Thursday, October 04, 2007

So there were two sides to the Sputnik achievement: beginning the Space Age with all its dreams, and intensifying the dangers and fears of the Cold War, when the people of the Earth lived with the daily possibility that at any moment their world might blow up in the Last Nightmare.

This two legacies of Sputnik intensified throughout the 1960s. While the Russians continued to pioneer in space travel--sending up the first being (a dog), the first man and the first woman in orbit, the U.S. caught up and went ahead, from Alan Shepard's suborbital flight, to John Glenn's 3 orbits, to the Apollo missions and Neil Armstrong becoming the first human to step onto soil not of this earth.

At the same time, the U.S. and the Soviet Union built arsenals of hydrogen bombs atop by ever more powerful and accurate guided missiles. The world went to the brink of annihilating war several times, most famously in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Then Vietnam, racial confrontations in the U.S. and elsewhere, violence and turmoil in many parts of the world, and a growing awareness of deadly pollutions and other environmental destruction, all made it seem increasingly unlikely that there would be any future at all.

Then Gene Roddenberry--born exactly the same year as my father--and others of his generation, brought the dream of space travel and exploration to life, while countering the despair that no future was possible--and yet, not ducking the hard problems that would have to be solved in order to get to that future. (Well, not completely.) GR, Gene Coon and others who shaped Star Trek knew the realities of war from their service in World War II, and even many of the younger participants, like many of the actors, remembered wartime as children.

Out of that experience they imagined a united Earth, a Federation of Planets and a Starfleet with exploration as its chief mission--but with a Prime Directive to prevent it from becoming what other fleets of exploration often had been, the stalking horse of conquest. Diplomacy was its second mission, but with the capability and final mission of armed defense. That's how Star Trek resolved the two aspects of Sputnik. And while Star Trek was just on the air, something happened in the real world that took us one step closer to the Star Trek future.

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