1960s illustration of what space exploration was supposed to look like
Illustration: NASA/Novak Archive

You’re probably familiar with the old sayings, “where’s my flying car?” and “where’s my jetpack?” But the most depressing question for plenty of space nerds from the 20th century might be, “where’s my vacation on the moon?” And I just got really depressed reading a paper from 1987 about the space travel advances we were supposed to have by 2013.

The paper is titled “The World and the United States in 2013" and was written by the late sociologist Daniel Bell. The paper isn’t exclusively about space travel—it includes predictions on everything from nanotechnology to population growth, but the section on space exploration definitely feels the farthest away.

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What am I talking about? You can read for yourself:

The major frontier, of course, is space. The Paine Commission in the United States has proposed a forty-year program for the exploration and colonization of space. It is possible that there may be permanent space stations in orbit by 2013. It is even possible that there will be, as in the Antarctic, some outposts on Mars. There are many projects for advantageous manufacture in space (e.g., pharmaceuticals). There are designs for solar panels to redirect energy from the sun, just as most satellites in space will be powered by solar reflectors.

Colonizing space? It seems like a ridiculous dream, even here in the 21st century. Manufacturing pharmaceuticals in space? Nah.

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Yes, there have been plenty of technological advancements since 1987, but when you read about things like outposts on Mars they feel as far away as ever. Especially since the people who are promising to get us there seem to be blowing smoke—both figuratively and literally. We have the International Space Station, but you won’t be traveling there anytime soon.

Daniel Bell died in 2011, so he wasn’t around to see what the world looked like in 2013. But I have to believe that he was at least mildly disappointed by topics like space travel. The space shuttle program was formally retired in 2011 and the United States doesn’t have anything like it anymore. They’re literally museum pieces.

What does the future hold for those of us in 2018? It’s not clear. But it’s hard to have faith in a shiny, happy future when your leaders are making transparently ignorant promises about things like the Space Force.

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And I suppose we have a lot more to be concerned about here on Earth these days. The rise of fascism is a global problem, and a new space shuttle isn’t going to fix that. But it’s still depressing to think about the future we were supposed to have by now. Studying old futures can definitely inspire us to build beautiful things for tomorrow, but when it comes to multi-billion dollar enterprises like space travel, it’s hard not to just get a bit sad.