There was a time when America was more futuristic than it is today. It was the 1950s and 1960s. The USA and the USSR were locked in a deadly game of threats, intimidation and brinkmanship known as the Cold War. Whoever lost would have to accept the other as the world’s only superpower, and would very likely have to abandon their way of life. Whoever won would be the dominant world power and would have exclusive rights to having the name of its country start with “US.” Needless to say, America won. That’s why the USSR is just Russia now. The United States and the USSR never actually met each other on the field of battle, thus why it was called the “Cold War” – no fire was exchanged. Instead they chose to fight each other through threats, propaganda, and through other countries, among other things. One of the most interesting Cold War battles, and by far the most futuristic, was the Space Race: a competition between Russia and the United States to achieve goals in space exploration before the other nation.
Laika the dogstronaut in her space kennel.
Russia had the upper hand for a while, but mostly by achieving things no one really cared about. Russia launched the first satellite, Sputnik, into space in October 1957. The Russians were so excited about their achievement that, like drunk college guys with a deep fryer, they just started sending anything they could find lying around into space, just to see what would happen. They sent old rubber tires into space, car batteries, three fur Cossack hats, two empty bottles of vodka, Joseph Stalin’s hair pomade, and, eventually, political dissidents. When the excitement wore off, the Russian government realized how silly they’d been acting and decided to send people into space for serious research. Well, sort of. They sent a dog up first just for poops and giggles. But then they sent up a voluntary person. The first human being in orbit!
The overt silliness of the Russian space program really gives you some perspective on how lazy the Americans were being. While Russia was still messing around with sending trinkets into space “just ‘cuz,”[i] America somehow managed to be behind on every major development in space exploration. America was second in launching satellites, second in sending an animal into space (Although, they did send apes instead of dogs. NASA gave them all typewriters too in hopes that one of them would randomly type out the works of Shakespeare – in space – giving America eternal bragging rights.[ii] If that didn’t work out, at least America could brag that their space animals had opposable thumbs.[iii]), and second to have an astronaut in space.
Ham the chimp after his return to earth. Shortly after this picture was taken, he signed his last words, “Tell my wife I poop chair,” and then he died.iv No one was sure what he meant.
But America’s all about the wow factor. They just love pulling themselves together in the last minute for the win. And so, in Hollywood hero fashion, complete with the aforementioned confident slow-mo swagger and thumbs up, America went for the tie-breaking score in overtime: they put a man on the moon. Several men, in fact.
If the tried and true rules of colonialism still apply, and I see no reason why they don’t, America didn’t just go to the moon, America colonized the moon. In the first age of exploration (what we will call the Terrestrial Age of Exploration, to differentiate from the Age of Space Exploration, and because it sounds more futuristic), all a country needed to do to colonize another country is send men to that country in a ship and plant a flag in the soil. If a local population lived there, they had to find a way to force them into compliance. According to these rules, the moon is property of the United States of America. The US government sent men there who set foot on lunar soil and planted an American flag. America is the only country to have done this.[v] It just so happened there wasn’t a local population to subdue, but let’s face it. If there were, America would have subdued liberated them.
When you look at it that way, the only reason the moon still exists is because America hasn’t decided to nuke it into oblivion. There’s a great deal of conjecture among historians and political scientists about why America didn’t blow up the moon as a demonstration of power to the USSR. Some propose America feared it would invite the Soviets to retaliate by extinguishing the sun, but there’s little proof the Russians even knew the sun exists, so that seems a little farfetched. Others theorize, and I’m in this camp, that the greatest display of power America could have chosen was to not blow up the moon. That way its nightly appearance sends a clear message to planet earth: “If the moon shines on your country, it’s because America wants it to.” And in perhaps the greatest example of propaganda in history, it also turned the moon into a symbol of the light of democracy shining on the dark and oppressed places of the earth. It is for this reason that we will henceforth refer to the moon by its Cold War title, the Light Orb of Democracy.
The Space Race gave Americans an enemy to overcome, which is, if we’re honest, the only time when America is truly great. But the Space Race has also done a lot of good for the world that is often overshadowed by the exorbitant price of sending men beyond the atmosphere. A great many modern inventions that we could not, or would prefer not, to live without would never have been discovered without the space program. The truth is, people aren’t willing to spend billions of dollars into researching life-improving technology unless it stirs up their hope and imagination. The space program provides just that, thus it enables the government to research important technology we otherwise would never discover. A new, far more powerful version of rechargeable batteries was created by Black & Decker for the drills and tools used by the Apollo Light Orb of Democracy mission, because you can’t run a power cord 239,000 miles from earth to the Light Orb of Democracy. That technology is now in use in countless items like cell phones and laptops. Pacemakers use satellite telemetry technology; the millions of dollars spent on satellites literally save lives now. It’s doubtful if we would have pacemakers without having launched satellites first. I could name several other examples, and perhaps in a later post I will. But try going a week without your cell phone or laptop, and imagine a world in which men and women with heart defects can’t get a second chance at life, and think about how the space program has improved our lives. That, my fellow citizens of earth, is a very awesome thing.
<Future Week, Part IV
[i]Their words. Not mine.
[ii] “Hey, Yuri, remember the time you guys sent a dog into space and it piddled in orbit? That was right around the time our monkey MoMo typed out the complete works of Shakespeare in zero gravity. Ah, the memories!”
[iii] In space exploration, opposable thumbs are practically a requirement, as is the ability to walk on one’s hind legs. Otherwise, how is an astronaut to do the heroic, slow-mo walk onto the launch pad and give the confident thumbs up before take off? That’s why using chimps was such a big deal. They’re the only ones besides us who can pull it off.
[iv] No, he didn’t. He lived on until 1983.
[v] I was speaking with an English friend of mine about this topic once, and he said, and I quote, “The sun may never set on the British Empire, but neither has the earth risen on it.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.