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 Laurenço 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?