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The Future is the Past.

On this day fifty years ago Yuri Gargarin slipped these surly bonds…

Fifty years ago…

It’s like black and white movies of the Battle of the Somme because it is history now. It is something that happened and mattered but not something that is still happening.

Fifty years ago.

Around that time my teenaged Dad was watching a band he rather liked called The Silver Beatles at a dingy gaff called “The Cavern Club” in Liverpool playing covers of American songs. And yes, the cloakroom attendant was a Miss Priscilla White.

We still had the death penalty, homosexuality was illegal, we still had shillings and such. Kilograms were just something mysterious and filthy the French did. Flying to America was a big deal and not something almost everyone can now afford. Wearing a black polo-neck jumper and saying, “That’s cool daddio” after reciting terrible beatnik poetry was, well, cool and could get you laid rather than beaten which is what should have been the case.

My wife once tried to explain to her teenage cousin Pong. He didn’t get it. It was a world away from his Sony PSP. A friend of mine has just had a kid (couple of months ago). How, ten years from now, could I explain Halo to him? Luke will grow up in world where all TVs are panels and have a thousand channels. I recall them with tubes and the start of C4 being a big deal. I also recall as a young kid watching in black & white which is a concept which will truly scare the kiddies. They just won’t believe it! Will they though believe that when my parents were half the age I am men went into space? Will they believe and see where it all went wrong? Will they see that technology is about more than how slim your phone is?

I don’t have any children (a cat is more than enough) but I’m 37 so I could easily have teenage kids of my own which means that Yuri’s excursion easily places that within the realm of teenagers of that time who are grandparents now.

So what happened? Where did it all go wrong (and why is there a Vauxhall Corsa in the drive and not a jet-pack in the cupboard?). Well, obviously there was the absurd dick-swinging contest that was the Cold War that accelerated in the wrong way such non-market driven space-silliness. Well, I say “silliness” but the glory of it is impossible to dispute.

But there is another way of looking at it…

Historians have worked out that from having a vague idea to first flight the Wright brothers spent $1000. I have seen a reconstruction of the Flyer in the Smithsonian in DC (they also have the watch with which the first controlled powered flight was timed). I have seen the command module of Apollo 11 there too. 66 years separates Kill Devil Hills from the Sea of Tranquillity. 50 years separates me from Gagarin and then what? My Tal-Mizar enables me to view the transits of the ISS but that is no further from me than London is. 50 or 66 – the difference is the age of a teenager who probably likes music their parents regard as cacophonous. As ever.

We have not gone any further than Orv, Will or Yuri. But there is hope. At roughly the same time the bicycle engineers from Ohio invented flight as we know it there was also Samuel Langley. He was director of the Smithsonian. And this is what he spent $50,000 of US government money on:

It was launched from a boat via a catapult that alone cost $10,000 (the Wrights launched from a rail made from wood from a local dealer that cost the eye-watering sum of $4! The Wright aircraft was spotted on the ground by the local life guards (it was December – who’s swimming?) and (amongst others) a “curious teenager” who happened by. Now if you think from the photo Samuel Langley’s ‘plane took an early bath you’d be right (not Wright). The “pilot” of the “aerodrome” had to be fished out of the Potomac.

Langley of course had the press out. That epic (but very expensive) non-event was photographed (and rightly mocked by the press). For the Wrights…

…this was the real thing

The first powered and controlled flight ever. Can you imagine the tale the “curious teenager” had to tell? There are many images that could be seen as defining the twentieth century but for me that is the one. We took off and where will it end? Nietzsche had earlier opined something like, “The railway, the electric telegraph are postulates for which the 1000 year conclusion has not been written”. Quite. Neither has flight, neither has space and does not that scare them? Oh, it’s safe enough when it is in the context of super-power confrontation which can be fitted into the political box but when it is about more…

Which to me it is. It is about everything.

Anyway, salute Gagarin! For that was magnificent.

Fifty years… wow!

Back in 1995 my tutor at Nottingham asked what I want to do after graduation. I wanted (and did get) a fully funded (yes, six places in the country, but then I was good) MSc in Astrophysics from London (QMC). Why? I was offerred a number of postgrad berths including one – at Nottingham – in – I’m not joshing – chocolate*. He used the phrase (he was into wave-guides) that astrophysics was the “engine room”. Oh, hell it is! It is the fire and the fire we must touch. Or we are nothing.

