Skip to main content

The sky-high optimism of the 1950s and early 1960s is now more often a subject of ridicule than emulation: Notions of space colonies, automated and/or flying cars, intelligent servant robots, replicators, and power too cheap to meter are now often snidely dismissed as arrogant fantasies in entertainment and pop culture because they failed to materialize in the generation that first decided they could actually be done.  But there is massive irony in today's pessimistic attitude, because the technological prerequisites for all of these things have been gradually accumulating every single year since then, creeping up on us so unassumingly that it may seem like no big deal when we finally have them.

The incredible achievements of the First Space Age were the single most extreme technological outlier in all of human history, demonstrating a fact that hadn't been shown in action since the construction of the Great Pyramids: Given enough political will, anything within the laws of physics and the total discretionary economic capacity of a mobilized society is achievable.  It is utterly shocking that a Bronze Age society with a workforce in the tens of thousands could build the Giza pyramids, and yet they did - Egyptian society in that period was utterly determined to achieve it, they had the necessary geometric principles, and they were able to perfect their stoneworking and mass-hauling skills to make it happen.  

Although the awesome selfishness of the Egyptian Kings was the originating impulse for the pyramids, the rest of society was activated by a sense of transcendent purpose.  The work teams who hauled the stones - ordinary Egyptians, not slaves - formed a sense of group identity because the projects lasted so long, and competed with each other while proudly scrawling their team names on completed sections.  Similar pride was taken by the stonemasons who actually cut the blocks to such precision, and the artisans who made hieroglyphic inscriptions.  The work itself must have resonated with the people on some level, and not been the kind of oppressive circumstance usually imagined today.  

Likewise, it is also utterly shocking that a nation of what had largely been farmers only a generation earlier ended up putting men on the Moon, but again, the basic scientific principles were in place, the industrial capacity existed due to the economic legacy of World War 2, and the determination was present.  And as in the previous case, although the originating motive was crass and unworthy - proving the technical superiority of a mixed economy over Communism - the nation became activated by a spirit of transcendent purpose that mobilized people to new heights of effort, team work, and creativity.  The inherent qualities of the work itself gave people a sense of hope and strong common destiny, and they were perfectly willing to see large amounts of resources devoted to the Apollo program.

It was not, as some dogmatic libertarians today probably believe, the act of some overweening, monstrous "Big Gubmint" forcing people to pursue a vainglorious boondoggle when they would have rather been at home raising chickens - it was a nationwide consensus to radically advance our education, science, and technology, and out of it came the greatest human achievement of all far.  And as a consensus, this notion of driven purpose and imminent destiny was internalized in the attitudes and expectations of the people.  Since we were going to the Moon, then would be Mars, then the outer planets, and finally the stars, in a progression every bit as rapid as that experienced in the leap from aviation to spaceflight.  And with that kind of overarching narrative taking place, flying cars, robotic servants, and abundant energy would be trivial.  

The problem is that once the Moon landings were achieved, the transcendent purpose that had built up around the program lost contact with the baser purpose, beating the Russians: The latter was accomplished, and those degenerate minds who only cared about that no longer saw a purpose to human spaceflight.  So while millions of people were still determined to push onward, suddenly the political apparatus no longer gave a damn - human spaceflight activities degenerated into pork-driven monstrosities like the Shuttle, never designed to really go anywhere or build a foundation for doing so.  The nation was de-mobilized, and its sense of common purpose deprecated by increasingly corrupt authorities who told the American people it was now patriotic to go back to being selfish, stupid, and parochial like we were before the Space Race.

It was the worst case of blue balls in human history: We went from having a vision of the universe before our eyes to basically being handed a gift bag of toys as a consolation prize and told to go stare at our own navels till the end of time.  So the cynicism and contempt for large-scale progress that has arisen since then is totally understandable: It must have seemed like those high-flying promises were just lies invented by authorities (and believed by geeky chumps) to justify the baser aspect - beating the USSR to the Moon - and were then promptly forgotten once the objective had been achieved.  But in fact they were not lies, and those who bought into them were not deceived: It was simply that people did not yet understand the level of complexity required to make these things happen as anything more than hugely expensive, incredibly dangerous stunts and impractical prototypes.

