Thursday, 16 May 2013

Futures Past

Looking at the future is always interesting, because it is invariable wrong, and the mistakes can tell us a lot about the kind of society and culture that gave rise to them, and how markedly it differs from our own. In 1976, Patrick Moore wrote "The Next Fifty Years in Space." This was over 10 years after the first manned flights into space, and almost seven years after 1969 and the moon landing. By that time, there were already at least a thousand man-made satellites orbiting the earth; orbiters had been sent to Mars, and probes to Venus.

It was a time of great optimism. Harold Wilson notoriously spoke of the "white heat of the technological revolution", and the 1970s were the decade in which the popularity of science reached its apogee. On television, "Moonbase Three" was a drama set on the moon, full of hard science, and with James Burke acting as scientific advisor to the production team.

Patrick Moore's speculations look at the Space Shuttle which was just being developed in 1976. He thought it could be used to assemble a space station by 1982. The unnamed exploration of the solar system would continue, and not only would a probe land on Mars, there would also be a return of samples from the red planet in 1982.

Of course, in 1976, the Cold War was still very much a live issue, with the threat of a nuclear Armageddon as the West and East fought an atomic war. Patrick Moore does not forget the Soviets, who, "unlike NASA, do not have to answer to the general public for every financial out lay" would set up a network of automatic stations in the moon by 1985. He suggests that the United States will wait until it has better nuclear rockets, and will not establish a lunar base until 1992; it will follow this by a Martian base in 2020.

Well, 2020 is now seven years away, and a Martian base does not seem at all likely to take place. It is surprising, given the ending of the Apollo landings in 1972, that Patrick Moore never considered that signified the end of manned exploration to the moon. Perhaps he believed that shuttle technology would replace booster rockets, and enable almost a ferry service to the moon; that, after all, is the scenario of the TV series "Star Cops" which is set largely in a colony on the moon.

And the Soviet Union has also collapsed and gone, another fact which was unforeseen in 1976; when the end came, it came with remarkable speed, like dominoes topping behind the Iron Curtain, the communist regimes tumbled and fell. That is significant, because in looking at the purely technological advances of the 1970s, we should also remember that the "space race" was fuelled by the antagonism between East and West.

The fear in the West was that space would yield the opportunity to rain down missiles upon the earth. Only an optimist could have seen the establishment of an International Space Station, where Americans, Russians and other nations would all come together to conduct joint  experiments in biology, human biology, physics, astronomy, meteorology etc.  Gene Rodenberry, it should be noted, was such an optimist; he placed a Russian Chekhov on board the USS Enterprise. But the realist view would have been a continuation of the Cold War.

We are still sending scientific devices to the planets, and of course Mars has recently been in the news after the safe arrival of Curiosity on Mars. While human beings can behave more flexibly, the vast increase in technology since 1976 means that remote vehicles can provide a much more flexible exploration than would have been the case. The shift towards technological remote access exploration was something unforeseen by Patrick Moore, and it can provide data relatively cheaply compared to sending a human being, and with considerably smaller risk. There is less ego in space exploration that was the case in the world of  the past, when six flags were planted on the moon. No one had any thought of Curiosity planting a flag on Mars.

The world of 1976 had not yet seen the explosion of the microchip into changing the technological landscape of our world. Computers were large machines, the smallest the size of large filing cabinets, and with a very limited processing power. In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that Patrick Moore was so mistaken. When we peer into our scientific crystal ball, we often see the reflections of our present.

No comments: