Friday, June 28, 2013

The History of the Future

Before we could go to the moon, we had to imagine that we could go to the moon.

This 'work of the imagination' was essential to finding the will, the funds, the talent and the tenacity to accomplish this task. And while the moon mission was accomplished with state-of-the-art technology, the fundamental thrust that led to the moon launch was one of collective imagination.

In this blog-article I will use the moon mission as an example of how ideas move from fiction to reality, how the future can be shaped by human beings -- and how this might apply to ideas that we are coping with today, such as global warming.

In 1865 Jules Verne wrote the novel From the Earth to the Moon followed by a sequel. Using available data, Verne made a number of calculations so that his story would be as realistic as possible. Surprisingly many of his predictions were quite accurate.
In the following illustrations you will see remarkable similarities between the imaginary ideas of sci-fi visionaries and the actual space travel equipment used and space environment encountered many years later.
During the return trip to Earth on July 23, 1969 after the first landing on the moon, astronaut Neil Armstrong said, "A hundred years ago, Jules Verne wrote a book about a voyage to the Moon. His spaceship...took off from Florida and landed in the Pacific Ocean after completing a trip to the Moon." Which was exactly what Armstrong's first moon mission, Apollo 11, had done and was about to do.

TOP: Still from the Méliès 1902 sci-fi film: A Trip to the Moon. Based on Jules Verne's story, the space command module landed in the ocean and then was tugged to shore by a paddle wheel steam ship.  ( BOTTOM: Helicopter from the ship the USS Hornet picks up the astronauts from the Apollo 12 mission. The splashdown of the astronauts was in the Pacific Ocean as Verne had predicted a 100 years earlier. (NASA)
There was a bit more that 100 years between Jules Verne's novel and the actual moon landing (1865-1969). It took this long for the collective imagination to accept that such a venture was possible and then to commit to a long term program. Even then it took the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union to force the issue, as the race to the moon became a competition between the two countries.

But I am getting ahead of the full story -- during those 100 years, there were a number of steps both forward and back. Yet in the end the public's imagination had been captured.

In 1902 Georges Méliès produced the first science fiction movie, A Trip to the Moon. It was based on Verne's novel and also H.G. Wells novel The First Men in the Moon. It employed special effects and animation -- and sent the public's imagination into outer space.

TOP: Still from the Méliès 1902 sci-fi film: A Trip to the Moon. The command module that holds the astronauts was inserted into a super-gun to send it to the moon. ( BOTTOM: A 1964 NASA drawing of the command module that would take astronauts to the moon. The similarity in the shape between the 1902 film fantasy and the actual NASA design is remarkable. (NASA)
Apollo 17 command module floating above the moon in 1972. Notice the similarity in shape and even the similarity in construction between the module in the Méliès 1902 sci-fi film: A Trip to the Moon (above) and the actual module that went to the moon. (NASA)
LEFT: Still from the Méliès 1902 sci-fi film: A Trip to the Moon. The Earth people (left) who have landed on the moon watch the Earth floating up in the sky. ( RIGHT: Known as 'Earthrise' this shot by an Apollo astronaut shows the Earth floating above the moon's surface. (NASA)
In 1898, at the age of 16, Robert Goddard read H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds which inspired him to think about space flight. He began to experiment with rocketry and by 1914 had registered two of the key patents for successful rocket flights -- a multi-stage rocket design and a liquid fuel method of propulsion. 

In 1924 Robert Goddard illustrated how a rocket could reach the moon from the Earth. ( 
But soon he hit a brick wall known as the media. When he suggested that a rocket could go to to the moon, the New York Times printed the following unsigned editorial, ridiculing his ideas. 
That Professor Goddard, with his "chair" in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action and reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react -- to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools. 
Unsigned editorial, New York Times, January 13, 1920
This condescending yet ignorant opinion from the prestigious New York Times dealt the idea of a moon mission a severe blow as others in the American press took the cue and also mocked his efforts. (In 1915 Goddard had tested his rockets in a vacuum and had proven that they worked.) As a result Dr. Goddard's work lost credibility in the US and was virtually ignored.
Don't you know about your own rocket pioneer? Dr. Goddard was ahead of us all.
Wernher von Braun, the key German and later US rocket scientist who designed the Apollo Saturn rockets that sent men to the moon
Nevertheless, the public's fascination only continued to grow as it began to envision a world in space. Science fiction stories about rocket and space travel continued in movies, magazines, comics, books and on radio and television from the 1920s through the 1950s -- although without much attention or respect from the authorities. 

