Friday, 8 July 2011

The Future Has Been....Cancelled

I've been aware of the last Atlantis shuttle mission for quite a while, but watching the final launch on TV earlier today, inexplicably and from nowhere I found myself filling up, proper choked.
It seemed to me to be the end of an era.

The future had been cancelled. 


I got to pondering why this affected me so and realised that since childhood, I've taken an enormous interest in space travel. To most people the various forays into space have become something normal and everyday, when in actual fact, to me it will always remain something extraordinary and remarkable.

For me as a child in the early 70's, space travel WAS the future. I had no doubts that by the time 2010 came around that we'd all be flying in hovercars and jetting off to the various planets on holiday, necking food pills and wearing silver suits.

The reality, as we all know is a little more mundane.

Or scarey

It's been hip for some time to berate the U.S. It's general 'struttin' world persona, damning foreign policies, the questionable political choices and skewed world view, but back in my childhood, we all dreamed of living there one day. The adverts in the Marvel and DC comics I loved seemed packed with wonderful trinkets and curios.
Compared to 'austere' Britain of the 1970's, they seemed to have it all. 


I truly believe that those Apollo moon missions are one of the crowning achievement of the 20th Century if not one of mankind's greatest achievement. Breaking free of the mother planet and actually setting foot on a distant world, WOW, I still think it's the coolest. To strive and endeavor to discover brave new galaxies and explore impossible worlds, meeting exotic new races and species along the way was something our star gazing, stone circle building ancestors could never have dreamed of even in their wildest hallucinogenic fantasy's. But we did it, (well the 'brave new worlds' bit anyhow). We left our atmospheric womb and hurtled towards the future on a gleaming lance of fire.

Meteor Storm Over Stonehenge

Most rockets from the 60's and 70's, these impossibly futuristic phallic behemoths were, in reality, as near to the Wright brothers 'spit and string' biplane as it is to have and still make it out and back safely. Those early rockets were giant elevations comprised mostly of highly volatile fuel, pipes to deliver it, wires and primitive 'calculator strength' computers encased in the thinnest of skin. All that thrust just to jettison the tiny manned pod into the radioactive, airless and gravity free environs of 'space'. A terrifying, rarefied place where the tiniest mistake could (and sadly sometimes did) kill you. 


I still marvel at those pictures of 'earth rise' taken from inside the Lunar Module. A small and fragile blue and white blip, sitting alone in the inky blackness of the void. A place, as far as we know, unique in nurturing and sustaining life, a precious and beautiful oasis in the vast and cold cosmic emptiness.


Earthrise II

Earthrise III

I had a huge poster of this iconic picture of Buzz Aldin on my wall, and would stare at it for quite a while at bedtime, wondering if I would ever do something similar.

Buzz Aldrin

I always found something slight sad, unsettling and lonely about the single boot print photo in the moon dust.

The shuttles were a great leap forward in the respect that you no longer needed to waste vast resources to reach the 'outer realm'. You could recycle and reuse much of the technology time and time again, not only saving large sums of money, but also time. I can remember watching the very first shuttle launch at school in a geography lesson. The teacher thought it such a monumental event we were allowed to miss study and sat in awe as this white and black ceramic encased delta winged space 'aircraft' hurtled skywards, piggy backing and flanked by 'gleaming needle' fuel cells of huge power and proportion.

Space Shuttle Enterprise in Full Flight

Somehow, the future seems further away than ever today, again we are earthbound, trussed and landlocked if you will, bound tighter to the globe, less free to explore the 'vastness', the umbilical has shrunk again. No longer will we soar space wards at improbable speeds, only to land safely a few days or weeks later ready for the next 'mission'. I always imagined a huge fleet of shuttles tooing and froing to a giant helical space station visible on only the clearest nights, but the most that NASA ever had was two running concurrently. Yes, I know that the Chinese and Russians still have space travel, and others are striving forward towards it, but these faintly sinister 'superpowers' have sometimes appeared more like secretive real life Bond villains than thoughtful and trusted distant cousins. I'm not so sure they are ready to share their toys with us just yet, whatever they say.

