Thursday, 14 July 2011

Death, Rockets and Linda Lusardi

You'll have to indulge me - I've come over all nostalgic for my childhood. Days of innocence, guileless optimism and good clean fun. Fuck you up the arse if you don't like it (see what I've become?).

Tonight, when I got home from what passes for my career, my four year old son greeted me at the door with the words "Daddy, why did your daddy die?" [Background: my old man died just over two years ago, at the age of 60, from a series of strokes caused by working too hard, drinking too much, smoking like a dirty chimney and foolishly having 4 kids in quick succession with his second wife. The strokes would probably have finished him off by themselves, but they were followed swiftly by a dose of the NHS house cocktail (c. difficile + MRSA, shaken over lack of interest with a splash of poor hygeine) so he never really stood a chance.] Anyway, this is the first time my son has ever talked about him dying, and to be frank it kicked the shit out of me. "I fink he loved you, Daddy, and he loved me too. Why did he die? You're not going to die, are you daddy?" (No, really, he actually said this. If I didn't know he'd been at school I'd think he'd been watching crappy daytime movies on Channel 5 all day.) Well, as you can probably imagine, it ever so slightly fucked me sideways.

This new-found interest my son has suddenly developed in human mortality is entirely my fault - over the weekend I showed him YouTube footage of the last ever launch of the shuttle - STS-135, or Atlantis as it's known to non-geeks (I'm a geek). He was utterly smitten, and I was suddenly very sad that he was going to grow up in a world without the Space Shuttle, so I showed him some more videos of the Shuttle and other space type stuff. Unfortunately, he then spotted an image of the Challenger disaster and asked me what it was. I showed him the video, and when he asked "where did the rocket go?" explained that it had "gone wrong" and that the astronauts flying on it had died. He didn't quite understand at first, but then he seemed to get it, and he asked "why did it go wrong?" I tried to explain that it was partly because silly people had forgotten to check important bits of the rocket, and partly that it was just something that happened when people try to do extraordinary things. He was sad for a minute or so, then asked to see "the gone wrong one" again. And again. And again. Evil-minded little tosspots, these four year olds...

Then it dawned on me that he's going to grow up in a world where people just don't do extraordinary things anymore. I know this sounds drearily whiney, almost Clarksonesque in its petulance, but if you think about it, it's true. I was born in 1973 and, as a result spent my formative years living in a special place called the 1980s. I remember being in awe of the huge number of unfeasibly cool things that human ingenuity and derring-do had wrought - Concorde, the SR-71 Blackbird spyplane, the DeLorean DMC-12 and the Lamborghini Countach, James Bond's submarine Lotus Esprit, Evel Knievel, the X-Wing and the Millennium Falcon, Formula 1 races where the cars actually overtook each other, the Raleigh Chopper... You get the picture.

Here's the picture just in case you didn't get it. Nothing this cool has ever been made since.

These things are all gone. Concorde because it crashed once and was a bit too expensive for the grey-minded beancounters at BA, the Blackbird because the CIA decided satellites were more useful (even though in the time it took to move an orbiting box into position over an area of interest, the Blackbird could've got there and back 10 times), the DeLorean because (okay) it was a bit shit, Formula 1 is a tedious parade of safety devices on wheels, and the Chopper disappeared after a kid fell off one in Droitwich (fact). James Bond's cars no longer fly, shoot missiles or go underwater - instead, they're equipped with defibrillators, first aid kits and a digital connection to Claims Direct. Evel Knievel broke every bone in his body and then inconveniently died, and no one's taken over from him. Lamborghini still makes fast pointy cars but they're now owned by the same company that makes the VW Polo. And the spaceships in the lastest Star Wars films look like they were designed by a committee of vegetarian manic-depressives.

The Challenger disaster was a major catalyst in all this. First launched in 1983, Challenger was by far the busiest and best of NASA's fleet of shuttles, the first to have a payload capacity large enough to attract commercial and military clients and thereby realise NASA's intention of running a profitable orbital delivery program. Its first mission (STS-6) saw the first space walk by any astronaut in over 10 years, and on its 4th mission in 1984, the astronaut Bruce McCandless did this:

Imagine the size of his balls
McCandless is completely on his own out there, strapped to a previously untested jetpack which might have left him stranded in space, floating around until he ran out of air and either plummeted into the atmosphere or got eaten by space sharks. Yes, space sharks. They existed in the 1980s, too. They did. Look them up if you don't believe me.

That image of a human man floating free in space is one of the most enduring images of my childhood memory, along with this:

This was an actual, real thing


We were told we weren't going to need roads where we were going. Tell that to the M25.

And this:

Linda Lusardi - in 1987 the sexiest thing most 14 year olds would see*
*outside of their mum's Littlewoods catalogue

Oh, Linda. Linda, Linda, Linda. The things I would have imagined doing to you if they'd been invented in 1987 and I'd been old enough to know about them.

Moving on.

Two further untethered EVAs (geek speak) took place in 1984 - one more from Challenger, one from Discovery. This was the future - mankind floating around in space unconnected to anything. Then in 1987 Challenger blew up, and when NASA finally grew its balls back and started Shuttle operations again, it was decided that untethered EVAs were just too dangerous. Since then, any spacewalks have been conducted using technology not discernibly different from that used in the 1960s. Sadly, at the same time, the commercial sector and the military decided that they'd rather send their satellites up on rockets (strange, given that rockets were statistically far more likely to blow up) and the dream of a profit-making Space Shuttle died. From that point on, the entire Shuttle program was doomed. Last Friday, it shuffled off its mortal coil and another piece of my childhood died with it.

I suppose I'm just getting old, but it seems there's a lot less amazement out there for kids, even with all the technical advancements made in the last 20+ years. Consider how children today interact with computers - if they notice them at all, they're virtually part of the furniture. My kids treat my stupidly clever and ridiculously poncey MacBook as just another TV which happens to contain pictures, videos and games of every single thing they can imagine (known to us dreary adults as "the internet"). If such a thing had existed when I was a kid, I think my head would have exploded in wonderment. We had a Commodore 64, then a ZX Spectrum, then a BBC Micro and finally an Archimedes. These were awesome machines that did impossible things with cassettes and 8-inch floppy disks. My kids could probably build a Spectrum out of Lego and a deflated balloon, but back then it was like staring into the unfathomable visage of a strange and powerful god. Technology is now a right, not a privilege. Innovation happens every day but it's consumer-focused and mainly passes unnoticed. I remember being amazed when our old rotary telephone was replaced with a wondrous new device with a keypad. I get the impression if I was to come home tomorrow with a fully functioning battle droid, my eldest son would barely look up from his interminable AlphaBlocks DVD, and my youngest would pee on it before wondering off to dismantle the dishwasher. Again.

One day, I hope there will be tourism in space, and hypersonic passenger planes, and flying cars and R2D2s and a new version of the Chopper with laser wheels and holographic handlebars. My kids need more than 3D cartoons and interactive curling on the Wii...