Over the past several years I have come to the deep realization that I grew up in what I would call the age of aerospace (followed hard by the age of electronics). From my earliest childhood I was fascinated with machines that could fly and avidly read magazines and books on everything connected with aircraft, missiles and rockets. Such material was very plentiful, from the famous US Army Book on Amateur Rocketry (see http://rocketsciencebooks.home.att.net/ft-sill-guide.html ) to periodicals and special issues available on every news stand.
What I did not know as a child was why there was so much material, and why there was so much “cache” attached to the study of aerospace technologies. In retrospect it is of course all very obvious – the Second World War, the rise of the Soviet Union, Sputnik, and all that. Very much a child of the times was I.
By the time I graduated from the University of Toronto’s Institute for Aerospace Studies, my view of the world had changed substantially but I noticed that Aerospace, and its now powerful offspring Electronics, still dominated the horizons of engineering. I attempted to introduce a program on Environmental Engineering Science at the University of Toronto in the early 70’s, but it was not well received. Aerospace and Electronics graduates were held in high esteem, while those pursuing careers in what one might call the “provisioning of society” were not. Somehow the engineering of water, power and waste disposal were considered almost low tech, and never accorded the prestige and respect accorded to the “rocket scientists”.
I thought that this was somehow out of whack, and that gradually things would change. That we would see grand challenges to understand the physics, biology and chemistry of the vastly more complex systems for societal provisioning, and that these would lead to a revolution in the importance of the associated engineering systems. So far this has not happened. We have not seen a race for clean water like the race to the moon that so dominated the public imagination in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.
The race for the moon was in itself a supreme irony. It supported the illusion of yet more “frontiers” to explore and conquer. It was a kind of mass denial that the earth had now been entirely occupied, and there were no more “places to go”. It was a distraction from the facts of the globalization of the human race. The reality of past ages of physical economic expansion was subverted to the romance of adventure and exploration. The final frontier indeed.
The race for the moon was also driven by the spectre of nuclear annihilation, the possibility of which in itself denied the finite character of our globe.
The age of aerospace is over. We are now faced with a looming crisis every bit as large as that of nuclear war. The challenges in terms of technology and science are likely more daunting than the race for the moon. Will we rise to the challenge?