Off Piste: Failure to launch

Ever get the feeling you've been cheated? David J. Gunkel mourns the betrayal of his Cold War boyhood's dreams of jetpacks, lunar adventure and the futuristic allure of the metric system

April 29, 2010

It is possible to articulate both the wild, unrestrained optimism and eventual disappointment and betrayal of my entire generation in one word - jetpacks.

Some of you will immediately understand what I mean by this. For us, I need not say any more. We nod to each other knowingly and say the word with a profound sense of loss and sadness, recognising the full range of its complex connotations. But for those who find this somewhat impenetrable, let me explain.

I was born in 1962, in the middle of what is now called the space race, arguably one of the principal fronts in the Cold War. Five years earlier the Soviets had kicked our American asses, when the ominous beeping of Sputnik 1 threw down the gauntlet. Not to be outdone by our one-time ally-cum-opposing superpower, we immediately and frantically began making big plans. It started with a few Sputnik knock-offs, but quickly advanced to human-occupied spacecraft.

Although the Soviets were once again first off the starting block with cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin achieving the title of first man in space, the US was beginning to catch up. In May 1961, Alan Shepard, playing for the American team, made the first manned suborbital flight in a single-seat spacecraft. This milestone was quickly surpassed by John Glenn's orbital mission one year later.

These early efforts, organised under the moniker Project Mercury, were soon superseded by Gemini, which upped the ante with a year's worth of manned space missions that included a number of the greatest hits foretold by decades of science fiction: space walks, orbital rendezvous and docking. But the goal from the beginning was always, as President John F. Kennedy had charged, "landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth". Consequently, it was Apollo that really captured our imagination and got all the attention.

The kids who grew up in this period can be considered "space natives", if you will excuse the use of this rather cumbersome retronym. We grew up with the idea of outer space, we did not know a time prior to space exploration, and our heroes were not multimillion-dollar sports stars, entertainers or reality-show icons, but astronauts - buzz-cut, ex-military government employees who ascended into the heavens atop impressively modified intercontinental ballistic missiles.

This generation of children were too young to be properly considered members of the postwar baby boom and came too soon to be collected under the rubric "Generation X". We were, as Richard Hell later described it, the "blank generation", the empty space between these two sought-after and highly targeted demographic groups.

As the progeny of the space age, we were made explicit promises. We were, for example, promised Moonbases - sprawling complexes housing lunar scientists, rocket engineers and bold extraterrestrial explorations. In my mind, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Gerry Anderson's Moonbase Alpha from Space 1999 were documentaries. Why else title them with explicit deadlines?

We were also promised the metric system. Our elementary school classrooms were plastered with the revolutionary propaganda of all things metric. These promotional posters, implementation timelines and conversion charts were part of an elaborate plan to re-educate our generation for a future liberated from our parents' backward and outdated Imperial weights and measures. We were to have been the vanguard of a new age.

But most of all, we were promised jetpacks - shiny, futuristic and amazingly powerful personal flying machines. Although science fiction had been promoting the idea since the mid-1930s and every space cadet - Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, the Rocketeer - had one, the technology had, by the mid-1960s, become science fact.

Bell Aerosystems, one of the top-10 go-to vendors for Department of Defense contracts, had demonstrated a number of working models, the most famous being the Bell Rocket Belt, which was demonstrated in the James Bond film Thunderball (1965). No clever special effects were necessary; the film-makers used an actual working prototype. On the basis of this factual evidence, we were, by the 1980s at least, supposed to be jetting around town, filling up with propellant measured in litres, and marking the distance to our space-age George Jetson office buildings in kilometres. It was a compelling and seductive promise, and we believed every word of it.

Now, you may object that the word "promise" may be too strong, or you could conclude that I perhaps read too much into it. Clearly, you may say, every generation is told things about its future that do not necessarily come to pass. Adults unfortunately do this kind of thing all the time - just ask my eight-year-old son. In any event, these so-called "promises" are certainly not a contractual matter. At best they are nothing more than a kind of verbal agreement: things were said that just didn't work out as planned. That's how it goes; suck it up.

