If you've read my blog in the past you may notice I like science and technology. I'm also a science fiction fan, but these days science fiction has devolved into dystopian love stories where teenagers kill each other to eat better; or some other such blather. I miss the days of forward-thinking science where we were headed to the stars and working to improve life.
And before you think the next thought out of my head is 'get off my lawn.' Keep in mind that during the 1960s we saw an incredible jump in the amount of science and technology that entered our personal lives thanks to the gang at NASA and all those contractors that helped meet the needs of the program.
I realize we live in an age with tech marvels today, and I love that. But we also live in a world where science has somehow become something you can toss aside. It's crazy really, where long-known facts are tossed aside by people with no science background on the grounds that they'd rather do it the old-fashioned way. Give me new-fashioned any day.
I as a kid during the heat of the Space Race, I was born the year NASA was formed, so I wasn't too old when some of the cool stuff - like landing on the Moon - happened (and yes I know it happened). But I remember some fascinating stuff from my early school reading at the time. It makes me long for the science-focus of those days when I hear some of the claptrap coming from pundits and experts who off-handedly toss away good arguments or in the interest of 'balance' give voice to the 'other side' of an issue no matter how ill-informed.
Let me highlight 5 reasons why I miss the Space Race.
1 - The focus of a goal
There was nothing quite like the national goal of putting someone on the moon (okay, back then it was 'put a man on the moon' but you know what I mean). Scientific problems that had never been worked out were being number-crunched to submission all in the goal of getting someone on the Moon before the end of the decade.
That gave us a focus on results that sometimes we're lacking today.
2 - Science was king (or queen, take your pick)
We were solving problems with science. We had to figure out how much water to carry. What kinds of food - new tech for food too. We were looking at a future of feeding more people in new ways and learning how to manage food with limited space and weight limits on cargo. That brought about cool tools like ultra-high temp pasteurization, vacuum seal packaging, and other tools many of us take for granted now.
3 - There was an acceptance that experts were right
Now this is a tough one for me since experts can be wrong and science sometimes finds new answers, but today when 2,000 expert studies say GMOs are safe why do we argue. And frankly when we have 3,500 climate scientists sign on and support the idea that climate change is happening, and that humans are a cause, should we argue? Maybe a little, but we must also learn to accept that sound science is sound science. It's not a matter of your science is better than mine.
4 - We were economical in our actions - which we are not, today.
The Space Race had to be 'economical.' For example the computer that ran the Apollo missions had a total memory capacity of 128K - when you have so little room to move you write very lean code. Back then a few hundred lines of computer code could work wonders, today 2 million lines of code are called Candy Crush.
Today we are muscling our tech with added memory or faster chips, which gives us the luxury of space and memory to write code. Trouble is that luxury also means stuff doesn't work and can be difficult to fix, just ask they guy who has a planter he can't start this April because the tractor can't 'see' the planter, and a reboot is in order. I hear about that all too often.
When you're sending three guys to the moon and if you're off by 10 feet at launch they'll miss by 100 miles on the other end, things just have to work.
5 - Science meant something bigger, and still does, but it doesn't feel that way
With all this talk about the need for STEM - science, technology, engineering and mathematics - and the need for more students to choose that career path versus something less 'science-y' is important. But we have to make science cool again. When Star Trek was a big deal a lot of kids - OK I was one (just check my Twitter handle - @willie1701a) it inspired a lot of people to look to science as a career. We wanted computers to work like that, we wanted to be in space in ships that traversed the galaxy like that, and we saw the potential for a society that welcomed all people, and wasn't based on money.
That last part - the no-money part - was fantasy. But the better-future view that Star Trek offered, bolstered by a Space Race where that future looked within our grasp made science really cool.
This September Star Trek will turn 50, hardly seems likely. It was cancelled from television in 1969 around the time we finally landed on the Moon. And the Space Race officially ended on July 20, 1969 when we landed on the moon while the Russians had a moon probe fail. Today they're our only way to the International Space Station because we don't have another extra-earth vehicle available.
In conclusion, when we walked away from science in the 1970s - as a public (not our scientist friends) we opened up a vacuum in our science knowledge and since 2005 a range of idiocy has rushed in. As agriculturists we're on what often appears to be the wrong side of the debate on those issues. And I know the 1960s weren't all utopia-like in their love of science, we were also busy figuring out that Civil Rights were important. But now it feels like no idea has a chance because the petty foggers and the naysayers with little or no knowledge on a topic can kill an idea before it gets into the lab, let alone to the field for testing.
Maybe we need a new Space Race?