We have always had a timid and deferential approach to space.
We spent the first hundred millennia of the consciousness of our species gazing up at the stars and the sun and the moon, believing all sorts of nonsense about their nature—that the moon is a frowning man, that the stars are divine confetti, that the great black beyond is nothing more than a set of concentric spheres studded with the celestial bodies. These beliefs kept the sky and space out of our reach—something only the gods could touch.
Science then spent several hundred years shattering those notions—the Sun is a star and not a chariot-borne lamp, the earth is as insignificant as it is small, space isn't really empty. Yet for all of those triumphs, space has still remained out of reach. We go there rarely, and onboard fire-breathing Titans, and our spaceships and satellites are ornate shrines to the gods of complexity.
Should we not look up at the night sky, at the one or two thousand sad and majestic creations we have launched into orbit, and think, “Is this all we have been able to do?” Most would say that's silly and unrealistic. Yet what can be more silly than decommissioning a two tonne satellite because it's facing away by a few degrees? Pardon the imagery, but it's somewhat like saying that any high school student who gets less than an A should be jettisoned from an airlock. In the last seventy years, we have created true marvels back on Earth—human-beating pattern recognition and “AI”, global digital connectivity, nanotechnology. In that same time in space, we've…flown around a bit and taken some pictures. (I think we landed on a couple of things too?)
Going to space is expensive, agreed. Being in space is punishing and difficult, agreed. Now that we've felt sorry for ourselves, let's grow up and find some cheap and creative ways of solving the problems that need solving up there.
We must pick up the pace—we perform trial and error at breakneck speed on Earth, so let's find a way to do so up in space too. This isn't negotiable—the human brain works through feedback and reinforcement, so when we have missions that are decades long, or research projects that have no hope of commercialization in the next 20 years, the teams working on them can't learn and innovate as effectively, and lose touch with the reality of the thing. We like success and we hate failure, but need both often.
The time has come to conquer space like we conquered the ocean with the compass. We just need to find our North Star.