When you're standing on top of a mountain, the next peak over can look deceptively close - and indeed it would be close if you could just walk a straight line from one to the other.  But it's not that simple: You have to take a circuitous path with substantial ups and downs along the way to go from one peak to the next.  Going to the Moon with technologies designed by slide rule and using computers less powerful than a pocket calculator was on the absolute, bleeding edge of the technically possible, and like the Great Pyramids were for Old Kingdom Egypt, Apollo was the purest expression of our absolute economic horizon in the 1960s.  But anything beyond that requires either a perpetual commitment at an unnatural level of mobilization, or else fundamental advances in prerequisite technologies.

Before the 1950s, it was assumed in science fiction that space travel would evolve from air travel, or would at least follow a similar development pattern - and the same would be true of the automotive industry evolving into self-driving and/or flying cars, the energy industry creating abundant energy, etc.  In other words, it would be an evolutionary process of increasing numbers of relatively small scientific, military, and industrial projects in rocketry, aviation, energy, and automotive engineering that would bring about these science fiction tropes organically, the way that rail, automotive, and air travel had evolved in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  There would indeed be large-scale public projects, but they would be sources of funding for experimentation and applications of the technology, not the sole economic basis for it.

But both this perspective and the mobilization model of the Space Race radically underestimated the level of progress that would have to occur in a then-underappreciated field before these things could become practical - computers.  And not just computers, but the software that drives them.  The Apollo program had its roots in the post-War industrial age where everything was just being churned out of pressed sheet metal, and that was the economic basis of the First Space Age - anything that couldn't be achieved with that kind of technology and rudimentary computation could simply not be done.  Only by marshalling what was then a significant percentage of the computational power of the planet was Apollo even able to achieve Moon landings - anything more challenging using that infrastructure would have involved odds overwhelmingly against survival.

The same goes for automated/flying cars: The software for AI driving in an unstructured environment at speed just did not exist until Google developed it in the past couple of years, and even the hardware capable of running it couldn't have fit into a car until about the late '90s or even later.  Self-driving cars before this time would basically have to be toys riding along a track like at Disneyland, with mechanical contrivances to handle what little flexibility would be possible - which would negate the very purpose of having a car rather than a train.  

So the expectation for such driving experiences in the 20th century was born mainly out of ignorance about the size and complexity of the software that would be needed.  But now we're basically there - just the other day, Governor Jerry Brown signed a law permitting automated cars on California roads (provided a licensed driver sits behind the wheel just in case) and directing the DMV to come up with appropriate regulations.  Google's fleet of automated cars have already been driven hundreds of thousands of miles on America's streets under special permits and insurance policies, and the results have been so good that authorities consider the technology to be just a few years from commercial deployment.  Google's self-driving car on a California freeway (nothing actually happens, but it's still cool to watch - the spinning drum on top is the sensor pod):

The barrier to flying cars is similar but even greater: Air travel is vastly more complex than driving on the ground, involves delicate dynamic balances, and the transition from ground driving to flying using the same vehicle is awkward to say the least.  In the absence of a computer that can sense its surroundings rapidly and reliably, quickly make intelligent and safe decisions in a rapidly-changing environment, and basically do the driver/pilot's work for them, flying cars would be impractical for the vast majority of people.  There are also problems with the fact that two very different sets of regulatory requirements apply to driving and flying, and weight constraints on the latter limit the interior space, safety, and power available for the former.  

Flying cars were never the most practical idea in the first place given the awkward fusion of two transportation modes, but convergence is happening, and the possibility is becoming more realistic as materials, rapid prototyping, and navigation computing advance.  This is the best attempt that exists so far, and it's not bad for an initial start:

Unlike a lot of people, I don't think the computing revolution was a diversion from these high-level achievements - I think it was a necessary prerequisite, and especially for the goal of achieving safe, affordable, regular space travel.  The complexities involved in designing, building, and operating reusable space vehicles are way beyond the capabilities of a pre-Moore's Law economy, and it's a freaking miracle we were even able to get disposable rockets to work well enough to send people to the Moon with that little computing power - again, the power of a mobilized society focused on a common goal is incredible.  Even with modern techniques and no less than seven entities - four of them well-funded - pursuing reusable rocketry, the details are still a bastard:

But ever so slowly, progress is being made.  SpaceX, for instance, recently tested its prototype reusable 1st stage vehicle, called Grasshopper.  Normally the 1st stage of a disposable rocket just freefalls into the atmosphere, is shredded to pieces, and the debris ends up in the ocean, but SpaceX is pursuing reusability one stage at a time.  Once the testing program is complete and the final form of the stage is included on its Falcon rocket fleet, the separated stage will, instead of freefalling, reignite independently from a little bit of fuel left and land itself back on the launch pad.  The reason to do this is because a reusable stage ends up costing hundreds of times less over time than a disposable one, just like an aircraft or a car: Imagine how expensive those would be if you could only use them once and would then have to build an entirely new one.  Here's the Grasshopper test - it's not much to see, only a little 6 foot bump, largely obscured by the smoke, but it's the beginning of big things:


Before NASA started running into the limits of its Apollo-era technology, people just didn't know you can't have Buck Rogers without HAL-9000: A largely mechanized economy just can't handle the complexity, and any space missions undertaken with such capabilities would always be very dangerous and expensive.  Only now, as the advances made by Silicon Valley are increasingly applied to space ventures and other heavy industry, does the Buck Rogers future begin to enter the realm of practicality over the coming decades.  As cars and planes electrify (obviously the former will happen a lot sooner than the latter), they become both radically simpler and yet capable of vastly more elegant control systems, far greater efficiencies, and far lower maintenance costs than their chemically-fueled predecessors, all enabled by the electronic revolution.

This goes even to the most basic of heavy industries, power generation: People in the 1950s thought nuclear power was going to deliver abundant energy too cheap to meter, but the economics were deeply flawed - fissile material is exceedingly rare, non-renewable, and expensive to process, and elaborate safety measures are needed not only to build and run a nuclear power plant, but to dispose of the radioactive waste it produces.  This is true even if a governments permit reckless risks to be taken and endangers public safety for the sake of lowering costs - the technology is inherently expensive, inherently involves high up-front costs, and favors a centralized, seller's market economic model that discourages subsequent innovation.  So the expectation that nuclear was the answer to humanity's thirst for energy was never justified, but the idea that an answer exists was.

Unlike fission nuclear, photovoltaic solar power has the long-term potential to become too cheap to meter because it has all the crucial elements needed to undergo Moore's Law-style geometric progress: It is conceptually simple and systemically modular on a scale individuals can afford; there are a significant number of material combinations that give the technology great flexibility; the actual panels are becoming commoditized; it shares a common manufacturing base with a powerful and ubiquitous industry, semiconductors; and the absolute abundances of the commodities upon which those panels rely are nowhere near full production even in the rarest elements currently being used.  In fact, the most abundant material used in PV solar (silicon) is essentially inexhaustible over the long-term, regardless of short-term fluctuations as production capacity expands and is filled.  

That doesn't mean we'll be seeing energy prices trivialized any time soon (they'll probably even go up for a while), but I think once the world is largely on a renewable footing, the long-term trend of continuous price reduction will become apparent - as will the fact that price reductions are overwhelmingly being driven by the PV solar side of the equation rather than wind, geothermal, biofuel, or solar thermal plants.  Fluctuations would occur, of course, but humanity will have jumped to an entirely new level of energy once we're accessing the Sun on a global industrial scale.  And as with the other technologies, the role of software in management and innovation in this field cannot be overstated.  It's one thing to laboriously create different combinations of materials in a lab by hand, and quite another to let a computer run through millions of simulations looking for optimum combinations, then have it automatically create prototypes for testing.

So it is a real shame that the first generation to really taste the Dream of Mankind was denied more than the tiniest bite with Apollo - I can't help but think of the various stories of prophets denied entry into the Promised Lands they were able to see in their hearts - but the things that generation thought were imminent in the 1960s are indeed almost upon us in the early 21st century, although some more than others.  They come upon us almost as anticlimax, like "Oh, you again?  Nice to see you're real technology now, and not just fantasy graphics.  So, how 'bout those Red Sox?"

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site