Yuri we salute you (even if we’ve been a bit tardy since)! And when (not if) I get my holiday home by the methane seas of Titan it’s gonna be umbrella drinks all round!

And there shall be attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.

Because we are the dust of supernovae and we just need to go home.

*That included 3 grand a year in “consumable lab supplies” which I assume would have meant I was well set up for shagging any fat bird I might meet – in the East Midlands anyway – so that’s a lot. But no!


  1. Don’t forget Moonraker. They were fighting in space with lasers and stuff.

  2. Bill Sticker says:

    Can I adapt that quote?

    ‘Because we are the children of supernovae and need to go home’

    I like it.

  3. Lynne says:

    I remember, back in 1969, mere hours after Armstrong set foot on the moon, a scientist predicting that man would set foot on Mars by 1980. Of course we never physically managed that and it probably won’t happen in my lifetime the way things are. Must have taken the wrong turning at Albuquerque or something. Lack of serious funding is a serious problem. Maybe if they ask Halfwit Hansen to give some of the money back…?

  4. John Galt says:

    The whole money quote from Blade Runner (just for the sheer bloody hell of it)

    “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.

    Attack[ed] ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.

    I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tanhauser Gate.

    All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain….

    ….Time to die.

    - Roy Batty, Replicant

  5. RAB says:

    Christ he had some balls alright! And all the more for being strapped in a module he had no more control over than the monkey they’d already sent up. Talk about “floating in a tin can…” Still at least he had sausage and moonshine!

    It was the willy waving rivalry of the Cold War that got it all going of course, but now it has petered out almost entirely, and along with it the stone certainty of my, and indeed previous generations were going to live in a bright shiny brilliant future thanks to science, technology and human ingenuity.

    My Welsh speaking grandfather, who lived with us until he died, was born in a dirt poor village in 1882. He saw the world go from horse driven and steam driven, through the rise of the telephone and radio and television, all the way to the nuclear age and men landing on the moon. He even told me stories of the American Civil war that had been told him by men who had fought in it.

    That was one hell of a journey, but one he took in his stride, nay felt his due! He was immensely proud of being an improving Victorian who had worked hard all his life and expected to enjoy the fruits and wonders of that labour.

    Now what have we got? Scared of our own shadows, desperately trying to shut down civilisation because we are afraid of a bit of carbon smoke for chrissakes! The Shamen are back and the scientists are nowhere.

    My gramp thought we’d got rid of all that. He’d be spitting bullets and blogging furiously, if he were alive to day.

  6. TDK says:

    Interesting postscript to the Langley-Wright story

    The Langley plane was later modified by Curtis at the behest of the the Smithsonian and it flew reasonably well. The result was that it was placed in the Smithsonian for the next 25/50 years (I can’t recall how long) as the first powered plane. The Wrights in revenge lent their plane to the Science Museum in London.

    Of course Curtis had added control surfaces to the plane, the design of which owed to the Wright machine and it took many years for the establishment scientists to admit that the Wright plane deserved the credit.

  7. Philip Scott Thomas says:

    Nick –

    Hie thee to a library, there to find a copy of John Dos Passos’s “U.S.A.” trilogy. I’m no great fan of his, much less of Modernist poetry (and we can argue about his politics some other day). But his explication of the Wright brothers’ experiments at Kill Devil Hill is about the best ever written.

  8. freedom says:

    Someone said a while ago (and I have no idea who) that all the technology we use today, or rather take for granted, was invented between about 1870 and 1920 or so. Flight, radio, telephones, the internal combustion engine… even the humble light bulb.

    I may be slightly off with the date parameters but the principle is clear: we established all we rely on now in fifty or so years. We may have improved on it since, but it remains the golden age of discovery and invention.

    Sure, there are new things being discovered all the time, but many build on what we know from that time. The tinterwebs for example essentially need the phone and more latterly radio, and Gagarin’s trip was courtesy of the ICE.

    It has been said that we did the easy stuff back in those years, so now it falls to inventors to struggle more to find new things. Increasingly we have to make progress in areas of doubt and uncertainty, maybe even with political and ‘environmental’ pressures slowing up the progress.

    But praise to Yuri and the rest. I suppose the pioneering spirit still emerges, especially with unstable vehicles and aims.

