Here’s what scientists in 1980 thought the future would look like

In the late 1970s, United States scientists were optimistic about our future explorations of the Cosmos. The country had gone to the moon already, and it was only a matter of time before NASA took manned exploration missions further and further into the expanse of space. It was in this time that a magazine called Future Life debuted.

An offshoot of Starlog, a magazine for science-fiction fans, Future Life was focused more on the “science” part of the popular genre. We got our hands on several old issues of the magazine; and while it’s interesting to look back after almost 35 years following the publication of the final issue, it’s mostly a little sad to see that the optimism and excitement of the time has vanished.

Today’s technology companies have developed more and more ways to make our experiences on Earth more manageable; meanwhile, the attempt to colonize space has largely fallen to the wayside with governmental space programs being replaced by private enterprises and well-funded startups.

Future Life Feb 1980-cover

Take the February 1980 issue. Sure, the front cover promises coverage of the newly released (and bad) Star Trek: The Motion Picture. But let’s focus our attention on the section at the top, “Looking Forward To The ’80s.”

Inside, prominent scientists reveal which technological breakthroughs to expect in the 1980s, in a broad range of fields. And while scientists nailed it on disposable cameras and nicotine patches, humanity still hasn’t really figured out solar power or life at the bottom of the sea, or research outposts on nearby planets. Humans have had 35 years to meet that final goal, and best-case scenario is that it’ll be at least another 20 before it’s more than a Christopher Nolan plot point.

Okay. Let’s dig into the specific predictions, in this spiffy “News of the Next Decade” package from February 1980.

Future Life Feb 1980-inside1

Highlights/Lowlights

  • The top corner’s “Construction” section is filled with advances (“highly automated machine tunneling in hard rock” and “more rapid, less expensive tunneling methods”) that led to infrastructure we actually enjoy now — for example, the Chunnel — though the predictions were off by a few years.
  • The Aerospace predictions are full of “what could have beens.” The magazine foresees the “erection of large structures in orbit” as well as a “temporary manned lunar base” where three humans could live on the Moon for up to 30 days. Even something as useful as “reliable 30 day weather forecasts” haven’t gotten nailed down yet (best stick to historical weather patterns after ten or so days, says science today).

And congratulations are in order to Edward Cornish for being very accurate in this bummer of a prediction: “Many nations will be hard-pressed to provide food and jobs.” But he also nailed the one about the first artificial heart, which actually happened two years later, in 1982

Let’s flip the page:

Future Life Feb 1980-inside4

Highlights/Lowlights

  • The “Medical and Biological” section shows us that science has progressed a good amount, relative to the 1980 predictions. While we don’t yet have a “practical substitute for blood”, we’re at the point that trials are being run on blood substitutes. The substitutes are still years away from being available for triage and other practical purposes.
  • Cancer and viral diseases remain a problem, to put it lightly, so “cancer cure” and “effective immunization against viral diseases” are still on modern science’s to-do list.
  • “Textiles” shows that we’ve gotten some things done, but aren’t really in The Future yet. “Fibers that change color,” “one-piece molded garments,” and “fibers and fabrics that will respond to temperature changes” sound great to us. However, smart clothing is in its nascent stages, so no one’s clothes are adjusting to temperature change or capable of changing colors just yet.

Gerard K. O’Neill was onto something with his “more countries getting into space” prediction (though the ISS did not go live until the late 1990s), but the scramble to colonize space for resources still hasn’t happened.

The saddest 1980 futurism prediction, though, was made by Jesco von Puttkamer, a NASA scientist who specialized in future planning. He saw the 1980s as an important time in the evolutionary history of man, one in which “the third dimension of space becomes part of our natural habitat.” Von Puttkamer was probably disappointed to see that, in the years that followed 1980, a kind of stasis took the place of that next big leap.