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Returning to the dream?

by Tracy Littlewood - 11:10 on 27 March 2009

Back in 1954 Arthur C. Clarke wrote Prelude to Space. It's a novel about the first manned mission to the Moon, written in a sober and factual way an account of an anticipated future.

What's particularly interesting is the timescale. Clarke puts the date of the lunar mission as 1978. That's ten years later than the actual date.

But then when we look at the the next stages in the book, there is a big difference. There's an epilogue at the close of the 20th century set in a  settlement of 5000 people on the Moon.And the epilogue looks back several years to a manned landing on Mars.

So for a while developments in space were moving so fast that they were ahead of predictions. But somewhere in the 1970s the pattern switched, and they started to fall behind.

It's interesting to see that in the book Clarke has geostationary communications satellites as part of the fabric of everyday life of the future; and of course we have them today his own idea put into practice. As a practical forecaster, he was careful to build his predictions on what was known to be technically achievable. So if we've fallen so drastically behind his predictions, the problem may not be his forecasts, but in us.

And looking back, it does seem as if something happened in the 1970s and 1980s to slow down the apparent limitless progress of science in exploring space.

So what went wrong? The scientist and writer Nigel Calder suggested in 1983 that the public will was lacking. One factor, he said, was the images of other planets as unsuitable for life.

'The American landers on Mars dashed hopes by revealing that planet to be a lifeless desert; Soviet landers on Venus confirmed that it's an acidic hellhole.'

And in addition, was there a shift in society, away from exploration of the external world and more into an internal one? The 1960s saw a big change, where the pursuit of pleasure came to the fore. That led in the years that followed to the growth of the consumer society, and gradually the excitement that people sought were found in watching the move of the stock markets.

But today it's clear that there's a wide-ranging interest in space and astronomy. It's something shared by people of all ages. That means a potential market, and technology is being developed which looks to the market, rather than governments, for its viability.

Could we now be seeing the start of a picking up of the thread that we seem to have dropped in the 1970s? Will space tourism be the start of a series of new developments that will take us back to the Moon and on to Mars? And what would that mean for the next generation in terms of inspiration in science and technology?

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