Technology, History, and Place

Tag: cultural change (Page 1 of 2)

Seventeen sunrises (plus another 21,915)

The fourth man to fly in space—and the second to orbit the Earth—was Gherman Titov, a 25-year-old pilot from western Siberia. He flew in space sixty years ago today, and his flight lasted a full day, or seventeen orbits of the Earth.

By any account, it was not a great flight. Titov spent much of the flight nauseated by spacesickness. He also tried sleeping, but he had trouble falling asleep and was annoyed by his arms as they floated in front of his face. After 24 hours in space, his spacecraft reentered the atmosphere. As the capsule was descending by parachute, he ejected to land separately under his own parachute. (Human legs are good shock-absorbers, and the Vostok landed too fast for humans. Gagarin had ejected in the same way four months earlier.)

Gus Grissom’s flight had been essentially a repeat of Alan Shepard’s, but Titov’s flight was much longer than Gagarin’s—seventeen times longer, to be exact. This reflected the Soviets’ ambitious approach to spaceflight in 1961 and for the next several years. The Soviets did not want to use their limited resources repeating their previous accomplishments. Instead, every subsequent mission had to be a major step beyond the previous mission. Thus, the next Soviet flight after Titov’s was a dual launch: in August 1962, Vostoks 3 and 4 were inserted into similar orbits 24 hours apart, the first time that more than one man had been in space at the same time. The following June, the Soviets made another dual flight, but with a twist: the pilot of Vostok 6 was Valentina Tereshkova, the first and only woman to fly into space until the 1980s. The pilot of Vostok 5, Valery Bykovsky, set a duration record of five days.

As the Soviet flights became more ambitious, they also became riskier. In October 1964, the Voskhod 1 mission flew three cosmonauts into space in a heavily modified Vostok capsule. In order to fit three men into a capsule that was originally designed for only one, the Voskhod had no ejection seats and the crew did not wear spacesuits, both of which had been important safety features on the Vostok. Had there been a problem with the booster early in launch, the three men on Voskhod 1 would have been doomed with no chance of escape. Similarly, they couldn’t eject out of the capsule at the end of the mission. Instead, the parachute system needed to have retrorockets to slow the capsule down to a safe speed just before impact with the ground. Lacking the resources to build a test article for the Voskhod parachute system, the OKB-1 design bureau took Gherman Titov’s Vostok 2 capsule out of a museum and refitted it with the new system. In a drop test at the Feodosiya testing range in Crimea, the new parachute system failed and the Vostok 2 capsule slammed into the earth at high speed and broke into pieces.

The engineers at OKB-1 diagnosed the problem with the parachute system, and the Voskhod 1 flight went ahead successfully but with considerable risk. The following March, the second Voskhod flight was another risky but ultimately successful mission. Alexei Leonov climbed out of an airlock and became the first person in history to walk in space, just two-and-a-half months before an American, Ed White, did the same thing on the Gemini 4 mission.

By this point, the Soviet piloted space program had begun to run out of momentum, and the Americans took the lead with ten increasingly complex and successful Gemini missions. It was not until two years after Voskhod 2 that the next Soviet space mission flew on an all-new spacecraft, the Soyuz. Although Soyuz 1 was probably less risky than either of the Voskhod flights had been—because the Soyuz had a launch abort rocket—the mission ended in tragedy when the descent module’s parachutes failed to deploy before landing. The spacecraft’s one crewman, Vladimir Komarov, died on impact.

President Kennedy visits with American astronaut John Glenn (L) and Russian cosmonaut Gherman Titov (R) at the White House in 1962. At 25, Titov was the youngest person ever to fly into space. In 1998, John Glenn would become the oldest spacefarer, flying on the Space Shuttle at age 77. (Source: JFK Library)

President Kennedy visits with American astronaut John Glenn (L) and Russian cosmonaut Gherman Titov (R) at the White House in 1962. At 25, Titov was the youngest person ever to orbit the Earth. In 1998, John Glenn would become the oldest spacefarer, flying on the Space Shuttle at age 77. (Source: JFK Library)

It has been sixty years since the first men flew into space. Sixty years is a long time—longer than the median age of the human species (31 years) or the median ages in Russia (39.6 years) and the United States (38.1 years). A minority of the Earth’s population was alive in 1961, and it’s worth reflecting here what that might mean to us as humans.

