The Economist has a rather interesting question up on its website at the moment; 'Is this the end of the space age?' It's a reasonable question to ask, given NASA's retiring of its space shuttle fleet, with the last launch scheduled for just a few days from now, July 8th. Governments, caught in the grip of a perfect storm of weak economic performance, high levels of public debt and a widespread conservative culture that views tax increases as fundamentally unacceptable, just don't have the capital necessary to go boldly, to un-split that popular infinitive.
But does that mean the end of the Space Age? If so, it would be a sad little age indeed, like asking if the Age of Sail was over before the first ship had crossed the Atlantic, or if the Computer Age was over before the bugs had been worked out of Windows 3.1. But the difference between the Space Age and those other ages is that they showed a steady trend towards continuation. There was no reason to assume the Age of Sail would end, because there was little evidence that the opportunities, and more importantly the rewards, of that technological revolution had yet been fully exploited. With the Space Age, however, there are plenty of people who think that space exploration is at best abstracted science, and at worst just a waste of money that could be better spent elsewhere.
But I'm not ready to throw in the towel just yet. It's true that manned space exploration is no longer the driving force behind our ventures beyond the atmosphere, but that doesn't mean the Space Age itself is dead. In a world increasingly dependent on satellites to maintain the web of connections that make every aspect of advanced Western-style society possible, the ability to launch space vehicles will continue to be a necessity; the ability won't be lost, merely redirected. And so long as our ability exists, the potential that was the real draw of the so-called Space Age, which occupied the same spans as the Computer and Information Ages and had far less of a noticeable impact on those living through them, remains. Perhaps governments will once more find the vision, and the funding, to venture into space. Or perhaps corporate interests will find something in the void that calls to them; that, frankly, would be what is truly necessary to launch a meaningful Space Age. It may be that we move outwards in only the tiniest and most incremental of steps, from the ISS to the Moon to Mars over the span of too many decades for those dreaming of setting foot on the soil of another world, but there is no compelling reason not to go to space, eventually. And humanity has a history of doing anything there isn't a compelling reason not to do, sooner or later, and a fair few number of things there is a compelling reason not to do.
So no, I won't throw in my towel just yet. I may still get the chance to thumb a ride on a passing starship, and if I'd already thrown my towel away, well, what kind of hitchhiker would I be?