Sputnik at 50Posted: October 4, 2007
Although before my time Sputnik fired off the space race of the 60’s which cumulated for me and many my age, half a day off school to go home and watch man walk on the moon in July of 1969. At the time it seemed humanity could do big things, science and technology brought overall good things and the future was rosy. Futurologists at the time predicted flying cars, atomic aircraft and food making machines. Well, with hindsight they got that all wrong and missed one of the biggest things, the advent of the computer age but that’s not my point.
I recall the 60’s and the optimism and ‘can do’ approach society seemed to have. The future was bright and economic growth was charging along after the slow start post WW2. Of course it was a bit colder than usual and acid rain was becoming a problem, something whose relationship we wouldn’t understand for 40 more years but my, did we have plans for space.
There was going to be mining space stations on the moon, hotels in orbit and trips to Mars. What there was however, was a pile of budget cuts to NASA and the whole thing died in arse to make room for the space shuttle and support for Skylab. My dreams of being involved morphed into mechanical engineering rather than aeronautical and I imagine the dreams of many others went the same way. By the time the 80’s rocked around we were well and truly into robot spacecraft and financial greed rather than grand vision had taken over the economy. With the 90’s everyone hopped on the IT bandwagon and it hasn’t been until the naughties than big plans have been talked about again.
And the latest big plans have the USA, China and India on the moon again somewhere around 2020. But the kicker is, using Apollo style rocket designs. So after 60 years we have progressed how far when it comes to manned space flight? Of course we now have a whole pile of satellites doing good things such as GPS, weather forecasting and a huge traffic in telecommunications so some good came of all this. The irony is that 50 years after Sputnik and the huge economic growth that followed we now have the means to look at our planet and see what we have done.
Generally it’s not a pretty sight, huge amounts of forest clearing, smoke clouds from burnings forest and the incredible glow of earth’s dark side due to the billions of lights of civilisation. We can also measure changes in climate very thoroughly, across the entire planet. With hindsight it would have been nicer to see all this a few decades earlier, to have the present climate debate back in the 80’s but back then the signs weren’t so obvious, the science was still speculation. Even maintaining the interest in science through the 70’s and 80’s would have been useful, considering the BS that has grown out the New Age movement. However that would have required the same drive to achieve something big, the drive that died on December 15th 1972 when the Lunar Lander module of Apollo 17 left the moon. The space race was effectively over and the USA won the battle. However I wonder if anyone really won the war before surrendering to the bean counters and post-modernism?