Arthur C Clarke and our ‘future in space’

Posted in books, future, space, technology, Uncategorized by thenextwavefutures on 6 April, 2008

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


7 Responses

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  1. Lance Winslow said, on 6 April, 2008 at 9:24 am

    Interesting indeed, and as an avid Arthur C Clarke reader, it is a shame to see him go. However, I did enjoy his video interview a few months ago and his many thoughts on the future. As an optimist for the forward progression of humankind, I smile, and yet part of me wonders why we are holding back from the future. It’s time to boldly go, where no man has gone before. – Lance

  2. thenextwavefutures said, on 16 April, 2008 at 10:35 pm

    Lennart Nordfors, the Swedish futurist, who has a background in political science, had an interesting take on this when I discussed it with him earlier this week. He said that the moon landing project was one of those ‘grand political narraives’ designed to transcend the sharp differences which were emerging in US society in the early 60s around desegregation and the civil rights movement. By the late 60s, when the moon landing took place, the divisions in US society were around the war in Vietnam, and those were less easily transcended by a big common project. (He didn’t say this, but it’s possible to imagine that the Vietnam war had become the project – but an inherently divisive one.

  3. Vanessa said, on 17 April, 2008 at 8:14 am

    Robust optimism is at the core of every scientific exploration and invention. If scientists doubted their own hypotheical theories, inventions wouldn’t follow. A scientist would probably stick on to a theory and would even agree to be proved wrong rather than not experimenting at all. Similarly commercial space travel has its limitations. But I think scientists would figure out a way to travel to the moon and back. (Atleast halfway through initially).

    By the way, you might want to take a look at this post – Future of Commercial Space Travel – Predictions, Companies, Technologies, that discusses the future trends in space travel.

  4. Simon said, on 25 April, 2008 at 10:13 am

    As a keen watcher of ‘Star Trek’ it is obvious that the idea of space travel is one of optimism and idealism. As a brand it’s priceless.

    It’s clear also that we are not ready for FTL, or even getting through the space junk we’ve already put up there, but the idea of it still sells. I, as a lowly WPP employee, still dream of being able to travel in space, but all I have is Peter.F.Hamilton and Leonard Cohen, oh..and Telstar.

  5. Nick Wray said, on 16 May, 2008 at 10:46 am

    …surely rather than a result of the ‘optimism’ of the 60s’? the ‘space race’ which – for the US – resulted in Apollo and the moon landings, was a *consequence* of the Cold War? Rather than a Utopian programme, the reach for the stars represented an ideological battle – war waged by other means – between the Soviet Union and the United States?

    And were the 60’s really a time of optimism rather than naive utopianism? It *was* the period of RAND, the Paris riots, Cuba, fingers on the button etc. For every young, wide-eyed hippy, there was probably an older pessimist who saw the optimism of the 60’s representing the death of their own hopes and beliefs – for example in England the loss of Empire for those brought up with an Imperial world view? This was the decade, after all, that ended in the hangover represented so well and wittily in the film Withnail and I !

    I think the US ‘civil’ space programme was in some part a PR-vehicle to justify huge military spending on ICMB technology; therefore the space programme was not ’separate’ from military needs – it was a consequence of them.

    The US’s goal was clearly in part to demonstrate the superiority of capitalism and the American political system over Soviet ideology. I agree, there was excitement about what space travel could offer mankind, but overarching this was the United States’ anxiety that the ‘Red Planet’ might literally become that, another satellite of the Soviet union.

    So the US rocket programme — rather than being something that would have flourished if only the money hadn’t been blown by those pesky warmongers in the Pentagon — was another version of the same.

    Indeed, much of the technology – and indeed many of the rockets themselves – used by the Americans were essentially Inter-continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) delivery vehicles, e.g. the Redstone rocket.

    The Redstone nuke missile delivery system was the vehicle hurriedly adapted to allow Alan Shepherd to try and counter the impact of Gagarin’s first orbital flight.
    True, Eisenhower wanted to use a ‘civil’ rocket (as opposed to the military missile boosters) prior to learning of Gagarin’s flight as he was concerned that military rocket technology might ‘intimidate’ the Soviets (if you can send a man over Russia, you can send a nuke). Even so, much of the ‘civil’ space programmes (even if not in part a ‘front’ for the military program) in both countries was motivated by the need to develop systems to carry spy cameras over ‘enemy’ territory – rather than take men to Mars!

    And the Soviet’s interest in rocketry again was hardly ‘utopian’ or optimist? Indeed it came very much from their experience of being vulnerable – and afraid – of sudden attack and invasion, following their near defeat in WW2.

    Rockets were initially seen as a part of the military arsenal to discourage potential adversaries. Whilst the later ‘civil’ programme was again a politically motivated programme to win the Cold War battle of proving their system was superior to that of the US.

    And let’s not forget, the Cold War itself was a consequence of the Second World War – and ironically both the Soviets and US shared the same Nazi V2 missile technology to build both of their respective missile and ‘civil-programme’ rocket armouries.
    V2 rocket engineer Von Braun – always claimed it was interplanetary flight that was his real goal, but perhaps this is a case in point of how ‘optimism’ – the goal of a man, like Von Braun, who wanted man to travel to the stars, but became a Nazi fellow traveller, a user of slave labour to develop V2’s in WW2 – can rapidly become alloyed to political expediency? Von Braun is quoted as saying on his capture by US forces at the end of WW2:

    ” We knew that we had created a new means of warfare, and the question as to what nation, to what victorious nation we were willing to entrust this brainchild of ours was a moral decision more than anything else. We wanted to see the world spared another conflict such as Germany had just been through, and we felt that only by surrendering such a weapon to people who are guided by the Bible could such an assurance to the world be best secured.”

    A philosophical position which is interesting to view in the modern context – of extreme Islamism. Christians and Muslims might well feel morally justified to equip their own arsenals today on a similar basis and indeed – as with the Cold War – this is fuelling current rocketry programmes in both societies.

    Would we have even reached the moon without conflict? Without the argument of military spending to protect the world, would ‘optimism’ alone have got us to the stars? If we were starting off today, would we be more concerned about spending on roads, schools and how often our bins are emptied than spending our taxes on finding other worlds to explore?

  6. Walking on the moon « thenextwave said, on 21 December, 2010 at 10:33 am

    […] posted before on the way this particular bit of futures turned away from popular expectations of space […]

  7. Working on the moon « thenextwave said, on 25 January, 2011 at 12:55 pm

    […] will know that I come back to the subject of space from time to time. Having seen Duncan Jones’ science fiction film Moon this weekend, it’s as good reason […]

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