On July 16, 1969, a half century ago today, a Saturn 5 rocket launched from Cape Kennedy on its way to the moon, where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would land on the moon on July 20 before returning successfully to earth. Recent books have made clear just how close a call it was with many things nearly going wrong that would have doomed them, including such oddities as Aldrin using a felt tipped pen to adjust a minor switch that was needed for them to return. My late father played an important role in that event, which I have posted about here before. At that time he and I had many disagreements, but on this matter we were in agreement, and I was pleased to watch the famous landing with him.
The recent book, _One Giant Leap_ by Charles Fishman, argues that JFK was motivated to push the project out of Cold War competition with the USSR. My late father agreed that this was a motive that provided the support for it. This does raise the question whether it was really worth it. I mean, nobody has gone back since 1972, although there is much noise now about maybe going back.
A curious way of looking at this in perspective is to think about what we thought the future would look like from that time period as compared with what has happened. One way of looking at that is to think about how the moon and human presence there was depicted in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which came out in 1968, the year before Apollo 11. I well remember taking very seriously the forecast in that movie, which depicted fairly substantial and established US and Soviet moon bases for 20001, now 18 years in the past. That certainly did not remotely happen, although some other things shown in that movie have come to pass, such as people being able to see each other while communicating with each other over distances (thank you, Skype!).
The marriage of The Rocket and the atomic warhead in the midst of the cold war hysteria meant the almost certain extinction of the human race. The Space race became like a runaway truck ramp where that tehnological innovation and jingoisim could be channeled in a very public way. It was dangerous, it was exciting. It focused our attention. And it preserved the planet.
And 50 years before that, in 1919 were the first flights across the Atlantic. It sure does seem like progress in aviation has slowed down.
It’s hard to predict the future. Lately, I’ve been expecting flying cars to become available before self driving ones.
Maybe we haven’t been back to the moon, but we do have an impressive array of space based observatories, all sorts of monitoring and communications satellites, and we’ve sent missions to all of the planets. As with aviation, most of it is a long, slow slog. Airplanes weren’t developed until the internal combustion engine, developed in the 1860s, finally got light enough and powerful enough. Recent plans for a return to the moon flow from more modern rocket technology which is simpler and more powerful.
One problem with following technology is that most of the changes are incremental. When a big jump appears, it’s usually because enough of those changes have added up to let it happen.
I would say that technology tends to progress in spurts rather than gradually. Aviation went through that between the 20s and the early 70s. The technological changes since then have been much smaller, but air travel has become cheaper and much more common. We’re still experiencing the computing revolution, but it too will see the technological revolution that we have seen over the last 50 years draw to a close. It is impossible to predict when these abrupt changes will come, and difficult to predict when they will end, but end they do. Progress slows and it becomes about incremental change and the technology becoming ubiquitous rather than hugely improving.
hah! you haven’t been looking around you. we are in reverse-progresss and technology has nothing to do with it.
we could have stopped technological progress fifty years ago and figured out a way to progress without burning down the planet. no doubt other technological progress would have been able to help with that.
but all human beings seem to want is faster cars and personal airplanes and, of course, trips to the moon.
rosser: not everyone has heard your felt tip pen story. you shouldn’t assume they have. or even mention it if you are afraid to take the risk of repeating yourself.