The pioneering spacefarers of 1961 are all gone now. They died in pairs: two later in the sixties from terrible accidents, and two around the turn of the millennium from disease or old age. Gus Grissom was the first to die; as mentioned in the previous post, he perished in the Apollo 1 fire on the launchpad on January 27, 1967. Yuri Gagarin died a year later in the crash of a MiG-15 jet. Alan Shepard died of leukemia in 1998. Gherman Titov succumbed to cardiac arrest in 2000 at the age of 65.

A lot can change in sixty years, and a lot has. Despite continued tensions between Russia and the United States in the twenty-first century, the Cold War is over, and so is the Space Race. The two leading space powers have cooperated in spaceflight for more than a quarter century. The International Space Station has been continuously crewed by both Russians and Americans since November 2001. Although the ISS agreement is set to expire in 2024 and the future of spaceflight cooperation remains in doubt, US-Russian space cooperation has continued throughout the tensions between the two countries in recent years.

If politics can change in sixty years, then so can culture. I am not equipped to evaluate how Russian culture has changed in six decades, but I can say for certain that American culture has changed immensely in the same amount of time. With immigration reform in 1965, the American population has gotten a good deal more diverse than it was in 1961. In the same time, American culture has had to become more tolerant of diversity (recent backlash against diversity notwithstanding).

This was not the case in the early sixties. As seen in both the book and film versions of The Right Stuff, Alan Shepard delighted in imitating the character José Jiménez, created by comedian Bill Dana. José Jiménez was a Latino astronaut with a thick accent and dull wits. Shepard imitated José Jiménez so much that the other astronauts started to call him by that name. When Shepard’s Mercury-Redstone lifted off on May 5, 1961, Deke Slayton radioed from launch control, “You’re on your way, José!”

In the sixties, for Anglo-Americans like Alan Shepard, the idea of a Latino flying into space was a joke in and of itself. This is, of course, no longer the case. Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, and other Hispanics and Latinos have been flying into space since the 1980s. The José Jiménez character was only funny because it was based on negative ethnic stereotypes. The José Jiménez scenes in The Right Stuff are positively cringe-worthy today. (To his credit, Bill Dana retired the character in 1970, only nine years after Shepard’s flight.)

These cultural and political changes over the past six decades highlight something that is all too easy to miss in our discussions about spaceflight: spaceflight belongs to the past as well as the future. So much of our discourse about spaceflight imagines it as futuristic—science-fiction becoming real. Vostok and Mercury were indeed futuristic in their day, but like the Cold War and Bill Dana’s José Jiménez character, they now belong to the past.

Bollywood over the Bay

Earlier this year, while driving someplace in the San Francisco Bay Area and scanning on her car radio, my sister-in-law stumbled across Bolly 92.3, a station playing Bollywood music. Even though she had no idea what the lyrics were saying, she thought the music sounded cheery and left the radio tuned to that station.

Bolly 92.3 was the first dedicated Bollywood music station I had ever heard of in the United States, so I was eager to listen to it once I’d learned about it. I got my chance when my brother and I drove from San Francisco to Death Valley in February. We listened to Bolly 92.3 as long as we could, until we drove out of range of the station. In the hour or so before we lost the signal, we heard a range of songs in different styles. I didn’t recognize any of the songs, but I did recognize the musical styles, which included:

  • Movie tunes with harmonium and tablas, and rich Hindustani lyrics. (Hindustani was the common language across North India before Partition, part Hindi and part Urdu.)
  • Hip-hop with simple and dumb lyrics, and a liberal application of autotune.
  • Indie music with guitars and strings, and Hindi lyrics.
  • Romantic nineties movie songs with tablas, flutes, and echoing (and shrill) female vocals.
  • Dance songs with synth and tabla, and very repetitive lyrics.

Bolly 92.3 is a commercial station, and the breaks between every few songs featured advertisements for law firms, realty agencies, and other businesses owned by Indian-Americans in the Bay Area. (Later, my sister-in-law also heard an ad for a stove hood designed to handle the high levels of frying demanded by Indian cuisine.)

