The Space Age

14 July 2010


The Space Age began with Sputnik.

The work of historical periodization is never finished; there are always more ways to divide history into discreet periods. This is the case, and will continue to be the case, because time is a continuum that can be cut at any point. To formulate it a little differently, time has no “natural” points of division based on the internal structure of time itself, so that any divisions we make in time are based upon mundane events that supervene upon the continuum of time.

I have many times dealt with technological and demographic changes that have had major consequences for human life, and I have called the most significant periods defined in this way to be the divisions of integral history. Some of my posts on integral history were read by T. Greer of the Scholar’s Stage blog, and in a comment on my piece on The Division of Labor wrote this comment:

“Division of labor has another connection to integral history, generally speaking — the first integral shift, from hunter-gatherers to civilized society — was a shift in specialization and complexity. Few hunter-gatherer bands allow for any division of labor. It is with sedentary societies that divisions of class and occupation — in essence, divisions of labor — first can be seen.”

I responded to Mr. Greer’s comment on The Division of Labor but I didn’t note there that Mr. Greer had introduced the term “integral shift,” which I am now adopting to indicate the transitions between periods of integral history.

Yesterday in Promoting Democracy I employed this terminology to make the point that, “…the shift away from the duality of naval and land power to the preeminence of air power represents an integral shift in military history.” This comment in turn was intended to develop the point I made the day before in A Glimpse at the Near Future of Combat that, “…one can foresee a time in the near future when air superiority is the only military superiority that matters, and becomes the ultimate determinant of combat power and efficacy.”

The theme of my post on A Glimpse at the Near Future of Combat was the inevitable development of a weapons system that combines universal tracking and identification of sea traffic feeding into precision munitions targeting delivered by hypersonic unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV). This combines rapidity and precision in a way that would pretty much render carrier strike groups obsolete. What we are talking about is striking almost any target, almost anywhere in the world, in less than a hour, and probably with a degree of precision that minimizes collateral damage, with miniaturized warheads that will decisively destroy their targets.

This military exploitation of aviation technology may constitute what I above called in integral shift in military affairs. But aviation technology also has a civilian side that is possibly as consequential as its military side.

Recently one of my sisters, who is a commercial pilot (and who recently wrote the guest post in this forum, Small Town America), read what I wrote about extraterrestrialization and wrote me the following in response:

I know that a lot of people lump all of the Industrial Revolution together, but really, and I may be biased, it was aviation that opened up the world. Trains made the west accessible, but the first 50 years of aviation, from 1900 to 1950 when jet aircraft were introduced, were the BIG PUSH in global access. And you could include space travel in aviation. So I wouldn’t group aviation into the Industrial Revolution. I’d make it separate, including the space age.

This is a point well worth taking, and of course it has been a commonplace to refer to the Space Age. In fact, it almost seems a little quaint and old fashioned to speak of the Space Age because the term was used so frequently in the middle of the twentieth century and then fell into disuse. Hannah Arendt in her book Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought includes as one of these exercises “The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man,” as though the ability to launch Sputnik constituted a “conquest” of space rather than the first tentative probing of the space of near earth orbit.

While we have not “conquered” space, the age of mass aviation is very much upon us, and this is certainly the first step in the opening of the Space Age. When the civil aviation system was shut down for a few days after 11 September 2001, and again more recently in Europe as a result of the volcano in Iceland, it caused a significant disruption in business as usual.

If we take together the pervasive nature of mass civilian aviation today together with the emerging centrality of air power in armed conflict, we can see that the introduction of rapid air transportation has indeed marked a decisive transition in human history. And when the technology is mastered that will allow us to have similarly rapid and routine travel between the surface of the earth and space, we will be at the tipping point of extraterrestrialization.

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One Response to “The Space Age”

  1. T. Greer said

    With no fault to your sister, I have trouble accepting her point. It is true, planes revolutionized warfare and connected people from distant lands in a way no other technology has. However, the impacts of our flying machines does not extend much past this. Consider global shipping. The number of ships that crossing the Atlantic on a given day is ten times the number of planes making the same voyage; the total cargo tonnage on the ocean dwarfs that in the air. Travel by canal and ocean displaced travel by cart and wagon wherever it physically could. Travel by air has not had the same revolutionary effect.

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