Chapter 4: Past — We took the sky

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Growing up in a house which was in the flight path of Air Force jets was equally exciting and maddening. These hunks of metal would pass so closely to our house while landing, that we could easily see the type of aircraft it was, its landing gear and almost its pilot. The roar of jet engines would shake the entire house. Mercifully, they usually flew during the day time. It certainly became routine for us and Pluto, our cocker spaniel. Looking back, I was most intrigued by the different generations of aircrafts that flew by. It was clear to see the evolution in designs from one generation to the other. The most recent iteration looked sharper, could carry more ammunition and for some reason, seemed more in the pilots’ control than its predecessors.

Wright brothers Wright Flyer. Credit John T. Daniels

If we wind our clocks back to time before 1903, flying was considered an impossible dream to achieve. Even with gliders and powerful engines, ‘controlled’ flight was difficult. A simple gust of wind would knock the plane down. That was until the Wright brothers came along and proved we could sustain long distance flights. Their idea was to give absolute control to the pilot, which was contrary to the prevalent thinking of the time. It was thought powerful engines are more important, and the pilot should just ‘keep the plane steady’. But the Wright brothers added better controls on the fixed wing plane, allowing pilots to turn and roll, like a bird. They also revolutionized how data was gathered and evaluated to make their designs better. This is a well known example of human ingenuity pushing the boundaries of our imagination.

Human ingenuity is important, but unfortunately the most productive catalyst has been conflicts. Though the scientific community largely tried to remain neutral, wars would not have had the intended explosiveness without their involvement. Several such cataclysmic events contributed to the creation of our current space programs.

Multiple V2 rockets launching. Artist Unknown

The most interesting events happened at the end of World War II, when the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as two superpowers. They divided many of Germany’s assets at that time. Most important to space exploration being the V2 rocket program. These were the world’s first long range guided missiles. Germany’s rocket technology, led by Wernher von Braun, was far along, but they could only think of sinister ways of using it. Their main goal was to fire these rockets at enemy cities. With no prior warning or effective defense against them, these rockets caused havoc wherever they struck. So it was abundantly clear how vital this technology was going to be for modern warfare.

At the end of the war, the advancing US army reached the German V2 rocket production factory. Though the possession of this factory was handed over to the Russian army, the US was able to move several rocket components and started to secretly recruit prominent German scientists to continue research in rocket technology. The Soviet Union did the same.

Kurt H. Debus, a former V-2 rocket scientist who became a NASA director, sitting between President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1962. Credit NASA

Thus, from the ashes of evil, under intense secrecy, began the space race. It led to some of the most amazing human achievements. There’s also an important lesson there — science doesn’t care about your politics or beliefs, it only cares about solving the next problem. A society that doesn’t invest in scientific endeavors denies itself the fruits of scientific progress.

An early V-2 rises into the sky over White Sands, New Mexico. (U.S. Army)

These V2 rockets were used for the foundational work, like taking initial scientific measurements in space, testing guidance mechanisms and even taking the first picture of Earth from space. Bigger successes soon followed. Russian astronaut, Yuri Gagarin, became the first human to journey into outer space. His Vostok spacecraft completed one orbit around Earth, on 12th April 1961. Other successes included the first space walk and the first woman in space. The American space mission played catch up during most of this period.

Apollo 11 astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin photographed this iconic shot, a view of his footprint in the lunar soil, as part of an experiment to study the nature of lunar dust and the effects of pressure on the surface during the historic first manned moon landing in July 1969. (Image credit: NASA)

But, as we all know, this chapter of space rivalry finally ended on July 20th 1969, when NASA landed Apollo 11 on the Moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on another planetary body.

Both countries tried outwitting each other and in doing so, tried outspending each other as well. But no one can deny the technological innovations this rivalry kick-started.

The flip side of this progress also needs to be remembered. As anyone who has lived through the Cold War knows, the threat of Global Nuclear War was ever present. The progress made in terms of precision & scale of nuclear weapons during this time is incomparable to any other advancement in weapons systems. The threat of nuclear weapons, delivered via ICBM, was so omnipresent during that time, that it impacted our culture & everyday lives in every way — from building fallout shelters, to drills in schools, to countless movies based on our capacity to destroy ourselves. Two such movies standout for me —

Peter Sellers in Dr Strangelove

First is Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964). Originally intended to be written as a serious movie, the reality of Cold War changed that. What we ended up with is a dark comedy, a mockumentary of sorts, on the realities of nuclear war and how far the two sides are willing to take it.

NORAD supercomputer known as the WOPR in WarGames

The second is John Badham’s WarGames(1983). Starring Matthew Broderick, the movie follows a teenage hacker who somehow opens a back door and initiates a “Global Thermonuclear War” game with a military supercomputer.

It’s all fun and games until we realize the supercomputer is moving chess pieces that represent the real thing. All of which could trick the American or the Soviet Union forces to launch a full scale nuclear war. The movie scared president Reagan enough to draft new anti hacker laws. This led to the very first Presidential directive on Computer Security. Various incarnations of that directive have survived even today.

What jumped at me after watching these movies was their underlying message — the futility of it all. At the end of Dr Strangelove, a doomsday device that would destroy everything gets activated. The characters are left with discussing the post-apocalyptic world. In the case of WarGames, the supercomputer figures out that it could play by itself towards a no-win scenario. Highlighting that humans are unmatched in finding ways to destroy ourselves many times over.

Buzz Aldrin climbs down the Eagle’s ladder to the surface. Credit NASA

Mutually agreed destruction kept the two sides in check. Surely a better way to survive is to invest in our collective progress, rather in our destruction . The events from 1903–1969 did not happen in my lifetime. Yet, they are humanity’s shared accomplishments and continue to inspire generations. Let our curiosity drive us forward, and not fear of each other!

P.S. Would love to know if you had a favorite Cold War movie in the comments below 👇

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Abhinav Yadav

Abhinav Yadav

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Engineer. Optimist. Top Writer 🚀. Interested in Science & its perception by our Society 🔭