  9. Nelsontouch says:

    I remember Gagarin and for the first year or two could name the US and USSR astronauts in the sequence they went up, and their number of orbits.
    It was an optimistic era.
    I was astonished today to realise that the Shuttle first flew just 20 years to the day after Gagarin.
    But I fear there won’t be the major projects any more. There will be commercial space flight for super-rich tourists. And one accident will ground those too.

    Trips to Mars? Won’t happen.

  10. NickM says:

    I almost wrote exactly what you said in response to RAB. I put it as 1880-1920 for the porpoises of symmetry. Spooky! But true.

    Fuck Mars! I want to see Titan. Fuck Titan! I want to see Wolf-359!

  11. Paul Marks says:

    Nick – get civil society back (i.e. roll back statism) and you will get the space age you want.

    You knew I would say that – but it remains true.

    “But how do we restrore civil society – how do we roll back statism”.

    I used to say “I do not know”.

    But I am slightly LESS despairing these days.

    Bankruptcy is comming boys and girls – bankruptcy is comming.

    So either there will be a total collapse (a new Dark Age), or there will be real reform – a restoration.

    Then Nick (and everyone else) gets the space age.

    I out the odds about 50-50 (evens).

    It could come down to the balance of a hair.

    Which is why we all have to keep pushing – because it could be the push of any one of us that tips the balance into the “restoration of civil society – the rebirth of human advance” side of the scale.

  12. berenike says:

    Bankruptcy is comming boys and girls – bankruptcy is comming.

    So either there will be a total collapse (a new Dark Age), or there will be real reform – a restoration.

    I think I will turn that sandy paddock over to quinoa, just in case.

  13. NickM says:

    I don’t think I ever told you about Agnetha? She was a Spanish woman of independent means I met doing my MSc. She is the only person I have ever met who seriously, honestly, 100% really, really wanted to be an astronaut. She did aerospace engineering for a first degree at the University of Florida and did the psychic paper press-pass trick to watch a shuttle launch from Canaveral. I thought actually going there was a bit silly then I met her. She also thought Jonathan Livingstone Seagull was the bestest book ever but then no one is perfect. Anyway if anyone goes up the gravity well I hope it is Agi because she really wanted it. I doubt anyone has seen in the eye of a Spaniard such steely determination to see new worlds since Cortez.

    Not the quinoa. Anything but the quinoa! I can’t even type the word without seeing “Dr” Gillian McKeith sniffing jobbies. Anything but that! Grow rutabagas or anything. Just not quinoa.

  14. Peter MacFarlane says:

    Some of the problems are

    (1) the Langley way of doing things is now mandated by Health and Safety and the Regulatory regimes;

    (2) the State now takes so much and squanders it, that nobody has any resources for really way-out cutting-edge stuff any more.

    Branson and people at his level are the only exceptions, and there aren’t many of those.

    As Jerry Pournelle likes to put it, we convert our output into process.

  15. Sam Duncan says:

    “I was astonished today to realise that the Shuttle first flew just 20 years to the day after Gagarin.”

    So was I, when I read your comment. As a 9-year-old watching the first Shuttle launch, 20 years past already seemed like ancient history. But it’s not that long, really. We’ve made very little technological progress in comparison over the last 20. Oh, it hasn’t stoppped – Moore’s Law still applies, and the internet and mobile telephony have become the norm (although both were very much around in 1991) – but there’s been nothing of that magnitude.

    What absolutely knocked me sideways a couple of years ago was the realisation that it was only eight years from Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight to Apollo 11. Not that it’s a great insight – we all knew that – but it struck me for the first time just how quickly it all happened. Imagine GWB giving the “before this decade is out…” speech at his first inauguration, and Barry making the Nixon phone call to Armstrong barely six months into his presidency. It was practially overnight.

    Peter: absolutely dead-on.

  16. Paul Marks says:

    Nick – I hope Agnetha gets to go to Mars.

    It is all out there Nick (you are right), it is “just” a question of having a strong foundation here, of restoring civil society – then the whole universe is open.

    It really is all to play (to work) for.

  17. Nelsontouch says:

    Sam Duncan -
    Some eras are like that.
    Roy Chadwick, he of the Lancaster design, began working on the Avro biplanes made of wood.
    He finished sketching out the mighty, incomparable Vulcan.
    Barnes Wallis began with airships, ended with concepts for hypersonic sub-orbital jets, via in between inventing the swing-wing design and the occasional huge bomb.

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