On July 20, 1969 human beings first stepped onto the surface of the moon. First was Neil Armstrong, second was Buzz Aldrin. By 1972, when the Apollo program ended, a total of 12 men had walked on the moon. No human beings have been there since. Today, some people look back at that remarkable event and feel pessimistic about the future.
The year before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, showed us an exciting future. In the movie, Pan American owned and operated commercial spaceships that flew people up to an enormous space station, where ordinary people could check a Hilton hotel. Meanwhile, there was a base on the moon serviced with regular flights between the Earth and the Moon. With a discovery of an alien artifact, a manned space ship was soon on its way to Jupiter. Computer technology had gotten so good that the HAL9000 was sentient and self-aware.
But when we look at the real 2001, let alone our current 2015, we don’t find people living on the moon. There’s no Hilton on the International Space Station, since it has the interior volume of only a five-bedroom house. The few tourists who have visited it had to pay twenty million dollars or more for the privilege. They did not ride up in a nice Pan American owned shuttle. Pan American went bankrupt years ago. It didn’t even exist as an airline in 2001.
The future is not what the movies made it out to be.
So where did our future go? Do we have reason to feel disappointed?
Had we had the will, we could easily enough have created much of what was envisioned in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. But on the other hand, the future we did create, in many ways outstrips the imagination of those who created that particular film.
Consider. In 1969, the year that Apollo 11 reached the lunar surface, only large corporations and governments used computers. They were expensive, noisy, and room-sized. There was no internet and no cell phones. Our current connected society dependent upon ubiquitous computers was never imagined in that movie nor in any of the other science fiction stories of the time.
The International Space Station is not as large as the one in the movie, but it does exist and it has been continuously inhabited by an international crew for more than fifteen years now. Six people call it home for six months to a year at a time.
A more significant reality not envisioned in the movie, or even imaginable at the time, was that the Soviet Union wouldn’t even exist when the year 2001 dawned. In fact, the Soviet Union had come to an end ten years earlier. No more cold war. Instead, Russia is now a capitalist country, if somewhat corrupt. Our relations with them are far from perfect, but we do work together in space. One of the current Atlas rockets, the Atlas V, is the descendent of a missile originally designed as an ICBM to obliterate Russian targets. But the engines used by today’s Atlas V are built in Russia. They are engines that were originally used in Russian ICBMs designed to obliterate American targets. Today’s Atlas is not an ICBM. That modern combination of American and Russian parts only launches satellites.
The Russian missile that was called Satan in the west, the Dnepr, was built as an ICBM. Now the Russians use it to launch American and European satellites into orbit—and they make a tidy profit on the business.
And while humans haven’t gotten past low earth orbit since 1972, our unmanned probes have visited every planet in the solar system. Three satellites now orbit Mars, which also hosts two rovers, one nuclear powered and the size of a car. Another satellite orbits Saturn, after having landed a probe on the surface of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Four probes are on their way out of the Solar System, heading into interstellar space after finishing flybys of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. The Hubble Space Telescope, along with other giant space telescopes, have studied the heavens and returned breathtaking images, which are not only beautiful, but give scientists valuable data about the universe. The Kepler mission has discovered thousands of planets orbiting around other stars. We now know that planets outnumber the stars and that about ten percent of them are earth-like.
Humans continue to venture into space, and soon it won’t just be governments like Russia, China and NASA sending them there. Private ventures will soon open space to the rest of us, while two corporations are planning on mining the asteroids.
The future never turns out exactly the way we anticipate. But all things considered, the future of 1969—our present—isn’t too bad. We just take it all for granted.