Monday, September 24, 2018

On the plus side, the von Braun and Ley Zeppelin designs would make for some very cool steam-punk art

Sometimes, when wandering over what should be well explored territory you come across a pair of familiar facts that suddenly strike you as strange or even shocking when considered together.

I had one of those moments yesterday when thinking about our vanity aerospace thread, and specifically its relationship to the science-fiction and popular science writing of the postwar era. As previously mentioned, most of the "bold" and "visionary" proposals coming from billionaires like Paul Allen, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk are almost all similar and in some cases all but identical to the ideas being laid out by people like Werner von Braun and Willy Ley more than 60 years ago.

That alone is striking – – these are visions of the future are often older than the people making them – – but the full impact didn't hit me until I got to thinking about what looking back 60 or 70 years would've been like back when von Braun and Ley were first laying these ideas out for the public in popular magazine articles and Disney TV specials.

Take a minute to think about the technological gap between the world of the early 1950s and that of the late 1880s. The rocket scientists and their popularizers were discussing multistage rockets, radio communication and control, atomic energy. In the 1880s these subjects were, at best, the subject of speculation. In some cases, even the underlying physics was yet to be established.

When people in the 1950s looked back at how their grandparents imagine the future, the ideas seemed primitive and charmingly quaint. When we look back over a comparable interval, we see a view of the future which looks, or lack of a better word, futuristic. For me, at least, that's a rather depressing thought.

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