In 1969, I was six years old, ready to enter grade school. Although behind the Iron Curtain, Hungary was sufficiently liberal so that news of Neil Armstrong's historic "one small step" were not suppressed that summer. We were glued to our black-and-white television sets just like most in the Western world, watching in awe as the ultimate dream came true: a human being set foot, for the very first time, on a celestial body.

Old news? Maybe. But I am still thrilled by the magnificence of that achievement. In this one case, I can even sympathize with the conspiracy theorists who believe the Moon landing was a hoax: it was an almost unbelievable leap in humanity's conquest of nature.

Back in 1969, my classmates and I were busy designing spaceships, busy planning for our travels to the stars. Adults who had a more realistic perspective on things were perhaps less likely to believe that a trip to the stars was to become possible anytime soon. But few, if any, had doubts that before the century is over, the Moon would have become a permanently inhabited outpost in space and that human beings would have by then set foot on at least one other planet, Mars.

Of course, the year is 1998 now and none of this happened. No human being has gone beyond Low Earth Orbit in the last 25 years, and there are no serious plans for it to happen anytime soon. A landing on Mars is a dream as distant as ever. The fusion-powered spaceship Discovery of the 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, remains in the realm of fantasy. Nuclear-powered rockets, an experimental reality in the mid 1960's, became a political impossibility by today. Being 35 now, I am beginning to have serious doubts that I'll live long enough to see humans beyond LOE ever again!

Something, somewhere, went terribly wrong.

Was it the nearsightedness of politicians who argued that money is better spent on social programs? (As if there was ever a social program better than the one which provides high-tech employment to tens of thousands of young, bright kids, while at the same time producing leading-edge science and technology.)

Was it the naysayers who insisted that it couldn't be done?

Was it those environmentalists who further their cause by generating hysteria about things they know the public does not fully understand?

Was it those cautious researchers who insist on decades of study about human beings in weightlessness and whatnot? (Fortunately, Columbus wasn't like that, otherwise his ship would still be anchored in a European port, its crews spending one six-month rotation on board after another, studying the effects of long-term isolation before they embark on a the big voyage.)

Was it the nearsighted goal of a single trip to the Moon which, once accomplished, left space researchers without a new focus?

Or is it simply that dreaming of a "conquest of nature" has become as incompatible with our politically correct era, as a nuclear rocket is incompatible with our environmentally-conscious world?

Were our dreams stolen by small-minded people? Or did we just simply, unpoetically, run out of steam?

Or perhaps my desperation is unwarranted? Perhaps the recent successes of robotic spacecraft are paving a way to a renaissance of space exploration? Is it possible that I'll spend my 50th birthday on the Moon, wondering how I ever could have felt desperate about the future of humans in space?

I don't know the answer. I do know that we possess the knowledge, if not yet all the technology, to claim the Solar System as our own, and to make our first tentative steps in interstellar space. Maybe it's only a question of making a convincing case for it (as opposed to just complaining like I do!) We also possess the resources, as demonstrated by several recent big-budget movies, each of which cost more than full-fledged interplanetary space programs like Mars Pathfinder. It's only a question of will.