2014 has arrived, and for people like me who are over 40, a strange feeling might accompany the arrival of New Years Day in the last few years. We’re well into the second decade of the new millennium, and from the perspective of guys like me who lined up eagerly in the late 1970’s to watch Star Wars for a second or third time, it seems that the future is now here. I remember when a year like 2014 seemed like a good setting for a new Science Fiction film or novel, in a time when space travel has become easy and common, and technology has reached heights barely believable. In reality, 2014 isn’t entirely disappointing. Kids (and adults) are playing their video games with people on the other side of the world; Mobile Phones can be used to order pizza without speaking to anyone, and Amazon is even exploring the idea of delivering packages to homes with remote drones.
Technology not intended for the average person has become even more impressive. Lightweight Dragonskin body armor can stop a rifle round from an M-16 or an Ak-47; the ability to make an object invisible is being developed, and just the footage of a V-22 Osprey flying around with American troops is awe inspiring. Some developments that make big headlines are a bit anticlimactic however. The landing of the first Chinese moon probe in December seemed like exciting news to some, but it took place over 44 years after the first manned Moon landing in 1969. The Soviets and the U.S. first landed probes on Mars in the 1970’s.
We could force ourselves to be excited about sub-orbital space flights carried out by the private sector that first took place in 2004 aboard Spaceship-1, but this was decades after Alan B. Shepard made history’s first sub-orbital space flight in 1961. Since the Space Shuttle fleet was retired in 2011, contact with the International Space Station relies on vehicles put into space by Russian Soyuz-U rockets. These rockets; though surely advanced, look similar to the first Soyuz rockets launched way back in the 1960’s. It might be hard for the lovers of Space Travel and Science Fiction to accept, but aeronautics and the space-flight that relies on it seem to have run into what could be a technology barrier. At the very least, development has slowed down to a snail’s pace. This is in great contrast to times past when the advancing technology of flight seemed itself to be a rocket that wasn’t likely to stop.
In 1931 the Polish flew for the first time the PZL P.11 fighter plane. It had an open cockpit and gull shaped wings, but for a brief time it was considered the most advanced fighter in the world. By 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded though, it was considered pitifully obsolete. Today; the F-22 Raptor, the most advanced fighter in the world has been flying since 1997. Aircraft like the A-10, the Cobra attack helicopter, or the B-52 have been used in the U.S. arsenal for decades, though they have undergone modifications. The Space Race originally was on the fast track as well. 17 months after Yuri Gagarin’s first space flight, President Kennedy gave his famous Moon Speech at Rice University on September 12th 1962. In the speech, he boasted of the intention of the U.S. government to land a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth before the end of the decade. To the world’s amazement, it was accomplished.
The 1960’s helped firmly plant the seed of America’s love affair with the idea of fictional space travel in the future. In time, people around the world would catch the fever. Sometimes, the depicted space explorers were in a time not so distant from those who imagined them. Star Trek debuted in 1966, and is still a popular franchise today. One important villain in Star Trek lore is Khan Noonien Singh. He reappeared in last year’s Star Trek Into Darkness. One original detail that wasn’t mentioned in the film though was from a 1967 TV episode where the character was first portrayed by Ricardo Montalbán: Khan originally fled Earth in a spaceship in 1997 to avoid justice.
In 1977, Star Wars awed a generation of young people with just how great Science Fiction could be. A few years later, the James Bond film Moonraker (1979) tried to cash in on some of the Star Wars hysteria. Oddly, vehicles that closely resemble Space Shuttles are used by characters in the film before the first actual Shuttle flight in 1981. In the plot, Bond and a space-walking army with lasers take over a space-station built by a maniac who intends to wipe out humanity and resettle the Earth with his own chosen people. In the 12 Bond films made since then, the super-agent hasn’t once returned to space.
The plot dates of the 1968 film 2001 a space odyssey and its 1984 sequel 2010 have already gone by, while others are getting close. In the 1982 movie Blade Runner, a future set in 2019 describes an Earth where humans are leaving to settle in off-world colonies, though details of these colonies aren’t described very much. Kurt Russell starred in Soldier (1999). In this story, Russell is marooned on a distant world in 2045, and moves in with other abandoned people who make their homes out of junk. People from Earth seem to have made the entire world into one massive garbage dump. Something tells me we can’t pull this off in just over 30 years, especially with recycling getting popular. In the 2000 movie Mission to Mars, a more modest achievement is accomplished with the first Mars landing in the year 2020. This is much more reasonable, but it’s still not going to happen in 6 years, or 20 for that matter.
For anyone that’s interested in giving the world another Science Fiction story that involves space travel, near future stories should be carefully thought out, even if the characters are only travelling to a Moon Base or something of this nature. Many people making films today understand this, as serious space exploration is now almost always put into the distant future. One movie that does it right is last year’s Elysium starring Matt Damon. In this story space travel is easy and common in single-piece vehicles. The characters mainly fly to and from a massive Space Station in orbit inhabited by thousands of the future’s snooty rich and powerful. In this film what’s remarkable isn’t the great distance travelled, but the engineering marvel in orbit that’s plainly visible to the people on Earth. It’s still modest compared to other Science Fiction stories, but the date is wisely set in a comfortably distant 2154. The film seems to have drawn heavily from the Stanford torus Space Station concept that was proposed in a NASA study in 1975. While using real scientific concepts to form the basis of a plot is a great idea, it may in time give way to creativity based on pure imagination. More and more, our films are going to be written and directed by a generation of people who spent countless hours playing Video Games, watching Anime or movies with heavy amounts of Computer-generated imagery (CGI). Perhaps more importantly, future story tellers will have grown up during a frozen Space Age, and won’t be in awe of real-life accomplishments of NASA and other space agencies.