We could have had a moon base by now

It's fun to sit down with my son and watch the old science fiction TV shows and movies. I've successfully got him hooked onto Star Trek (and he informs me that Deep Space 9 is his favorite series from the franchise). We've binge-watched Farscape (by far one of the best science fiction shows… so funny). We've had discussions about Battlestar Galactica, admiring how the various way the 2004 series pays homage to the original 1978 series. And when he's home on holiday, we've been diving into Babylon 5.

I've successfully convinced him that Firefly should have never been taken off the air when it was, and we both agree that the psychedelic trip into the monolith at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey is just a "WTF?" moment. (But seeing the original gave him an extra level of appreciation when Farscape did their parody scene.)

During our binge watching of old TV shows, he's been laughing at the absurdity of the situations (and how the writers got away with a lot of things that they would never be able to get away with today). But it's the inaccuracies of the past timelines for the show that gets him the most. How wrong did fiction get their predictions for reality? Whenever he gets incredibly cynical, my response seems to always be the same.

Before you start to criticize the science fiction of old, highlighting how wrong they got the predictions, take a look at the real history and the trajectory that we were on when those books were written and when the films and TV shows were filmed.

The race for space

The real-life space race began in the late 1950s at the height of the Cold War. It was a race to see who could get a satellite into space first. The Russians won that particular race, launching Sputnik on October 4, 1957 [1], but the Americans were determined to not let that defeat them.

The Russians continued to lead the field of advancement when they put the first human in space with the Vostok 1 flight in 1961 [2]. But on May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy (JFK) stood before Congress and proposed that the US "commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth." [3] A year and a half later, on September 12, 1962, JFK made his historic speech at Rice University: "We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." [4]

And Neil Armstrong made his historic walk on the moon, on July 20, 1969 [5].

While all of this was going on in reality, science fiction writers and film directors were making history of their own, predicting where the Space Race would eventually take humanity.

2001: A Space Odyssey

In 1951, Arthur C. Clarke published Sentinel of Eternity [6], a short story in which an artifact is found on the Moon left behind by an ancient alien race eons ago. In 1964, Stanley Kubrick agreed to work with Clarke on a science fiction film [7], one that would eventually make cinematic history.

On April 2, 1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey premiered [7] with its classic opening sequence of traveling to space to a spinning space station with artificial gravity. This was a whole year before Neil Armstrong's historic walk, and at the time, the world was gobbling up anything to do with space travel.

(Interesting side fact: The novel came out three months AFTER the movie was released, but the novel was set around Saturn. It's odd, because both the movie script and the novel manuscript were being written side-by-side, but clearly Kubrick and Clarke didn't fully communicate ideas.)

Had society continued on the space exploration track that was first set out by Eisenhower, Kennedy, then Johnson and Nixon, then we likely would have already had an established base on the Moon and would likely already have the technology needed for a manned mission to Jupiter (or Saturn, depending on if you want to be a purist to the book).

We have already proved that long-term space missions are possible, with Valeri Polyakov spending a record 437 days in space in the mid-1990s [8]. (And this was after spending 240 days in space in 1988.)

But somewhere along the way, society's fascination with space diminished. Don't get me wrong, astronomy is still one of the best fields of science to capture the imagination, but, for whatever reason, people just weren't interested in exploring space anymore.

The decline of space exploration

After the Apollo missions, we seemed to stop exploring space. Any manned missions were restricted to a geosynchronous orbit of Earth only [9], starting with Skylab and eventually leading to the International Space Station (ISS).

Manned spaceflight was in massive decline. And there was a call from various public organizations to dramatically cut NASA's budget and stop exploring space altogether.

The irony in all of this is that our need for satellites grew. If it wasn't for the satellite network out there, we wouldn't have the level of telecommunications that we do, the internet wouldn't exist, and the GPS system that planes and boats use to navigate the globe would cease to point them in the right direction.

No one can dispute that our level of technology has significantly improved in the last twenty years, but it's only just now that we have turned our eyes back to the sky.

The last time man set foot on the moon was in 1972 with Apollo 17 [10]. That's over 50 years ago. It's not hard to imagine where we would be today IF we had kept up the momentum that started out with in the 1960s.

Just think about how our technology has progressed in just the last ten years alone. Space X rockets can now pilot themselves and land on a barge in the middle of the ocean [11]. Electric cars have seen rapid advancements. We're now growing meat in a lab… without the animal [12]. And a large proportion of western society is now carrying a pocket-sized computer in their pockets, complete with fancy cameras, real-time communications, and instant access to the largest collection of resource books in the world. (The accuracy of those resource books is still up for debate, but that's not the point.)

When the drive is there, technology takes leaps and bound. But for some reason, the exploration of space isn't at the top of the list. For whatever reason, the powers in control of the money have decided that space exploration isn't worth it. The Americans might have been the first ones to the moon, but that's where the importance of the space race seems to have stopped.

At least, that was the case until recently, when private investors (like Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos) decided that they were going to put their money into rebooting space exploration on their own way.

The future?

No one really knows how fast or how far our technological advancements will go. All we can do is speculate based on our current trajectory.

In the late 1960s, Kubrick and Clarke predicted that we would have a permanent base on the moon, and we would have IF we had kept going after the Apollo missions. But we didn't, and science fiction writers of today are taking that into account. Science fiction writers of the 1980s thought that we would have a colony on Mars by 2090 [13]. We have approximately 70 years to prove them right, and we might do it, but we have a lot of work to do to get there.

Science fiction writers show us what is possible if we believe in ourselves. Eventually, we'll turn fiction into reality.


[1] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sputnik_1

[2] www.nasa.gov/directorates/heo/scan/images/history/April1961.html

[3] www.nasa.gov/vision/space/features/jfk_speech_text.html

[4] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/We_choose_to_go_to_the_Moon

[5] www.britannica.com/biography/Neil-Armstrong

[6] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sentinel_(short_story)

[7] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2001:_A_Space_Odyssey_(film)

[8] web.archive.org/web/20200424135805/http://www.nmspacemuseum.org/halloffame/detail.php?id=132

[9] www.nasa.gov/specials/60counting/spaceflight.html

[10] www.nasa.gov/astronautprofiles/cernan

[11] www.youtube.com/watch?v=1sJlFzUQVmY

[12] www.sciencefocus.com/science/what-is-lab-grown-meat-a-scientist-explains-the-taste-production-and-safety-of-artificial-foods

[13] individual.utoronto.ca/Swordships/TIMELINE.HTM

Copyright © 2023 Judy L Mohr. All rights reserved.

This article first appeared on judylmohr.com

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