Thursday, April 14, 2011
Space: the final fronter...Fifty years ago, humanity finally got to space. That it was the Russian Yuri Gagarin meant a lot more then than it does now. Then it was cause for alarm in the West if not outright fear. But now it's a clearer cause for celebration.
Space was a real place most of my life. I grew up on Captain Video and those 1950s space shows--a whole lineup of them on Saturday mornings for a year or two--Space Patrol, Tom Corbett, Rocky Jones, etc. The first Tomorrowland episode of that new TV series called Disneyland was also a real landmark. Much of it was about the history of human yearnings to get into space, the history of rocketry and the physical challenges of space. The very last part of it was an animated dramatization of the first human spaceflight--a very powerful moment in my childhood.
I watched the first U.S. space launches live on TV. In high school I got the autographs of astronauts Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom and John Glenn--the first three Americans in space. Eventually, at a Star Trek convention, I shook hands with the first man to step onto an alien world: Neil Armstrong. I'd watched that happen as it happened, on TV.
It was in these contexts that Star Trek was born. Space was real but remote and largely unknown. It was near, achievable, but vast and far. It was a fertile place for imagination. It was a place of possibilities, but also of realities. There were rules--physical rules. But there was so much that was unknown, and therefore possible. So by setting stories in space, and on other worlds in space, we learned to think about rules, and their effects. There were the real physical rules, and then the rules of the fictional universe. Dealing with rules--what they allowed, didn't allow, what they suggest--inspired creativity in real rocket scientists, and also in science fiction fans. Imaginative thinking as well as feeling were encouraged by the space age.
Despite the shuttles, the space station and the increasing interest in space tourism, space is not the same kind of place in the culture now as it was then. I think the imaginative qualities of fictions set in space have suffered--at least in the movies and TV. Star Trek captured the wonder of those early years. That wonder may be gone from the real world. But the ability to imagine all kinds of futures, and therefore all kinds of nows right here on earth, remains a legacy of that first "what if" that became real.