to follow.

  6. Dan Adamo says:

    Wayne, I was born but a year before you and dreamt as you did. As we await human spaceflight’s return to cislunar space and beyond, I often think we are “keepers of the khatra” bequeathed us by those aerospace giants on whose shoulders we have stood throughout our careers.

    While we contemplate the next giant leap, horizon goals, and enduring questions, I think it’s important to distinguish between exploring and pioneering. The former is in NASA’s charter, but the latter isn’t. We can only hope NASA’s explorations beyond low Earth orbit will reveal compelling reasons for pioneering by others. And I agree with you that the surface of Mars is a very shortsighted and presumptuous horizon goal indeed. See my op-ed draft at for more details.

    • waynehale says:

      Dan, we served together in Mission Control and I have the greatest respect for you. Normally I don’t approve comments that have links to other folks posts, but in this case I have made an exception. Good to hear from you.

  7. Charlie says:

    Wayne, I’m a half-decade behind you, so my birthday ended in a “5” this year. I understand the feelings and admire people like you who made a career in spaceflight. I don’t know where it will all lead. But I find yesterday’s prominent launch of a competition between billionaires to be encouraging. Maybe Bezos and Musk will provide some of the incentive lacking in Washington and Moscow.

  8. Charlie says:

    And for the record, I can still quote many of the lines (and anticipate the musical queues) of Star Trek TOS. Just sayin’.

  9. Simmy says:

    Excellent as always, please post more often if you can..(especially memories of your days as a flight director, I can’t get enough of those stories!)

  10. Fredric Mushel says:

    Very moving statement and very, very true. 2001 came and went with nothing close to what was depicted in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
    Each new President, US Senate and US Congress, has since JFK, altered the US space policies. We have strayed from the course of exploring and expanding our reach beyond low Earth orbit. NASA gets a pittance $18 Billion annual budget, while the Pentagon gets over $700 Billion. Just one DOD project, the Joint Strike Fighter (F-35) has gone over budget to the tune of $300 Billion! Imagine what NASA could do with that amount of money.
    Even though there is a thriving commercial space sector, their corporate funding is very limited and they, unlike the US government (NASA), have to show profits to their investors. Therefore, I do not believe the commercial sector will be a major player in exploration beyond low Earth orbit. They would be viable for launching satellites to low Earth orbit or geostationary orbit, which will generate profits.
    I videotaped off of broadcast TV, the first 14 shuttle missions. After that the broadcasters did not cover shuttle missions and cable TV did not come to my home area until late 1986.
    But I recently re-watched a tape of STS-1 and ABC’s Good Morning America had Isaac Asimov as a guest. Based on the initial success of the shuttle (prior to its landing), Mr. Asimov stated that he believed 10,000 people would be doing something in space (working, exploring, vacationing, etc.) by the year 2000!
    Well science fiction remains the future of the US space program until our narcissistic, and greedy society changes back to what it was after the Great Depression and World War II; the years of the 1950’s through the early 1970’s.
    The US, as far as space is concerned, is now too “risk adverse” due to the two (preventable) shuttle disasters and the loss of the lives of those 14 astronauts.
    The conquest of space will remain a highly risky endeavor and unless we (the USA) is willing to spend the big bucks and take the risks, which we did during the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and early shuttle years, then one day, it may be sooner rather than later, a large asteroid will collide with the Earth and possibly destroy humankind or put us back in the stone age as far as technology is concerned.
    Gene Roddenberry, in creating Star Trek, so rightfully insisted that the conquest of space will require a UNITED Earth. As we see what is happening in the world today, as well as in the past, unfortunately our animalistic demons will keep us intelligent humans from ever becoming a fully united planet.
    I am glad that I was alive when all these great US space triumphs occurred. For the current young generation, space will be of little concern to them.
    They will be working in jobs that take money and just create more money. No substantial progress will be made for human kind. Just new technologies that generate sales of new and improved products every year (computers, smart phones, tablets, wrist watches, and other commercial products) that separate money from the working class people and make the corporations and wealthy citizens, more and more money, to hoard and reinvest, just to accumulate even more financial wealth; wealth that goes far beyond what these minority of people can spend in their lifetimes. And they contribute nothing of real value to improve the human condition or the status of our country.

    • waynehale says:

      Oh no. Not pessimism, defeatism, and cynicism. The very evils that I warned about. Young people with their enthusiasm and creativity are our future. Turn from this dark path and help us make a brighter future.

