The future is now - and it ain't what it used to be

When I was 8, it was unthinkable to me that I would reach 35 and not have traveled to the moon at least once.

I woke up New Year's Day, and turned to my husband. "Happy New Year," I said. "I see that we still don't have flying cars." Stan is used to this routine and looked sympathetically at me. "And no food replicators, either," he answered.

It's a continuing disappointment to me that the future isn't living up to my expectations. When I was in second grade I wrote a story on "The Future." In the future, I predicted, we would all have flying cars. Not only that, but we would swallow a pill that would contain all the nutrition necessary for a day. I probably wrote that story after one of those interminable dinners during which I was forced to spend an hour glowering at a lima bean until I ate it or disposed of it in a convincing manner.

When I was 8, it was unthinkable to me that I would reach the age of 35 and not have traveled to the moon at least once. It didn't help that I had a book with the unequivocal title, "You Will Go to the Moon."

This book was 15 years old when I read it. It predated the first moonwalk and was exuberantly optimistic: "This is how you will go to the moon! Here is the rocket that will take you up into space!" I would wait at the space station for the moon ship that would take me to the moon.

On the moon ship I would play chess, eat apples, and watch TV channels from Earth, all while floating around in a carefree manner with the other space travelers. The book promised me that I would not just visit the moon, but possibly live there, in a large dome-shaped house with antennas on top. "Look! Do you see that house? That is the moon house! That is where you will live on the moon."

It's funny how this kind of optimism can seep into your consciousness. If you had asked me when I was a sensible college student if I expected to travel to the moon, I would have, reasonably, said no. But still, when I was 25, it suddenly struck me as a bit strange and unexpected - and disappointing - that I hadn't been there yet.

I am fascinated by the future, and especially how we imagine the future. I found an old book called "Prophecy for the Year 2000" that contains essays written in the late 1960s by people who were famous in scientific, academic, and business realms. In these essays they predicted what life would be like in the year 2000. These people were no dummies. The writers included professors at major universities, a winner of NASA's Distinguished Service Medal, a science editor of The New York Times, and a former vice president of the United States. But their visions of the future are remarkably similar to my second-grade essay.

One writer predicted that "permanent colonies will be nestled in the craters of the moon. There is no doubt that regular flights between the Earth and the near planets will be routine." Another conjectured that by the year 2000 there might be colonies on the moon and Mars, although he did concede that it might prove to be easier to bring food to the colonies from Earth rather than to synthesize protein from the chemicals present on the moon.

One writer said with utter confidence that by the year 2000 we would be able to control the weather and that we'd undoubtedly be able to live on the floor of the ocean.

Now that the year 2000 is the past rather than the future, and very few of my own predictions have come true, I admit that I find those wild-eyed essays comforting. True, my vision of the future was informed largely by the Jetsons, but at least I wasn't alone. We all wanted moon houses and weather machines. And I still do. The fact that the future has failed to live up to my expectations so far doesn't get in the way of my curiosity about what comes next - and my faith that eventually the future will come through for me. It's just taking a little longer than I thought.

Last New Year's Day I was talking with my 9-year-old daughter about how I used to imagine the future. I told her that when I was her age I thought that in the 21st century I'd be unbelievably old.

She smiled and cheerfully responded, "And you are!" It turns out that was about the only thing I got right.

I asked her what she thought the world would be like when she was my age. She said that you'd be able to change your house into any shape - even into an ice-cream-cone shape. There would be robots that would clean the house. And ... there would be cars that fly.

I can't wait.

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