How far have we come?

Apollo Lunar Module LM-2

Image via Wikipedia

April this year marks the 50th anniversary of manned space missions. On April 12, 1961 the cosmonaut Yuri Garagin became the first human in space. This  milestone was closely followed by a number of missions over the next few years in what we now know as the Space Race of the sixties.

At the Air and Space Museum in Washington is the actual capsule that returned to Earth from one of those early missions (I believe it was from John Glenn’s first orbital flight in 1962 but don’t quote me on that). The thing that blew me away when I saw it up close was that it looked like a home made science project. I’m sure it was state of the art at the time but I recall seeing a household power plug on the outside with  ‘110 VAC’ handwritten on the outside. It obviously served the purpose but to me it didn’t exactly exude confidence. What you could see of the wiring and electronics made the old Black and White valve TV look like modern technology.

In the movie ‘Apollo 13’, which chronicles the unlucky aborted moon landing  mission of 1970, the character played by Tom Hanks makes a remark that computers have become so advanced that you can get a ‘whole computer in just one room’. The reality is that the iPhone that you carry around in your pocket probably has more processing power than the computers these pioneers depended on for their epic journeys.

The point of this post is that it is interesting to take a few steps back once in a while and reflect on how technology has changed our lives in a relatively short space of time for humans. If you teleported someone from 1961 into 2011 they would find it hard to adjust to the idea that:

  • Almost every human in the Western world has access to a cell phone
  • Your car can tell you how to get to your destination
  • Almost every household has a computer, and most have more (many people in 1961 would say “what is a computer?”)
  • You can have a meaningful dialogue with someone in another continent on the other side of the world as if they were just next door
  • Someone could sneeze in Australia and another person in the UK will know about it as it happens
  • Heart and eye operations are almost regarded as routine procedures

The list goes on and on and you could really have a brain explosion if you think about it too much. It would be a very interesting exercise to move forward another 50 years and find out whether life has changed substantially from the last 5o years.

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