If you watch episode 1 of Gerry Anderson’s gloriously sexist 1970 television series UFO, you will discover that he invented the best machine in the entire universe. That is all.
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While the superpowers were busy spending billions on a Space Race that would ultimately lead to a series of blurry television pictures, there was another, far more real, Space Age unfolding. In my head.
As B Smith said, in the 1960s there were snap-together rockets in Kellogg’s breakfast cereal boxes, including reasonably detailed models of the actual Apollo spacecraft, some of the more speculative NASA designs — even, as this close-up photo shows, vehicles from Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons.
The real imagined future of US and Soviet space exploration blurred with the imaginary imagined future of Gerry Anderson to create, in my mind at least, a gloriously unfolding set of possibilities.
My favourite breakfast cereal toy of all was the Kellogg’s Molab, pictured above — although I’m pretty sure mine was blue. Apparently it’s loosely based on NASA concepts for a manned MObile LABoratory for cruising the Lunar surface, much like this book cover illustration. General Motors even built a mock-up. However once the Moon Landings had happened, the follow-up programmes to Apollo were killed off.
I kept losing my Molab’s wheels. Probably because I didn’t glue in the axle pins. But that didn’t matter. I re-imagined it as a spacecraft. The wheel mounts became fold-down exit ramps for rapid troop deployment.
[Photo: Kellogg's Molab cereal packet premium image thanks to Wotan of the Moonbase Central blog. If you grew up during the Space Age, you'll lose yourself there for hours.]
[This post is part of the series 50 to 50, started last year to mark my 50th birthday. One post per year, y'see. The series ground to a halt due to a combination of work and personal pressures, as well as finding that such intense reminiscences of my own past were emotionally draining. The series has now been resumed.]
The 1960s were the Space Age. And since I was a bright male child of that decade, my thoughts were dominated by the events, images and themes of space exploration.
It doesn’t look much now, but this photo was the very pinnacle of all that. Or perhaps the apogee. Neil Armstrong stepping onto the surface of the Moon. One small step etc, taken from the original TV footage.
I was mesmerised — even though half the time my nine-year-old self couldn’t figure out what was going on. I’d been following the story as it unfolded in the newspapers, reading every word and memorising every diagram. It was front page news every day. But the TV images were just crap.
Of course the reason they were crap was the circuitous journey they took from the Apollo mission’s slow-scan TV cameras. The signal was compressed from arsehole to breakfast time and bounced from the Moon to the Parkes Radiothermal Telescope in rural New South Wales, then somehow to NASA Mission Control in Houston where the audio was mixed in, then back to Australia to the TV stations, and finally out through the normal broadcast chain.
But historians and popular culture tell us that the world stopped to watch these blurry images, and we all remember where we were. And it’s true.
This morning I watched the Space Shuttle Endeavor [sic] rocket into orbit on NASA TV. Exciting. But now I see this new photograph (above) of a planet found orbiting Fomalhaut, and realise we’re still only taking the tiniest of baby-steps into the universe.
I’m a child of the Space Age. When I was born, no-one had been outside the earth’s atmosphere. I was too young to be aware of the flights of Yuri Gararin or Alan Shepherd. But when Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong walked upon the Moon we got the day off school to watch the grainy video imagery — our rural school didn’t have enough TVs for everyone to see.
Today I watched quietly as Endeavor became a tiny blue dot in the empty black sky — oh so quickly! And yet… And yet in the full-sized Hubble Space Telescope imagery the newly-photographed planet Fomalhaut b is also just a faint dot.
25 light-years away.
Endeavour would take more than 900,000 years to get there at its low Earth orbit speed of 8 kilometres a second.
Tiny. Baby. Steps.
Speaking of Arthur C Clarke, how about a Lego model of Discovery, the spacecraft from 2001: A Space Odyssey? Ta for the pointer, Richard.
Bugger. The Space Age ended today. Sir Arthur C Clarke, the grand master of science fiction, is dead at age 90. According to the BBC he died in Sri Lanka, his adopted home since 1956, from a cardio-respiratory attack.
Clarke is best-known, of course, for his collaboration with Stanley Kubrick on the
1966 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even today it’s visually stunning, a grand expression of 1960s technological confidence. Even today, the ending still makes no sense whatsoever, with or without LSD.
Everyone remembers that the computer HAL 9000 went mad and killed the crew. The real lesson is that HAL went mad because his masters had told him to lie, to cover up the mission’s true purpose. This Cold War-era fable about how paranoia corrupts the mind remains completely relevant in this age of The Continual War on Terror.
What Clarke should really be remembered for, however — and what could have made him a multi-billionaire — is suggesting the use of geostationary satellites for international telecommunications.
Clarke’s 1945 paper “Extra-Terrestrial Relays — Can Rocket Stations Give Worldwide Radio Coverage?” sketched out the idea so thoroughly that it counts as “prior art” and no-one’s been able to gain patents ever since.
Apart from 33 novels, 13 short-story collections, TV programs and countless non-fiction works, Clarke was a regular letter-writer to New Scientist magazine. Sometimes he wrote about the ethics and politics of science and technology, but more often than not it was to point out that some newly-patented idea had already been described in one of his novels decades before. Not to boast, just to chuckle.
Sir Arthur is dead. The Space Age is dead.
At least the First Space Age is dead. The 1960s imperative “to boldly go” as imagined by visionaries like Clarke has congealed into a bloated, bureaucratic NASA which has, in the US at least, drained all the excitement from spaceflight.
Long live Space Age 2.0, funded not by governments asserting their fitness to rule the world, but by entrepreneurs like Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic. Space will never be the same.
[A slightly different version of this story was published in Crikey today.]
Three quick movies for you to watch on a lazy Sunday… things which I’ve been sent over the last week.
- The 15-minute promotional film A Ballad for the Fair (pictured) tours the 1964 New York World’s Fair, with an emphasis on communications technology since it was produced by Bell System. Marvel at the video-phone! Warning: there is folk music. Hat-tip to Paleo-Future.
- A creepy community service announcement about violence against women starring Australia’s celebrity criminal Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read. Chopper even has his own website. Hat-tip to Rhys McDonald via Five Thumbs Down. Check the latter for an amusing AFL players’ social guide.
- The US shoots down a spy satellite. Thanks, Richard. I won’t bother discussing the military-strategy and international-politics angles of that one, there’s plenty elsewhere.
- Nominations close 25 February. There’s a nomination form, and you’ll have to include an explanation of “why you want to participate as a delegate in the Australia 2020 Summit in 100 words or less.” A bit like a TV Week competition.
- You can nominate for up to three subject areas.
- If you don’t get selected, you can still make a submission. Submissions close 9 April.
And that’s about it, apart from a photo of Chairman Rudd. Not even an RSS feed.
Nobody gets a place in history for coming second. In October 2007 we celebrated 50 Years of The Space Age, commemorating the launch of Sputnik 1. I wrote about it, here and for Crikey (different pieces). I masturbated.
Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of America’s first successful satellite launch — and I only just realised it now.
Apparently the US could’ve gotten something into orbit before the Commies, but they wanted to use an American rocket. The Juno 1 launch vehicle, based on German technology, was originally unsuited politically. Alas, the all-American Vanguard wasn’t up for it.