April 12, 2011, marked the anniversaries of two extraordinary historical events. One hundred fifty years ago, on April 12, 1861, rebels in Charleston, S.C., fired on Fort Sumter, igniting the American Civil War. That war had complex economic, political and social origins, but taking seriously the Declaration of Independence's premise that "all men are created equal" was definitely one of those complexities.
Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's space flight on April 12, 1961, is the other extraordinary anniversary. Fifty very short years ago, Gagarin, in a Vostok 1 spacecraft, made a one-orbit trip around the Earth, and became the first human being to fly into space and return.
The American Civil War showcased two history-shaping technologies: the railroad and the telegraph. Both Union and Confederate logisticians amazed European military observers by moving large armies hundreds of miles by rail, and then quickly throwing them into battle. For worse and for better, railroads would ultimately connect Paris to Berlin, then Baghdad, then Beijing.
With the telegraph sending data at the speed of light, Union Gen. William Sherman, in Chattanooga, could contact the War Department in Washington in a matter of minutes. In some respects, the Internet is just a telegraph where everyone is his own telegrapher. In the shorthand method for designating upgrades of software and hardware, think of the telegraph as Internet 1.0.
Former NASA Deputy Administrator Hans Mark speculates that in four or five centuries, people will remember the 20th century for the Apollo moon landings -- human beings physically landing on another heavenly body. Gagarin's spaceflight 50 years ago was the first dramatic success in that venture.
Within the last decade, we have entered what I call the Space Age's fourth phase, Space 4.0. Space 1.0 began with Robert Goddard's rocketry genius, meandered through World War II, and in the Cold War's first decade produced Sputnik and Telstar. Space 2.0 spanned the manned orbital and "moon race" era. It began with Gagarin and culminated with the magnificent Apollo missions.
The American shuttle defined Space 3.0. NASA's space "truck" engaged a Swiss Army knife array of missions, from deploying satellites to experimental manufacturing to transporting astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). Coincidentally, April 12, 2011, is the 30th anniversary of the first space shuttle flight (April 12, 1981).
NASA intends to formally end Space 3.0 this year, when the last shuttle mission is scheduled to lift off. However, the transition to the age of commercialization and private space ventures -- Space 4.0, the age of the space entrepreneur -- is already well underway.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
Be the first to read Austin Bay's column. Sign up today and receive Townhall.com delivered each morning to your inbox.