Soyez Rocket

The world is a much different place today technology-wise thanks to the endeavors of those early space scientists and cosmonauts. Many of the inventions from the space race have leaked into the public realm and are here now enriching our everyday lives (transistors and sat nav are just two examples). In the 80's much noise was made about a certain Fischer pen that was expensively invented for Americas astronauts to write in space. The claim was that it could work in zero G and even write upside down. It always made me chuckle that the Russians got around this problem by using pencils.

I suppose in truth, my childhood future HAS arrived, but somehow it's not quite how I imagined it. Jarvis Cocker put it succinctly on the distopian Pulp album 'This Is Hardcore, and to paraphrase the lyric briefly it goes something like “We were brought up on the space race, and are expected to clean toilets”. I think that sums up my feelings today admirably. Where once we looked towards the stars, dreaming of a better world where everyone was equal and where nobody would want for anything. We would all have food, clothes and shelter, be educated and be working towards a common good living in the 'utopia' we all thought we were due. I now wonder if this will ever happen.

Somehow, in the last few decades, we've turned in on ourselves, micro-cosmically navel gazing our way through life. The technology that was supposed to bring us closer has in fact driven us further apart and into isolation. We appear more inward looking and self absorbed, more obsessed with the minutiae of unimportant people we will never know, and who will, in all probability never know us. The technology that was supposed to free us to have better lives appears to have enslaved us instead. Were forever told how things in our life make us bigger, better, faster, stronger, but the reality appears that we seem to have less time for each other than ever before. We exist only to 'accrue', 'stuff' has taken us over. The high and lofty ideals of yesteryear, the 'were all moving forward together' idioms seem marginalised and irrelevant to the average person. It's now seen as the last bastion of crackpots an dreamers.

In truth, I'm as guilty as the next person, but I wish I wasn't.


  1. Excellent post. I was actually talking to my wife this morning about the storms on Saturn and how we probably wouldn't want to move there until the weather had died down. Even though I missed a lot of the excitement of space exploration (when I was growing up int he 80s, it'd lost a lot of it's sheen), I still thought that sooner or later we'd be living in terraformed comfort on most of the inner planets.

    Did you read Starman (biography of Yuri Gagarin) that was re-released recently? I got a real sense of just how tenuous and bold the Soviet space program was - launching a big round nobby thing into space on top of an ICBM? Inspired madness (even if the inspiration for the Soviets was simply to beat the USA to the prize). The pioneering spirit of that age must have inspired a generation, and unfortunately now most of us do just clean toilets, punch timesheets, and buy our groceries once a week from the local supermarket chain. Shame.

    I'm still waiting for my hover car too. See you for coffee on Venus in 2030.

  2. I've not read Starman, but I'll add it to the list, sounds fascinating. Yuri G is one of the few people of import to share my birthday, so I always remember him when it comes around. There's a great picture of him on the cover of Th Human League 12" 'Dignity of Labour' collecting his medal.

    The Russians always seemed like the Americans poor cousins RE space technology, but just like their tanks, they built them just well enough so they could be cheaply replicated time and time again. I seem to recall that they had their own plans for a space shuttle but it all came to naught when the Soviet Union collapsed.

    I think what really hit home yesterday when I got to thinking about it is the perceived lack of pioneering spirit you mention. We don't appear to strive for anything anymore, I'm sure there are many many people in all walks of life searching for a better future, we just don't tend to hear about them like we once would have. We seem more content in the perpetual now, doped up on the quick fix of shopping or whatever, and as I said, more self absorbed. I'm not saying we got it right all the time back then, in the UK we certainly didn't, but from what I remember of my childlike world view, everything seemed to be 'modern' and amazing, especially space travel.

    Hells yeah! 2030's a date. I live in hope that maybe my hovercar will be up and running by then as well.