THE LAST OF THE SPACE AGE KIDS
A story of rocket ships and growing up by Cath Aubergine aged 39 and a half.
So the date has been set for the end of an era - Friday 8th July 2011. If all goes to plan, this is the date on which the Space Shuttle Atlantis will take off for its final round-trip. It will return to Earth a few days later, and with the other two surviving Shuttles already retired from service, as it hits the ground, so will the young dreams of the last Space Age generation. See this planet? It's all we've got, folks, it's all we're ever going to have - guess that's as good a reason as any to start trying to actually take care of it. This wasn't how it was supposed to be, though. This isn't the twenty-first century as imagined from the twentieth. I'm a child of the rocket age and I want my future back...
Just south of Manchester, Jodrell Bank Radio Telescope casts its otherworldly shadow across the Cheshire plain. As a small child I think I thought every town had one, chattering away to the stars. I could name all the planets in order before I even started school (and yes, to us Pluto will always be a planet and anyone who says otherwise can sod off) and they were all ours for the taking. There'd be allotments on Mars and holidays to Venus, white-knuckle rides through the asteroid belt and maybe, just maybe, scientists would find some signs of life on some faraway world. Popular culture had prepared us well - through books and television and films and comics we all knew what life would be like in the future, and most of it seemed to be happening just as it was meant to.
The relentless race for technological advance between the "Yanks" and "Commies" made the second half of the twentieth century a seriously exciting era in which to be growing up. Sure, most of the really cool stuff had been done by the time my seventies childhood arrived - the last human steps had fallen on the lunar surface towards the start of that decade - but still, the sorts of budgets today's inventors and engineers couldn't even allow themselves to dream of were ladled out to anyone with the Big Idea that would stick one on The Other Lot. The Space Age kids thought putting men on the moon was just the start - those allotments on Mars and holidays to Venus were surely just a decade or two away. By the middle of the 21st century our grandchildren would stop by on their rocket-bikes to show us, via video-phone, the cute little space-seamonster their mate's dad had brought back from a business trip to Neptune. We didn't know it was all just the biggest and most elaborate pissing contest in world history; even the grown-ups who did know mostly still hoped it would come to more than that. Well, I guess we got the video-phones.
I was nine years old, and whilst I understood the distinction between fact and fiction, the line was still rather blurred. Just because it was, in 1981, wasn't it? The exotic, other-worldly looking Adam And The Ants' "Kings Of The Wild Frontier" was in the pop charts, Tom Baker's Dr Who had just regenerated into Peter Davison in front of Jodrell Bank Radio Telescope (only years later did I discover it wasn't, actually; they'd used a model and a BBC receiving station down south - swizzled!) and there was a new spaceship that unlike all the rockets they'd sent up in the past could come back and land and fly again like an aeroplane. This was it, the start of the real space age. Because you could never have those allotments on Mars if you couldn't get back once you'd been up there tending your space turnips, could you? All that Sputnik and walking on the moon stuff was just the warm-up. They said they were going to build a space station, oribiting the Earth, and people would live up there and use it as their base for space experiments and the next stage of exploration. My favourite books were Hugh Walters' science-fiction for children series, "Journey to Jupiter", "Mission to Mercury" and the like (I just Googled him, seems he wrote about 25 of them and I probably read them all) and now they might come true!
I was, bizarrely, in Southern France the day the first shuttle went up. My mum taught French and had helped organise a school exchange trip, as they did in the 80s, and as her counterpart teacher had children of a similar age to me and my sister it seemed like a good idea to take the whole family over to stay with them - frankly this was weird enough in itself to kids whose only previous experience of holidays had been the annual week in Southport or Blackpool. Then to be sitting round in some stranger's living room, watching the Shuttle blast off for the first time while the TV commentary gabbled in a language I didn't understand... and yet somehow it really did feel like the future. There we were, an English family sat with a French woman and her Italian husband and half-Italian children and all over the world there were people watching this in loads of different languages. Suddenly the world seemed very, very small. A few days later the shuttle landed safely and the future had begun. The next shuttle launch was a bit less exciting, and after a couple more they didn't even bother showing them on the telly, but that was the point: in the Space Age kids' future, shuttle flight would be like getting on the ferry to France, just a means of transport built specifically for the conditions through which it had to travel.
Of course it was flawed, and we didn't know how much. Not until that crisp January morning when the corners cut at the design and development stage to be first off the line in that particular round of the superpower ding-dong, cost the lives of seven astronauts. We all know what it looked like, even those who weren't born in 1986: a burst of spiralling plumes against the deep blue-black sky, the last some would see of loved ones whose bodies they would never bury, and for the rest of us a universally iconic image of tragedy which would only be surpassed fifteen years later by a pair of burning tower blocks. A timely reminder that space travel was always going to be a dangerous pursuit. The allotments on Mars felt a little less likely from that day onward.
It wasn't as if Challenger represented the sudden death of the dream, though. The Titanic disaster didn't, after all, stop people crossing the Atlantic. I'm not even sure when the dream died - it wasn't a sudden death, just a gradual fade away. Maybe it was just what happens when you grow up; other girls would discover fairies didn't exist. The world was changing, and as the eighties drew to a close the Communist bloc collapsed - the pissing contest was over. In 1991 a crew of Soviet citizens set off aboard a Soyuz capsule bound for their country's space station Mir; they returned to Earth as just Russians. Within a couple of years the shuttles were transporting multi-national crews to the hub and helping to build the first truly International Space Station. The constant need for one-upmanship had dissolved - the Americans no longer felt the need to invest ridiculous sums of money in a manned mission to Mars just in case the Soviets had got one up their sleeves. And there were rumblings in some quarters about something called the greenhouse effect, and people saying that the world's oil and gas might run out sometime in the next century so maybe we shouldn't just piss it all up the wall and we should probably start diverting research budgets into renewable energy as opposed to more spaceships. It wasn't just me that was growing up.
There would, of course, continue to be manned space missions and shuttle flights. The remaining shuttle fleet would transport people and equipment to and from the International Space Station - not the holiday camp of our childhood dreams but a functional laboratory. There are no allotments on Mars, no holidays to Venus, no white-knuckle rides through the asteroid belt, and nor are there likely to be - not in my lifetime, and probably not ever. I was nine years old when the first shuttle launched, a bright and imaginative child full of hope with an exciting life ahead of me, and my generation could be anything we wanted to be. My thirties are nearly done, and I haven't accomplished much of note - most of us don't, though, do we?
As for that future, well, we got fragments of it. My sister and I played sci-fi games where we would pretend to have these mobile communication devices where we could not only talk to each other like phones, but get maps and information and stuff - there's a fair chance you're reading this on something not a million miles away from one. Hell, I wrote some of it on one. You can find out information on anything at the touch of a button. There's this amazing huge database where people are trying to collect together all human knowledge and constantly updating it, and if you click through to the right page it will tell you "The Space Shuttle is a reusable launch system and orbital spacecraft operated by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for human spaceflight missions." In a few days' time, "is" will become "was", and I'm not even sure why this is affecting me emotionally the way it is: maybe it's just that this is where the sci-fi dreams end for the last of the space age kids.