The Cold War Was The Best (And Worst) Thing To Happen To Space Exploration

The moment that Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon is without doubt one of the greatest moments of human history. It is also one of the moments I wish I could have seen. Here we were, on the moon, just about half a century after we first mastered powered flight.

The 20th century is regarded as one with major advancements, innovations and discoveries. Despite two wars that brought about untold misery to millions of lives, these advancements and breakthroughs still remain as major milestones in our history. I just want to take a moment here to talk about the future.

“We are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth.” – Vernor Vinge

Futurist Ray Kurzweil coined the “Law of Accelerating Returns” which is the unmistakable pattern of human progress moving quicker and quicker as time goes on. Here are some hard numbers, just in case you’re curious. A 20th century’s worth of progress happened between 2000 and 2014. Think about it. The same amount of progress made in the 20th century happened in 14 years. It’s estimated that another 20th century’s worth of advancements and innovations will occur from 2014 to 2021, in seven years! Fast forward a couple of decades, and a 20th century’s worth of innovation will happen multiple times in the same year, and even later, in the same month.

Regardless  of all the innovations that might pop up in the future, we can still say that the advancements we made in the 20th century are still amazing. As Michael Hanlon has said, the world we live in now would have been so much better if only the pace of development and innovation had been maintained through to the 21st century. I’ve taken a look before at how innovation seems to have taken a dramatic break after it’s golden run from 1941 to 1975.

Much of the rapid development during those years could be explained by World War II. Not only were nations starting to crawl out the post-War effects, but they were left with tattered economies that needed immediate attention and rebuilding. There was an environment that encouraged risks and promised great rewards for risk-takers. Nonetheless,  development occurred and economies grew. A greater importance was placed on how good life was for the citizens. As the Cold War slowly crept up, the space race was on. In a bid to outwit each other and publicize the weaknesses of the opposite side’s system, both the USSR and the USA rushed to gather support for space programs.

Soon, humans had been sent to space and in 1969, the USA put a man on the moon. By this point in time, both world powers had poured in millions (possibly billions) into their space exploration programs. Once the USA won the space race, there was no political or commercial incentive to keep innovating and pouring in more money into space travel or exploration. This is the reason we haven’t made much headway into space exploration since 1972, the last time -as of now- that humans have visited the moon.

SpaceX-Imagery
Courtesy: SpaceX-Imagery on Pixabay.

The Cold War was the best thing and the worst thing that could have happened to space exploration, as a whole. During those years, space travel was a patriotic statement, a statement of the powers of capitalism, a display of the scientific progress that had been made by the USA. With the space race won, and later, the dissociation of the USSR, space exploration was slowly thrust out of the limelight. Sure other countries could have been passed on the torch from the USA. The problem however is that none of them are really as successful as NASA is, though most of them, especially India’s space program (ISRO) are making great headway into visionary missions.

Had the same pace of development and the same level of excitement continued, I have a feeling we might have been in a much better place now. As I’ve written before, space travel is something that is incredibly important to mankind as a whole. The whole survival of our species depends of moving out of Earth and becoming a multi-planet civilization. This is why Elon Musk is pushing for a future where humans have colonized Mars. For a person in 1969, the sky wasn’t the limit anymore. The moon had been conquered, there lay infinite space for mankind conquer next. For a person in 1969, a human colony on Mars and perhaps any other planet would have been an acceptable vision of the future.

But that future never came. We are still here, with no manned missions to any planet or even the moon in the near future. Ultimately, the very economic and political situation that gave rise to the best era of space exploration pushed it aside into the sidelines. The best we can do is hope that the future is brighter, with more space exploration, and maybe, intergalactic interaction with other lifeforms.

PS: A couple of changes are afoot here and I would love it if you could please help me out with them. I’ve been adding a little ratings widget to my posts now, so it would be great if you could rate this post, so I have some feedback to work with. Also, I’ve just started a newsletter to deliver great articles I’ve found and read to you. Details can be found here. Please consider subscribing to my newsletter ‘The Weekend Reads.

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