What’s the biggest, most important invention/discovery/development ever in your lifetime? Of everything that’s happened since you were born, what do you feel has been the most significant for mankind and the world in general, not just for you and your family? Or, to put it slightly differently, after you pass away, what will people say was the biggest thing that happened during your era? For me, there’s been a lot that’s happened since I was born and I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about it for several years. The development of the computer? The development of a vaccine against polio? (Don’t laugh, the two polio vaccines have undoubtedly saved millions, perhaps billions, of lives since they were put into use.) The complete elimination of smallpox from the earth? The establishment of the United Nations? The ability to control a nuclear chain reaction, as in an atomic power plant? The uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction in the New Mexico desert in 1945? Something else? The first issue of Playboy?
For me, I gravitate toward something else. My pick would be the development of manned spaceflight. As I look back over what’s happened in my lifetime, that’s the one thing I can say I’m proudest to have been alive during its development. I think that’s partly because it was a tremendous development that utilized the best and the brightest of the world’s scientists, but partly because it’s just the beginning of a big explosion in spaceflight that will take humans (and maybe a few cats and dogs) to other worlds and planets and moons, and, yes, even stars. We’re on our way, and nothing is going to stop us. We may encounter stumbling blocks along the way–and here I’m thinking not only of disasters like Columbia and Challenger, but funding issues and even a lack of commitment and disagreements among political leaders–but we’re on our way and I’m proudest to be able to say I was alive during that time in our planet’s history.
Science fiction has even played a role in that too. Many of the outer space adventures we’ve had over the past fifty years or so were first described in science fiction stories. Artificial satellites, spacesuits, moon walking, a manned space station, you name it and it’s appeared in science fiction at one time or another. It’s been a great time to be alive, and a couple hundred years from now people will look back on what we did and some will ask, “What was so great about being alive at that time?” and others will answer, “They got to actually see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon!” They’ll do that in the same way some might ask what was so great about being alive in the late eighteenth century? And we’ll answer, “They got to see the War of Independence and the invention of the United States.”
I would love to have been able to meet George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. Or Neil Armstrong.