...a blog by Richard Flowers

Friday, October 05, 2007

Day 2467: Whatever Happened to the Space Age?


Happy Birthday Sputnik!

It was fifty years ago that the very first artificial satellite was launched into space from a Soviet Rocket Range in Kazakhstan and began broadcasting its message to the whole world:

"Bleep… bleep… bleep… bleep…"

as Mr Leonard Nimoy says in Daddy's Civilisation Computer game when you invent satellites.

Within four years a man had flown in space; within twelve years another man had set foot on the MOON.

So how has it been, living in the future? Were we not all supposed to have JETPACKS and TELEPORTERS and trips to the MOONBASE by now?

Since the end of World War Part II when Mr Werner Von Braun showed that we might actually get there, the journey into space has always been a mixture of HOPE and THREAT.

As the World sank into the Cold War, the people who were most interested in Space were the ones who wanted to throw rocks at each other – and since they had the bucks, they called the tune. But that isn't to say that the people actually BUILDING rockets for them saw things that way – many of them, Mr Werner among them, had a different vision, one of exploration and discovery.

It is SAD to remember that a BIG driving force behind the development of space was the prospect of WAR. Although Mr Dr Roger D Launius – who has a SPACE name it ever there was one – tells the BBC that Sputnik was a force for peace, convincingly arguing that just HAVING satellites – spy-satellites, let us be honest – actually calmed everyone down in the Cold War because they could SEE what the other side were really doing. The Soviet breakthrough in launching Sputnik, he says, coincidentally put them in the position of supporting Mr President Eisenhower's proposal that Space should be considered outside of national boundaries so those spy-satellites COULD go looking.

The Space Race that began with Sputnik was, in part, a war by other means. By showing off their technological muscles, the two big bullies of the age could compete without the need for actually blowing each other to smithereens.

It was a young and silly and yet somehow very OPTIMISTIC way of carrying on. It was a very SIXTIES way of doing things.

Tragically, the seventies saw a more CYNICAL approach – depression and oil shocks turned governments into penny-pinchers: budgets were cut back and missions abandoned. The War in Vietnam made a lot of the optimism go away. Instead of trips to MARS, the space agency started to build a SPACE TRUCK, the reusable shuttle… a dream of a cost-effective, frequent service to near Earth orbit that in the end proved very infrequent and very expensive.

By the 1980s REAL space couldn't compete with the special effects version that was coming out of Hollywood, except possibly in the addled brain of President Raygun who saw the Star Wars project as a means to prove to the Russians once and for all that America was WAAAAAY crazier than they were. It worked too, and by the end of the decade the Russians were our friends but space was just too expensive.

Well, it's time to turn all that around again!

Governments from America to Russia to China to India have all announced their intentions to send more people to the Moon, and maybe even further. And if we're really, really lucky Great Britain might get involved too! And a new breed of space explorers – entrepreneurs – are jockeying to get to the launch platform.

It is TOO SOON to be disappointed by the Space Age! Goodness me, the Iron Age lasted for a good THOUSAND YEARS and some people STILL hadn't gotten the hang of it by the historical time of the Greeks and Romans. The BRONZE AGE lasted even longer – three-and-a-half to four thousand years – and there were still some folks using flints and asses' jawbones by the end of it. We are just at the beginning of our true first steps.

What happened to the Space Age? Just you wait and see!

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