Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Man in Space

So what were YOU doing that year?

In April of 1961 I had just turned 14 and was entering a phase of historical and political global consciousness. I was caught up in the ideological struggle of the Cold War, and I was also a science fiction nerd who avidly followed developments in rocketry and space exploration.

Every day as soon as I got home from school I spread out on the floor the morning Herald that had been carefully re-folded by my grandmother, and read through all the stories that I found interesting, which were a lot of them. I prided myself on knowing the names of the Presidents, Premiers, and Prime Ministers of foreign countries, as well as being aware of the many fronts where the forces of Communism and Capitalism were facing off.

But on April 12th I didn't have to go any further than the front page, where the smiling image of Yuri Gagarin announced that those durned Russians had beat us again. Sputnik had been bad enough. Only four years earlier we'd all been amazed when the first demonstation of orbital flight had been acheived without warning, like a premonition of the kind of nuclear sneak attack that we lived in fear of.

After excitedly following the ironically named American effort, "Vanguard," I had a vested interest in its success. I felt personally shamed when "our" rocket was not only beaten to the punch but then blew itself up on the launch pad -- not once, but twice. Before Dr. Von Braun and his Army missile team from Alabama managed to put something up there (Explorer I), the Russians had launched a second satellite containing the first living organism to travel in space -- Laika, the dog -- in a 13-foot-long capsule that dwarfed anything the US would be capable of launching for years to come.

In the four years that followed, the Mercury program was put into high gear. America had astronauts in training, a batch of test pilots with "the right stuff" to fly the US into space. In 1961 the first sub-orbital test flights were to be made using the same Redstone rocket that had put up Explorer I. Meanwhile the Atlas ICBM was being tested as an orbital booster -- with a disconcerting record of its own explosive failures. And then ...

Gagarin. It was Sputnik all over again. Before Alan Sheppard could take his 15-minute peek into space, Gagarin's one-orbit flight was followed by Titov's of 17 orbits -- a full day in which he travelled over most of the entire planet.

It all sounds so quaint now, and hard to understand why we took it so seriously. What we were witnessing was the first baby steps to be taken on our inevitable journey as a species into a wider environment. Now, along with our Russian (no longer Soviet) friends, we can celebrate the daring and achievement of all those pioneers, not just the ones of our own nationality.

Oddly enough, if I could pluck my 14-year-old self out of that past and whisk him into my present, it would not be the state of space exploration that would amaze him. Given the rapid advancement from Sputnik to Cosmonaut, he would probably expect us to have not only a space station but permanent bases on the moon and maybe even Mars by now. He would be surprised at the way we lost interest in the moon after visiting it a few times, and how we have backed away from larger challenges. He would be suitably impressed by the space shuttle, but puzzled to learn how old the design is, and that it has yet to be replaced by something newer and sleeker.

He would be impressed too at the advances that have been made with computers, lasers, and astronomy. Video conferencing, cell phones, and 3D televisions would be science fiction dreams come true. Electric cars -- OK, but no flying ones yet? What would absolutely knock him out, though, is the demise of the Soviet Union.

That thoughtful and tentative youth -- the same one who was going to have to deal one way or another with the military draft and the Vietnam war only six years in his future -- expected that the USSR would be there throughout his lifetime, and that it would continue to threaten nuclear Armageddon perhaps for centuries to come. He would have thought that if a lasting peace agreement were ever to be reached, it would be an agreement with the Soviet government.

All of which goes to show that it is usually easier to predict technological progress than social revolution. Witness what happened in the American colonies, or what's going on right now throughout the Middle East. Sure, we're still moving into space. But what will really happen to us is bound to be far more interesting ... and unexpected.