But I have documentation. In my basement, for instance, I have stacks of Popular Science and Popular Mechanics magazines that not only include dramatic images of actual working jetpacks on their covers, but also contain stories describing in great detail recent advances in jetpack technology, reviews of competing models and options, and even timelines and projected delivery dates.

I also have, rolled up and stashed in a corner, blueprints for a DIY jetpack, purchased for something like $15 from a classified advertisement at the back of one of these magazines. The procurement of these plans, as I recall, took great personal effort - pounding the pavement as a Milwaukee Journal paperboy - and emptied my entire savings. And we had Sean Connery's James Bond, the Cold War hero par excellence, who, as far as we could tell, actually flew a real working jetpack before our very eyes. In addition to this documentary evidence, I also have witnesses, others who grew up in the same period, in different parts of the world, and who will corroborate every aspect of my story. I therefore call the Scottish band We Were Promised Jetpacks as my first witness.

So what happened? I'm not entirely sure of the exact sequence of events, but there are a number of important milestones. First, the American public lost interest in the Moon and manned space exploration. The dramatic launches of the massive Saturn V rocket, the 382,500km journey to our nearest celestial neighbour and the lunar landings all became mundane occurrences barely worthy of a newspaper headline. Consequently, Apollo 15, 16 and 17 came and went with little fanfare.

Nasa tried to reinvigorate interest with the Lunar Rover Vehicle, which had its origins in Werner Von Braun's original plan for Moon exploration and even made an appearance on the cover of Popular Science in 1964. This tricked-out, extraterrestrial dune buggy allowed the astronauts of these later Apollo missions to joyride all over the Moon's surface, leaving indelible tracks in the dust.

But by 1972, it was clear that there was not going to be a Moonbase. When the upper half of Apollo 17's Lunar Excursion Module blasted off from the Moon's surface, it was obvious we were leaving for good, and there were no plans to come back any time soon.

And then Ronald Reagan was elected 40th president of the United States. Shortly after taking the oath of office in January 1981, he unceremoniously pulled the plug on the metric conversion plan. Overnight, the utopian promises of a logically organised base-10 metric future evaporated into thin air. Centimetres reverted to inches, grams needed to be converted back into obscure ounces, and the litres of jetpack propulsion fuel became uneventful gallons of increasingly expensive gasoline. The official story was that the conversion was going to be too expensive - highway signs would have to be changed, the scale at the local delicatessen would have to be recalibrated and milk cartons would need to be entirely redesigned. But I knew better; Reagan simply didn't like jetpacks.

Finally, the idea of the jetpack itself was abandoned. The glossy publications that had promoted and predicted a jetpack-powered future turned their attention to other, less interesting subject matters - solar houses, electric cars and personal computers.

Now, I have nothing against any of these late-20th-century innovations; they just weren't the jetpacks we had been promised. We had been told they were coming. We had seen the prototypes. We had patiently awaited delivery. And now nothing.

This was, as far as I was concerned, the final nail in the coffin of the space age. I could excuse the failed plans for a Moonbase. I was even able to explain away the collapse of our metric conversion plans. But giving up on the jetpack was simply asking too much.

They had promised us jetpacks, but they never came. This is the source of my generation's resentment and the cause of the profound and pervasive disappointment that we share. Say the word "jetpack", and we all, every one of us, immediately recognise the hopes and dreams it had embodied and the emptiness its absence has left behind.

After this acute disappointment, we needed to do something with all that anger and resentment. We needed some kind of outlet for our grief. And this is, I believe, the true origin of punk rock - one long and thoroughly pissed-off lamentation for our loss.

This also explains my generation's penchant for wearing black; we are in perpetual mourning for a future that was supposed to materialise but never happened. Johnny Rotten didn't know just how right he was when he snarled "no future for you".

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