The Atlas rocket is a former ICBM that was used as the orbital launch vehicle for NASA's mercury program.

The Atlas rocket is a former ICBM that was used as the orbital launch vehicle for NASA’s mercury program.

In 1964, a student asking for advice about what field to go into probably would have been given the one word answer “Space”.

Fifty years ago, predicting that mankind would continue to expand our exploration of space was as obvious as saying the Sun was going to rise in the east the next morning. The United States, believing itself in competition with the Soviet Union, was spending billions of dollars every year to develop new rockets, to retrofit old military missiles for peaceful exploration of space, and to develop long-term space travel abilities. It seemed obvious to everyone that after such an intense investment in outer space, there was no way the world would back away from long-term exploration of the solar system.

The expected development path could be seen most clearly in Stanley Kubrock and Arthur C. Clarke’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was beginning preproduction just around the time of the end of the 1964 World’s Fair.  2001 showed a future in which governmental monopolies of space would be augmented by corporate partners. The Space Shuttle shown in the movie is owned, or at least operated by, Pan American World Airways. Hilton Hotels, the Howard Johnson’s restaurant chain, and AT&T picture phones can be found in an orbiting space station that’s run not by the military, but by a bureaucrat in a tight fitting suit. And the most important thing about 2001 is that the movie is not about “how we got into space”.  Kubrick and Clarke (who were writing the movie in New York City during the 1964 World’s Fair), accepted the premise that we just would go.

A Titan II in the Rocket Park at the New York Hall of Science.  This former ICBM was the launch vehicle for NASA's Gemini space program.

A Titan II in the Rocket Park at the New York Hall of Science. This former ICBM was the launch vehicle for NASA’s Gemini space program.

The rockets in Rocket Park right outside the New York Hall of Science were meant to be springboards to that future, and they emphasized both the World’s Fair theme of “peace through understanding”. The two rockets currently on display, an Atlas D and a Titan II, were examples of swords being beaten into plowshares: both rockets had actually been developed as intercontinental ballistic missiles. Their original purpose was to be fitted with thermonuclear weapons and fly halfway around the world to destroy targets in the Soviet Union. The fact that they were now being used to boost astronauts into Earth orbit for peaceful purposes — the Atlas D for the Mercury space program, and the Titan for Gemini — filled World’s Fairgoers with hope for the future.

Unbeknownst to them as they were wandering through the fairgrounds, that hope was being strangled. By the mid 1960s, Congress, which had usually appropriated every penny NASA had asked for, started to close its purse. (The agency’s 1965 budget was the highest, in constant dollars, it would ever be — last year’s appropriation was half that.) Before long NASA found itself cutting moon landings, as well as nearly all long-term space development projects. Members of the Nixon administration who arranged the budget cuts were assured that the private sector would step in with their own space programs.

Then a really weird thing happened: the future didn’t. Without government as a full time broad-visioned partner, commercial development of space found itself limited to satellite launches. Pan-Am’s space shuttle, Orbital Hiltons, and Howard Johnson’s “Earthlight” dining room never happened.

But then makers stepped in.  Thanks to crowdfunding,  Makers are developing plasma jet engines for spacecraft and Arduino-based satellites, and everything from near-space balloons to lunar orbiters can be found on Rockethub.

World Maker Faire New York doesn’t have any rockets to offer (New York City has strict laws against firing rockets anywhere but a few designated locations), but futuristic flying fun abounds.  Zone 4, home to both the Fly Zone and the Game of Drones, is definitely a place to check out.