The death of Arthur C Clarke at the age of 90 reminded me of a post I’ve been thinking about for a few weeks now, about our certainty in the 1950s and 60s that in the future we would have interstellar travel and colonies in space. That future may still exist, although to my mind it seems less likely now. Why didn’t it arrive? Partly – but only partly – because we blew the money on the Cold War instead.

Clarke, of course, was one of the great evangelists of humankind’s future in space, a view that was deep in the heart of the cultural assumptions, at least in the rich world, throughout that post-war period. His collection of essays and articles, Voices From The Sky, published in the UK in 1966, was reprinted in 1969 with the sub-title, “Previews of the coming space age”.

The futurist Peter Bishop observed recently on an email list that one of the first public ‘Delphi‘ processes, in 1964, on the future of science and technology, was broadly accurate on a wide range of technologies, but “horribly wrong” on the future of space travel. According to Steven Schnaar’s book on forecasting, Megamistakes,

Most projections incorrectly assumed that the moon landing would be followed by space stations, manned trips to Mars, and other elaborate and expensive projects. Given that set of assumptions, forecasters foresaw permanent, manned lunar bases, space stations, commercial passenger rockets, and frequent visits to other planets, all in a setting where children wanted to grow up to be astronauts.

Schaars quotes from an example of some of the newspaper coverage of all this, a 1967 article in the Wall Street Journal headed ‘Manned Mars Landing, Moon Bases Are Seen As Likely Space Feats’. One expert was quote as saying it was ‘undoubted’ that we would have achieved these by the year 2000.

Such coverage only reflected the extent to which this space future was embedded in the culture. The recent ‘Space Age’ exhibition at London’s Museum of Childhood had examples of ‘space toys’ from Japan and the way the Oldsmobile car company used space motifs to enhance its car marketing. There are fine poems from the period by, for example, Alan Bold on seeing Sputnik over Edinburgh; Edwin Morgan’s witty poem on ‘The First Men on Mercury“, and WH Auden’s reflection on the “Moon Landing” [scroll down], published in the New Yorker in 1969, which in its own way made the same connection which is made in the famous bone/spacecraft cut in the film 2001: “from the moment/ the first flint was flaked this landing was merely/ a matter of time”.

Despite Clarke’s voluminous collection of factual articles, short stories and novels, 2001, based on one of his short stories and directed by Stanley Kubrick, released in the US in 1968 (1969 in the UK), undoubtedly had the most impact. It probably marks the high water mark of the cultural idea of space travel.

Schnaars is dismissive about why space travel disappeared from the cutural map; he puts it down to money. “The manned Mars mission alone would cost between $40 billion and $100 billion”. There would be technology issues as well. But it seems to me that it wasn’t just about the money. There’s ideology at play here, as well as a sprinkling of special interests. What happened was that the budget that might have gone into travelling beyond the moon, or building the imagined space stations, got diverted instead into the defence budgets that fuelled the Cold War: from the stars to the Star Wars programme. Far greater sums were spent on this than were imagined by the space programme. But by the time Clarke suggested, after the end of the Cold War, that the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas should be marked by an international manned expedition to Mars, the idea had disappeared so far to the fringes that it appeared quixotic.

And maybe there’s more to this than just ideology. The 50s and 60s were essentially optimistic decades, which may be why surveys show them consistently as the decades which people would like to live in. By the 70s, the mood had turned to pessimism, with the oil shocks and their accompanying recessions, and in the US the Vietnam defeat and the disgracing of Nixon. Space travel is a task for optimistic times.

A couple of footnotes: yes, I know that Richard Branson is talking about offering space tourism, flying from a specially built spaceport in New Mexico, but this seems to be more about upping the ante of the ‘experience economy‘ rather than a sign of deep cultural shift.

And in 2001 there’s a lingusitic moment which locates it firmly in its time. As (I think) Dr Floyd arrives at the space base, early on, he’s asked for his “Christian name”. Diversity and multi-culturalism had put paid to that sort of language long before 2001.


Update 16th April:
The Paleofutures blog, which specialises in just this kind of ‘lost future’, has just posted a copy of the 1963 General Dynamics book about the world in 2003, published as a limited edition. As Paleofutures puts it in their summary of the content:

The book gives some great insight into the general sense of optimism that so typifies 1960s futurism. Space colonies? Sure! Martian life? Why not! Teleportation? Easier than commercial space flight!

Related posts: Arthur Clarke’s Three Laws

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