  11. Beth says:

    Yes, yes, yes!! I’m a child of the same era, with the same hopes and dreams. Thanks to the ‘space race’ I became, not an astronaut, but an engineer. You really do have to do what your heart desires, or your life is indeed a waste. We’ve only been at this space game for 50 years or so; as compared to our written and oral history, its just the blink of an eye.

    We will get there. I am certain. Maybe not before I die, but we will get there. And working on the space program, or solving problems as an engineer; this is how it will get done. Oh yes, and by dreaming it!

    Thanks, Wayne!

  12. Steve Pemberton says:

    I have great admiration for the very few professions which seem to be built on dreams that start young. The arts is one, especially those in the performing arts who almost to a person had dreams that started very young. Aviation perhaps is another as many pilots wanted to fly before they were old enough to even drive. And the space industry seems to be populated almost entirely by people who dreamed the same dreams that you did from an early age, dreams which never left them, and they pursued those dreams into what they are doing now. But even more uniquely, the early dreams of those in the space industry rarely seem to involve personal attainment like the other professions that I mentioned, but instead the dreams are almost always based on an excitement about what mankind is destined for.

    Smart societies don’t cut funding for the arts, in spite of complaints by some that it’s a waste of money on something that doesn’t matter. That’s because the arts, which are based on dreams, propel an entire society higher than it would be with only the “useful” professions. I believe space exploration should continue to be funded for exactly the same reasons, as the very attempt helps raise our thinking about what is possible for humans. And if that wasn’t enough, the pursuit of these particular dreams results in real tangible benefits, both immediate and long term, that come from what we learn as we continue to strive at the incredible challenge of human space exploration.

  13. Wayne I was at my little league coaches beach party in Galveston celebrating our season when one of the wives skittered out to tell us that the astronauts had landed on the moon. We all ceased to be a baseballers at that moment and became ASTRONAUTS! let loose from gravity and standing on the dust of the moon.

  14. Christopher says:

    Someone will build something in there garage someday, that may surpass Science Fiction. I have always loved space, and dream still of building technology, and stations. Now we see infrastructure being slowly built, and the free market potential of so much more.

  15. bgtwindad says:

    Reblogged this on The Secret Lives of… and commented:
    I could probably run a blog just reblogging Wayne Hale’s stuff. Here he makes a pretty good argument for why we should — nay, must — continue exploring space. For my part, I think the survival of the species depends upon it. Assuming the good Lord continues to tarry patiently in his return, we’re going to outgrow this little rock, if some wandering asteroid doesn’t do us in first. But more than that, exploration is in our blood, in our souls. It is part of our identity as a species and as a people. Yes, there’s plenty of exploration still to do here, especially in the oceans, but there’s a whole universe out there. if we do not move forward and seek out the unknown, something very important deep within us will die.

  16. Scott says:

    Orbiting factories, bases and mining Helium-3 on the Moon, a Mars colony and rock rats mining exotic metals out of the Asteroid Belt. Terraforming Venus and onward to the outer planets. We’ll need faster rockets. If Congress and the President can give AIG $200 Billion, GM $50 Billion and they still go Bankrupt and almost $1 Trillion to the banks that are too big to fail, they can pony up a few more bucks for our future. But, that’s just me thinking. I too read a lot of science fiction and belong to a Star Trek Fan Club.

  17. ralphhightower says:

    Well said. I just wish that the House and Senate viewed NASA as America’s Space Program, not just a jobs program for Florida, Texas, and Louisiana legislators in DC. We also need a president with a vision. Unfortunately, all the lawmakers in DC are just looking out for themselves to get reelected again.

  18. BarbaraJ says:

    When I was 4 years old, I told my parents I was going to be part of the space program. I convinced my parents that I needed to be in Florida to watch Apollo 11 launch and have the Brownie camera picture to prove my success. I saw the first shuttle launch in high school and got my only detention because I skipped English to watch her land with my physics teacher. (well worth it, of course since history is created in instants). I went to FIT knowing I’d be working at NASA before I even graduated and accomplished my goal. My whole young life carried the same passion as many that we were part of the future of humanity. Though I ‘retired’ early to pursue other dreams of travel here on earth I still have the same passion for space travel and speak to groups about my experiences and the continue existence of NASA – which sadly is not universally understood. I don’t think America will be the first to inhabit the moon or Mars, but I still believe we have to keep moving forward. Thanks for your blog. It was an honor to be a member of your team as a PLO/ACO. Even as a member of the RTF TG, when I didn’t always agree, I always held you in high regard and have the utmost respect for your enormous contributions to manned space flight.

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