Sputnik went up in 1957, Gagarin went out into space in 1961, Alexei Leonov made the first space walk shortly after. Then the alarmed and insulted Americans scrambled furiously into the race, and lo, by the end of that decade the first men had landed on the moon (or so they claim, and not everybody believes them!) By 1973, with Skylab, astronaut-scientists were ready to spend months at a time in a space station far above the earth. That was the era in which my generation grew up (I was ten in 1973, and a voracious reader already). The whole world was agog: space was hot, and next to the Beatles maybe (“we’re more famous than Jesus Christ!”), space science was the coolest thing.
Sci-fi imaginations ran wild, predicting wonders that went vastly beyond anything that the most daring scientists were then willing to contemplate, and yet such incredible and all-round progress was being made by those same scientists all the time that it seemed all the fantasies would come true only too soon. We talked avidly of hibernating spacemen and proton/ion engines, super-intelligent computers in charge and teleportation and hyperspace jumps and wormholes in the space-time fabric, and world government and intergalactic empires and how ancient psychological, economic, political and religious problems would re-surface in new guises in vastly distant and alien environments light years away – as though such things were sure to come true, if not in our own lifetimes, then certainly within those of our grandchildren. Meanwhile SETI seemed to hold forth another glorious promise: discovering different forms of intelligent life scattterd all over the universe! Those who want to know what I am talking about need only to look up the books written by Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Arthur Clarke and Frank Herbert, and the incomparable Star Trek series on TV…
That vision has largely faded, leaving only a dim afterglow. There have been no big-ticket space projects since Pioneer, Voyager, Viking and the Shuttle program. Despite searching for more than three decades, no serious hint of alien civilizations (a la War of the Worlds, Close Encounters, Star Wars, ET and Independence Day) has been found. Given the technological plateau we have reached, interstellar travel, it has now become apparent, remains a pipe dream for the near future at least. These days, it’s only boys from Bankura who talk of specializing in astrophysics and joining NASA (most of them end up writing software code in Bangalore, or fusty post-doc papers which nobody reads at places like TIFR at best). Now that the missile race (which, as those in the know have known for a long time, was the real purpose behind all the PR drivel) between two superpowers has subsided – and since China doesn’t seem to be interested – no government can whip up public enthusiasm to fund big new exploratory projects either; much better to focus on very earthbound problems, such as finding new sources of oil and water, and better methods of pollution control, and how to make keyhole surgery on the heart. Programs like the International Space Station have hardly made a blip in the global media, and most of the current enthusiasm focuses on privately funded shuttles/hyperplanes designed to carry well-heeled and sensation hungry tourists into near-earth orbits for a few hours. Even fiction and fantasy seem to reflect the trend: if you think Matrix or Minority Report or Artificial Intelligence or Inception or the Harry Potter saga, nobody seems to be thinking seriously of leaving earth far behind – an occasional Avatar notwithstanding.
Shall we tell our grandchildren we were the last space crazy generation, then? Or were the sci-fi writers of the 1940 to 60s right all along: that such miracles were only likely to come about in a matter of hundreds, or even thousands of years, and we were getting all het up for nothing?