When in the 1960s and 70s technology seemed to jump forward with new inventions and discoveries practically every week, with the crown of course being the first manned landing on the Moon by Apollo 11, it looked like it would only be a short two decades until we would have humans live in a permanent Moon base and we would reach Mars shortly thereafter. Assuming that the movie 2001 by Stanley Kubrick tried to reflect the honest expectations of technology minded people we would have a mission to Jupiter on the way by that year. There was no doubt that the Space Shuttle might be the beginning of cheap access to space and people would soon move into giant space habitats as envisioned by Gerard K. O’Neill. Of course nuclear power had come out of favor in the 70s after an accident at Three Mile Island and even more so after Chernobyl in 1986. Surely the nuclear arms race between the two super powers contributed its share. But for the optimistic technologists nuclear fusion was just around the corner – fusion power was also of course the energy source many SF authors based their spaceship propulsions on.
SF literature eagerly foresaw easy space travel aboard huge and quite comfortable vehicles. Encounters with countless alien races were described – sometimes humans were enslaved or driven into the underground often they prevailed (due to their ingenuity or unintended actions). Sometimes they even made friends with the aliens. Encounters with aliens presumed that travel between stars was possible. Ways had to be invented of how to travel many lightyears in reasonable timeframes (without the effects of time dilation). Although there were stories which made time dilation their theme (Poul Anderson – Starfarers). The other type of long distance space travel was done in so-called generation ships – whole societies living on huge star ships, on their merry way at sub light speeds for many generations. Also one German SF series which has been appearing in weekly pulp booklets since 1961 called Perry Rhodan was practically expanding the human empire by thousands of lightyears every week. About four years into the series humans had already traveled back in time to meet their ancestors and were traveling to Andromeda, the closest neighboring galaxy, in about as much time it took Apollo 11 to get to the Moon and back. Funny enough all this was done with cryptic computers printing out course directions on punch cards. The robots of course were as intelligent as needed. And really, this brings me to…..
….computers. When I grew up in the late 60s and early 70s computers were these ominous machines in big buildings that had to be ‘fed’ with punch cards (aha!), only to be operated by experts. I saw the very first computer in person at a friend’s house in Germany in late 1981 – a Commodore PET. Only two years later I bought my very own first computer – a Commodore 64. In early 2010 I am writing this on an iMac, which runs about 3,000 times faster than the C64 and has 64,000 times the RAM, while I listen to music streaming through iTunes and the computer crunches numbers for SETI@home and Einstein@home. Officially 2010 will be the year the US Space Shuttle will be retired after almost 30 years. No human has gone back to the Moon after Apollo 17 returned in December of 1972. We have put a space telescope in orbit (the Hubble) and started building the International Space Station in 1998 which will be completed this year. NASA has launched a good number of highly successful unmanned missions to Mars and the outer planets – and a few not so successful ones. But where is all the space stuff we were promised 30 years ago?