Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The future that never was (1)

We live in a time, we're always told, of unprecedented change, a roller coaster ride of fast accelerating technology which thrills us space travelling canines and terrifys the whining euro-weenie left.

Except those of us who were pups in previous decades sometimes feel just a little bit cheated. Nearly 40 years after Neil and Buzz landed on the moon we're still messing about on the ISS in low earth orbit. There is no-one further from earth right now than I got in 1959. Really, was I despatched up there in vain? Where are the moon stations? It was Space 1999 for heaven's sake! Where is our mission to Mars? There were collectable cards in packets of English tea in the early seventies which specifically promised these things!

THE MANNED FLIGHT TO MARS
"America's plan for a manned expedition to Mars involves two nuclear-powered spaceships, each carrying six astronauts, launched (according to one plan), on Nov. 12, 1981. Reaching Mars on Aug. 9, 1982, each vehicle would orbit the planet for 80 days while unmanned probes, followed by three men from each ship, would descend to carry out scientific research and collect samples. During the return to Earth (landing on Aug. 141 1983) the expedition would fly past Venus to observe the planet and use its gravity to reduce speed."

As Seinfeld asked, where are the undersea cities? Why don't you all autogyro to work? When did we decide we didn't want huge cart wheeling space stations and were quite happy with IPods instead. 2001 was supposed to be a mission to meet aliens around Jupiter, not a mythical millenium bug! When exactly did the future become virtual?

Millitary technology has moved on apace in many ways, precision JDAM munitions and fifth generation fighters like the F-22 Raptor are incredible works of engineering.

And yet. The best air superiority fighter in the USAF in 1976 was the F-15 Eagle, a great fighter indeed, but 30 years later it's still the mainstay in the air. The hulking B-52 bomber remains a front line aircraft more than 50 years on from its first flight on May 15, 1952!. The C-130 Hercules has found a new lease of life as a formidable gunship whille Vietnam era Chinooks still provide most of our heavy lift helicopters, fine aircraft one and all but come on!


Britain went from spit and brown paper biplanes in 1937 to jet fighters in 8 years flat. Yes, there was a world war, yes there was the cold war, yes wars act as tremendous spurs to innovation and development.

And yet. There was a future which never happened.

Take a look at this.

It was cancelled not because it was a failure, but because its mission was replaced by ICBMs. Yes, it was vulnerable to Soviet SAMs, because it couldn't manovere or fly low level missions but I don't care. It should have flown like Concorde, as a work of art alone. It's the most beautiful plane there never was. This is part of the future which never happened.



Straight out of a thunderbirds episode. This is the incredible B-70 Valkyrie Mach 3 bomber which was designed to replace the B-52 in a programme which began in 1955. That's over 50 years ago. This is an aircraft which would seem incredibly futuristic if it was flashing over our heads today.

The British equivilent was the stunning TSR2.

A British heavy strike aircraft which, had it not been cancelled by a myopic, penny pinching labour government more determined to destroy the British aircraft industry than fight the Soviets, would have been by far the best aircraft of its type in the world in its day. Hell, it'd still be flying today. Labour bruiser Denis Healy, in cancelling the plane in 1965, said the far inferior American F-111 would be a cheaper option.

In the end the RAF didn't even get that. The British Government bought the inferior American F-4 Phantom instead. But, as a sop to local industry, they were Rolls Royce Spey engines. These were more powerful, but required more fuel, which cut the plane's range, which meant drop fuel tanks had to be fitted, which left the plane slower and less manouverable than it had been with the American engines. I know a dog's dinner when I see one - The Phantoms were extremely expensive, couldn't hold a candle to the TSR2 and, as air superiority fighters, were comprehensively outflown by the wonderfully purist BAC Lightning until its retirement in 1988. The 3 nation MRCA Tornado, which formed the mainstay of the RAF for 20 years, was a slightly inferior TSR2 produced 15 years late. Why are we pouring money into welfare, sapping the moral fibre of our youth, instead of investing in wonder weapons just for the sheer beauty of it all? What are we? French?

Forget Retropolis. Let's get on with it!


Painting by Christian Kesler

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