Yeah, where ARE the flying cars??

It was a Tuesday, and a cold afternoon in February, 1962. Ten years old at the time, I sat in class in Houston, Texas, with my friends Johnny Nicholas, David Snow and Roberta Holiday. Mr. Davis wheeled in a huge old TV and we watched the launch. Friendship 7 was headed into space with John Glenn aboard.

It was a big deal to me, and I was on the edge of my seat. Just the year before, I’d discovered science fiction in the local library, a simplistic children’s fantasy story titled Zip-Zip Goes to Venus, and I could not get enough of SF.

Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land had been published in 1961, but living in a time and place where pre-teens were protected from the infinite horrors of sex, I would not be allowed to discover it for another four years or so.

I had had to settle for Tom Swift Jr. — embarrassing literary monsters such as Tom Swift and His Spectromarine Selector! Tom Swift and the Visitor from Planet X! Tom Swift and His Triphibian Atomicar! (I was tickled decades later to learn that the taser had been named for Tom Swift’s Electric Rifle.)

But I’d also discovered Zenna Henderson’s wonderful Pilgrimage: The Book of the People, and Alan E. Nourse’s Tiger by the Tail. Best of all was H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy, a first contact story of short, furry aliens who surely must have served as the model for Ewoks.

Space! We were going there. All of us together, in our imaginations, and some of us for real, as individuals. It might be anybody. It might be me.

Those early dreams evolved into quite a different future for me, but I never lost the delight in what might be possible, and what became real.

It’s why I like this so much:

But the spectacle also sparks a certain disappointment. On Feb. 20 of 2012, it will be 50 years since the launch of the Friendship 7. It was 50 years ago THIS year, on April 12, 1961, that Yuri Gagarin flew the first manned orbital mission.

I know things take time, but … dayyum.

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  • fastlane

    It’s mostly about political will, unfortunately.

    We’d rather spend the money bombing brown people than exploring space.

  • Rasmus

    I suppose the cost of a TSA checkpoint at the entrance of every garage would be somewhat prohibitive…

    That’s a brilliant timelapse. I’ve been looking for a good film clip of thunderstorms seen from space.

  • mywall

    Why the obsession with flying cars? Surely more interesting things have been invented since 1961?

  • Alfarr Hotei

    Well, you’re certainly not the only one who’s tired of waiting for progress on this field.
    One of the most interesting projects I’ve seen recently is Copenhagen Suborbitals. As an amateur nonprofit organisation, they are trying to find out if building rockets and launch systems to carry humans into space really has to be so prohibitively expensive.
    The surprising answer so far appears to be “No”. It’s just that the traditional space-faring agencies have locked themselves into using expensive, dangerous technologies like solid fuels, and that there is a great amount of bureaucracy involved in getting permission to launch from land.

    SpaceX is having success using liquid fuels and CS is building and lauching some of the largest ever amateur rockets using hybrid fuels and sea launch platform.

    So I think we may be picking up speed again. Just don’t expect the next leaps of progress to come from the old guard :)

  • Johnny Vector

    Alfarr, I don’t know where you got the idea that ” traditional space-faring agencies have locked themselves into using expensive, dangerous technologies like solid fuels.” All the major launchers are liquid fueled, and have been since, well, the V-2. You’re fooling yourself if you think SpaceX has some magic formula that Boeing and Lockheed-Martin and Arianespace have managed to miss for 50 years. There are almost 2000 communications satellites in orbit; the big boys have had plenty of incentive to make launching cheaper.

    20 years ago the hype was about Orbital’s shiny new Pegasus XL rocket, launched from a plane, new technology, w00t! And now? The Pegasus is another option when launching, good for some applications, not as good for others, and right in the ballpark of cost per kg.

    Not to say that small companies might not manage to make a better rocket, but don’t get your hopes up after one or two test launches. Getting to orbit cheaper will happen when there is a materials breakthrough of some kind (like aluminum alloys did for commercial air flight). And that could come from anywhere.

  • davidct

    We seem to be more motivated by fear and survival these days. I remember the 60′s as a time of dreams. Many seem silly now but we have lost much with over the years of the idea that anything might be possible. It is hard to dream when we are always at war over something.

  • Alfarr Hotei

    Alfarr, I don’t know where you got the idea that ” traditional space-faring agencies have locked themselves into using expensive, dangerous technologies like solid fuels.”

    From the land of stupid, apparently. Oh well, it’s not the first time that’s happened. Nor the last, I suspect.
    What I should have said was a bit more specific, relating to the fact that even Ariane 5 and NASAs newest design is still using solid fuel boosters for some reason.

    SpaceX seems to be coming forth with a somewhat safer and more modular design.
    Though not necessarily much cheaper, no.

    Because you’re right. There’s unlikely to be some “magic formula” anywhere.

    But the thing that makes CS interesting is exactly the fact that they are not using any hugely expensive materials to build their rockets. The hybrid fuels they use for their rockets is less effective but also much cheaper and easier to handle in general.
    Admittedly, while such a philosophy works for suborbital rockets, it may be unlikely that they will ever be able to scale it up to orbital operations (though I know they are thinking about it as a possible future). It brings rocket science down to earth somehow. And if nothing else, it lets me continue dreaming.

    Oh, by the way, getting nominated for the World Technology Awards must be quite an ego-boost for them, considering the competition. They are literally just a small group of enthusiasts in a workshop ;)

  • Janstince

    Actually, this is a question I get all the time when I tell people I’m an engineer (despite the fact that I work in HVAC controls systems and have no experience in the field of rocketry).

    Where are the flying cars, huh? Why don’t regular folk have the ability to go into space? Launch a rocket from a field? Space hotels and moon bases?

    Well, the last 3 mostly have to do with expense and expertise, as pointed out above. As for the flying cars, though, I always ask them, “How many car accidents do we have each year? How much worse would it be to have an accident in a car that was travelling around 300 mph or more, and had a much lower chance of being contained on a road?”

    The point is, will flying cars for the general populace really be conceivable, even if the technology is there?

  • RickU

    I loved Tom Swift Jr.

    I really hope my parents still have the collection in the basement so my sons can read it…along with Heinlein, Niven and Pournelle and all of the other great Science Fiction writers that helped shape me.

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