When we look at the plans for the Apollo space architecture after the first lunar landing as envisioned in the early 1960's, up to 1966, we see an ambitious program intended to fully realize the potential of the equipment, and thus the investment in its development. We see plans for a series of space stations, for moonbases, for trips to Venus and Mars, and ultimately a landing on Mars which probably would have led to a base there. It would have been the dreams of Heinlein and his heirs made real.

And then came the Fire -- a disaster in a test so routine nobody even thought it could be dangerous. It was the wrong accident at the wrong time, involving the wrong astronauts. It caught everybody by surprise, from the people at Pad 34 and senior NASA officials to Congress and the American people.

In the blamestorm of finger-pointing that followed, Congress decided to punish NASA for its carelessness with the lives of its astronauts by cutting its budget to the bone. There would be just enough money to fulfill Kennedy's commission to land a man on the Moon and return him to Earth by the end of the decade, then a few follow-on missions to show it wasn't just a stunt. The ambitious applications program was reduced to a single space station.

All small plans, lacking in the power to stir men's souls. And thus our space program becomes a zombie shambling round and round in LEO, pretending to go somewhere. Just enough to mollify the space fans by creating the illusion that we were taking the first steps on a long pioneering journey.

And yet the longing remains, for that world that could've been, would've been, should've been. A sense of looking into a mirror into the lives we have in that world of might-have-been. For a wish that could make it all be once more.

Last updated January 27, 2015.