A number of movie serials (shorts shown every week before the main feature) were quite popular such as the Flash Gordon and the Buck Rogers film series. During the radio era, there were shows such as Dimension X and X Minus One, devoted to thoughtful adult science fiction plots. The popular Twilight Zone TV series in the early sixties often featured well crafted stories about space travel. Even the notorious tail-fins on 1950s American automobiles were based on rocket fins.
This pop phenomenon [ED: of Buck Rogers] paralleled the development of space technology in the 20th century and introduced Americans to outer space as a familiar environment...

LEFT: In a 1929 story, Buck Rogers in a future world watches a TV-like screen while operating controls. ( RIGHT: A NASA lead space flight officer keeps track of information coming from a space mission in 2009. (NASA)
The dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.
Robert Goddard

Cover from Amazing Stories magazine in 1947. (
In the early 1950s German-turned-US rocket expert Wernher von Braun wrote a series of articles for Collier's magazine called  Man Will Conquer Space Soon! and collaborated with Walt Disney Studios on TV films about space exploration which drew large audiences. 

1953 cast photo for the popular ABC TV sci-fi space adventure series: Space Patrol.  (
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man made satellite. The successful launch of the rocket and then the deployment of Sputnik meant the Soviets were far ahead of the United States in rocketry.

A replica of of Sputnik in the National Air and Space Museum. (NASA)
This prompted President Eisenhower to create NASA (The National Aeronautics And Space Agency) in 1958. As a former general and the Supreme Allied Commander of Allied Forces in World War II, he deliberately created an agency that was independent and separate from the military and that would have a peaceful and scientific orientation. Three years later President Kennedy committed NASA to a moon landing.
I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project...will be more exciting, or more impressive to mankind, or more important...and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish...
President John F. Kennedy, 1961
Kennedy announcing his plans to fund a moon mission in a speech to the US Congress in 1961.
While couched in peaceful terms, the space race was in effect an arms race between the two most powerful countries -- which was a key reason why the public supported the cost of this program. 

LEFT: Robert Goddard in 1926 with an early rocket. The rocket was held in the middle of a frame until it was fired. RIGHT: The Apollo 11 rocket that took astronauts to the moon in 1969. (NASA)
When Neil Armstrong stepped down onto the moon's surface on live TV in 1969, it was a moment that most people will never forget. I certainly never have. And although the Apollo program ended 40 years ago, the International Space Station (ISS) is now part of everyday life. Among young people, the hunger for further exploration has only begun -- with a Mars mission in the foreseeable future along with planned landings on asteroids. Now that we know space travel is possible, the thirst to explore will only keep growing.

Live TV shot of Neil Armstrong taking his first step onto the moon on July 20, 1969. (NASA)
Neil Armstrong took this photograph of his fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin during the first lunar landing. Armstrong is reflected in Aldrin's face mask. (NASA)
In hindsight, the creation and success of the moon mission was a century long effort which took imagination, technology and a cold war threat to become a reality. And once the goal of landing on the moon had been achieved, there was little public support for more expensive manned space exploration projects.
Fast forward to today and our future: While global warming poses a great risk, it does not have the same hold on our imaginations. But we have been through this before. 

During the energy crisis in 1977, President Carter said that curtailing our energy imports and reducing our energy use, was the "moral equivalent of war." This phrase was borrowed from  William James in 1906. "James considered one of the classic problems of politics: how to sustain political unity and civic virtue in the absence of war or a credible threat..." ( As we know, Carter was not successful in convincing people of the seriousness of the threat and as a result lost the presidency and the effort to make the US less dependent on foreign oil. 

If we are to deal with global warming, we must give it the same urgency as war.

As I wrote over ten years ago in my essay entitled The World Environmental Crisis Today (which is/was ranked in the top ten search results from Google for most of those ten years):
As Hans Blix, the United Nations weapons inspector before the second American-Iraq war, has pointed out, these environmental questions are much more dangerous than weapons of mass destruction.
Rick Doble
In hindsight, the moon mission, gave us something few of us had imagined:  It showed dramatically that Earth was our home -- for all of us together. Seeing it alone in empty space evoked a sense of awe and a global perspective -- that could only have been achieved by viewing the Earth from tens of thousands of miles in outer space.

This photograph of the Earth, known as Blue Marble, was taken during the last manned lunar mission in 1972 from a distance of about 20,000 miles (about 32,000 km) from Earth. (NASA)
We went to explore the Moon, and in fact discovered the Earth.
Eugene Cernan (Apollo Astronaut)

No comments:

Post a Comment