I/We/You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet

I don’t know if every junior high school class had one in the mid-1960s, but we did: a guy who counted down the days to each American rocket launch. A guy who tracked the progress of each space mission.

From Jul 1963 to Dec 1965, he was in his element: Americans reached at least 10 space milestones. I thought he was a science nut and fully expected he’d go into Physics, likely Astrophysics. Nope: History. Last week’s 50th anniversary of the moon landing made me think about my place in Space Age history.

The Space Age is generally considered
to have begun with Sputnik 1 in 1957
and to continue on ever since.

Don’t get me wrong. I haven’t, you know, actually contributed anything to the Space Age, but I have been around for it all. I was five years old when Sputnik (now known as Sputnik 1) beeped across the sky, although I don’t remember the event. I was 17 when I watched Armstrong and Aldrin walk on the moon.

At 67, I can now watch SpaceX launch a used capsule — in this case, one that had made two previous trips to the International Space Station — and stick a landing of the booster rocket. You can read about it here, but video kicks text; the amazing bit starts at about 2:45 on the video timeline.

But why shouldn’t they be good at it?

Since 2017, the first stage of Falcon 9 missions
has been routinely landed
if the rocket performance allowed it,
and if SpaceX chose to recover the stage.

When I consider the rough timeline of aviation, I can see how long it took to get started but also, once they did get going properly, how fast they advanced. First powered flight to breaking the sound barrier, for example, took just 44 years.

  • 1000 BCE – Invention of kites (China)
  • 1500 AD – First design of flying machine (Leonardo da Vinci)
  • 1709 – First design of model glider (Bartolomeu Laurení§o de Gusmao)
  • 1783 – First untethered, manned, hot-air balloon flight (Montgolfier brothers)
  • 1895 – First flight of biplane gliders (Otto Lilienthal)
  • 1903 – First powered flight (Orville and Wilbur Wright)
  • 1927 – First trans-Atlantic flight (Charles Lindbergh)
  • 1930 – Invention of jet engine (Frank Whittle)
  • 1939 – First jet-propelled aircraft (Germany)
  • 1947 – First aircraft to break the sound barrier (Chuck Yeager)
  • 1986 – First non-stop flight around the world (Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager, who is no relation to Chuck)
  • 2011 – Martin jetpack and first flying car (Glenn Martin and Terrafugia, respectively)

In my lifetime — in the Space Age so far — we took a dozen years to go from just being able to launch a basketball-sized satellite, to landing men on the moon. Fifty years further on and we’re into commercial space travel. I don’t know how to characterize this first stage of the Space Age that I’m living through, but given the scale of human history, “infancy” doesn’t seem ridiculous. How much more is there to come, I wonder, and how fast?


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14 Responses to I/We/You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet

  1. Barry says:

    Lindbergh had an excellent PR firm as he followed by 8 years.

    British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown made the first non-stop transatlantic flight in June 1919. They flew a modified First World War Vickers Vimy bomber from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Clifden, Connemara, County Galway, Ireland. The Secretary of State for Air, Winston Churchill, presented them with the Daily Mail prize for the first crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by aeroplane in “less than 72 consecutive hours”.
    A small amount of mail was carried on the flight, making it the first transatlantic airmail flight.

    Upon landing in Paris after his own record breaking flight in 1927, Charles Lindbergh told the crowd welcoming him that “Alcock and Brown showed me the way!”
    from Wikipedia

    Alcock & Brown’s flight was also non-stop but it did have a pilot + a navigator as opposed to being a solo flight

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barry – Ah, that “solo” bit is key, eh? There’s a (likely not true) story that when news came out that Lindbergh has made it to Paris, a secretary rushed in to tell her boss. “A man has just crossed the Atlantic by himself.” The boss is supposed to have said, without looking up, “By himself a man can do anything. Call me when a committee makes it across.”

      • Barbara Carlson says:

        But so much of what is accomplished is certainly not by committee: stolid, safe, slow. 🙁

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Barbara – Yeah, no great leaps forward by groups in my experience, although they can get a lot of work done.

    • Barbara Carlson says:

      I read the account of that flight in a great book on space. I was riveted!
      I rewrote (condensed) it for my book The Pocket Lint Chronicles and for the first time —
      ever — I didn’t save every few seconds and was so caught up on their adventure, I hit something and managed to delete an hour’s work. Started again.

      Did you read it in The Pathfinders by David Kevin?

    • Barbara Carlson says:

      I read the account of that flight in a great book on space. I was riveted!
      I rewrote (condensed) it for my book The Pocket Lint Chronicles and for the first time —
      ever — I didn’t save every few seconds and was so caught up on their adventure, I hit something and managed to delete an hour’s work. Started again.

      Barry, did you read it in The Pathfinders by David Kevin?

  2. When you show us what can be accomplished when people devote their time and money to it, doesn’t it make you wonder why time and money isn’t devoted to some other projects, too? I think what we have here is the boys-with-toys syndrome, starting with kites, although Icarus deserves a nod, perhaps.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – I figure that engineering problems are amenable to sustained, iterative effort – maybe in part because it’s relatively clear when the solution has been found. Social problems/solutions are less clear cut, perhaps. And in some world views, social problems don’t even have solutions in the engineering sense: just trade-offs.

  3. Your reply evokes the term “social engineering” with its horrifying overtones. This afternoon, when I was explaining The Marketing Seminar to my 10-year-old granddaughter, I asked her how she would market something she wanted to sell. “First,” she said, “I would use my niceness so the person would want to listen to me.” Quite the best kind of social engineering, I think.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – Sounds like it. The self-made CEO of the Alberta company I worked for used to say that people bought from their friends, so it was a salesman’s job to be that friend.

  4. John Whitman says:

    Isabel – fear is a great motivator. When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the U.S. then realized they had to get serious about the time and money required to counter the threat posed by the potential for Soviet control of space. Interestingly, the chief motivator was everybody’s prince charming, John F. Kennedy.

    Also, if it hadn’t been for WW I, advances in airplane design might not have proceeded as quickly as they did.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John – For sure the military uses drive a special level of effort. Simple compassion (to deal with the problems Laurna was referring to, I think) doesn’t seem to carry the same motivation.

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