I'm getting very tired of the recent Apollo 11 navel-gazing. "It was wonderful", goes the chorus, "it's such a shame that we haven't gone back!" It is a shame, yes -- in the original sense, of being shameful.
But then they go on to say that the moon program was a victim of its own success, that it had served its purpose of beating the Russians and so our government closed it down. People like Tom Wolfe confidently say that "everybody from Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson on down looked upon the so-called space race as just one thing: a military contest." It was politicians, they say, who didn't see re-election opportunities in continuing to support an expensive space program.
You want to know who to blame for the US not being on the moon or Mars today? Every single American who says today "I remember Neil Armstrong walking on the moon". These are the people who had their opportunity to make this an election issue, who could have written to their Congresscritters, who could have, y'know, bothered to tune in to the telecasts of the later Apollo missions. And maybe they had good reasons for getting distracted: Vietnam looms large in their memories too. But when it comes down to it, a generation of Americans lost interest and changed the channel, and their government obliged them.
That's what's happening now too. For all the handwringing and "It's a shame" mantras, this generation seems to have also convinced itself that space exploration is a luxury, something that can be done tomorrow. After all, we have so many other things to do, and Michael Jackson is so much more interesting.