You’re probably familiar with the old sayings, “Where’s my flying car?” and “Where’s my jetpack?” But the most depressing question for plenty of space nerds from the 20th century might be, “Where’s my holiday on the Moon?” And I just got really depressed reading a paper from 1987 about the space travel advances we were supposed to have by 2013.
The paper is titled “The World and the United States in 2013", and was written by the late sociologist Daniel Bell. The paper isn’t exclusively about space travel — it includes predictions on everything from nanotechnology to population growth, but the section on space exploration definitely feels the farthest away.
What am I talking about? You can read for yourself:
The major frontier, of course, is space. The Paine Commission in the United States has proposed a forty-year program for the exploration and colonization of space. It is possible that there may be permanent space stations in orbit by 2013. It is even possible that there will be, as in the Antarctic, some outposts on Mars. There are many projects for advantageous manufacture in space (e.g., pharmaceuticals). There are designs for solar panels to redirect energy from the sun, just as most satellites in space will be powered by solar reflectors.
Colonising space? It seems like a ridiculous dream, even here in the 21st century. Manufacturing pharmaceuticals in space? Nah.
Yes, there have been plenty of technological advancements since 1987, but when you read about things such as outposts on Mars they feel as far away as ever. Especially since the people who are promising to get us there seem to be blowing smoke — both figuratively and literally. We have the International Space Station, but you won’t be travelling there any time soon.
Daniel Bell died in 2011, so he wasn’t around to see what the world looked like in 2013. But I have to believe that he was at least mildly disappointed by topics such as space travel. The space shuttle program was formally retired in 2011 and the United States doesn’t have anything like it any more. They’re literally museum pieces.
What does the future hold for those of us in 2018? It isn’t clear. But it’s hard to have faith in a shiny, happy future when world leaders are making transparently ignorant promises about things such as the Space Force.
And I suppose we have a lot more to be concerned about here on Earth these days. The rise of fascism is a global problem, and a new space shuttle isn’t going to fix that. But it’s still depressing to think about the future we were supposed to have by now. Studying old futures can definitely inspire us to build beautiful things for tomorrow, but when it comes to multi-billion dollar enterprises such as space travel, it’s hard not to just get a bit sad.