For all the diversity of Indian culture, Bollywood is an overpowering, omnipresent cultural monolith, and Bollywood music is part of the background noise of the Indian environment. Spend any time in India, and you will find the same songs following you wherever you go: booming across the neighborhood from marriage gardens, thumping from taxi and bus radios, or playing tinnily from mobile phones at tea stalls or in train coaches. Some megahit songs have a limited shelf life, and are played over and over and over again before disappearing. (There was a time last year when I thought my head would explode if I ever heard this song or this song again.) Other songs are evergreens, enjoying decades of popularity (like this one and this one).

From all the exposure I’ve had to Bollywood music (willing and otherwise), I was surprised not to recognize any of the songs I heard on Bolly 92.3. If I listened long enough, I’d surely hear something I knew. But just my short experience illustrates an important truth: diaspora communities are never the same as the parent culture. Not only do the Indian-Americans of the Bay Area have to adapt to American culture by driving minivans and living in tract housing, they also have a different relationship with Indian culture, for the simple reason that they are not in India.

When it comes to relating to their traditional cultures, members of a diaspora are sometimes more conservative. As the parent culture changes, emigrants try to freeze their culture in the same state that it was in when they left. This is why (as I am told) Gujaratis in Gujarat are content to use costume jewelry at their weddings, but Gujaratis in East Africa would never dream of using anything but gold.

There may be some of this cultural conservatism among Indian-Americans of the Bay Area, and this may in part explain why I didn’t recognize any of the songs on Bolly 92.3. But diasporic communities need not stay frozen in the past, either. They can continue to develop their traditional cultures on their own lines, parallel to but separate from the parent culture. This is happening for Indians in North America; in Toronto, at least, there is a big Punjabi hip-hop industry. Toronto music has even made its way back to India, and not just Punjab. I once spent more than an hour watching surreal music videos from Toronto in a restaurant in Assam, of all places.

Phones in the United States and India (part 2)

Compared to mobile phones, an even more recent arrival in India is the smartphone. In 2009, smartphones were unheard-of in the Garo Hills. I don’t remember ever seeing them anywhere I went in north and northeast India either. By 2013, smartphones were more in evidence in Jaipur when I spent the summer there, but more in TV ads than real life. Now in 2015, smartphones are becoming increasingly ubiquitous. When I ride the Delhi Metro, half of the passengers are fiddling with smartphones, reading something in English, Hindi, or Punjabi, or playing a game. Apple iPhones are not as common in India as the USA, since most people don’t care to pay the premium price. The Samsung Galaxy is much more common as a prestige phone. There are also several indigenous brands not seen in the USA, such as Micromax.

What is remarkable to me about smartphones in India is that they are being adopted by a wide range of social classes. There is nothing remarkable about the privileged urban youth of India using smartphones in 2015, although I feel that they try too hard to prove that they have arrived in the twenty-first century by taking too many selfies and signing up for all of the social media services, and then posting all of those selfies, and anything else they think or do, on all of the services. They aren’t just using the usual suspects like Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, but also services I’d never heard of before coming to India this time.

What I do find remarkable is that some manual laborers and service workers, like the maid who works in the house where I stay in Delhi, have started using smartphones. Non-smartphones have not been marginalized in the market as definitively as they have been in the West, but it is clear to me that for certain classes of Indians, smartphones are now the only socially acceptable option. This is not the case for lower classes, but it is worth noting that lower-income groups now have access to the same technology that the privileged classes are using for status symbols.

Mobile phones gave many members of lower-income and rural populations access to their own phones for the first time. In the same way, smartphones are making the Internet more widely accessible. In the Garo Hills in 2009, when I wanted to check my e-mail, I had to hitch a ride to the nearby town and pay Rs. 40 an hour to use a slow, unreliable cell-network connection at a computer services shop. Sometimes I would arrive and the power would be out, or the manager would be away, or the connection would inexplicably not be working. This was an all-afternoon outing, and I could only make it once every week or two. I went to the effort to access the Internet because I had already become reliant upon it from my life in the West. For those who had never used the Internet before, it wasn’t likely that they were going to go out of their way to start using it there. Now, the growing number of smartphone users can access the Internet whenever they want, without having to go anywhere.

It is much too early to make any conclusions about what all of this means for Indian society. Are smartphones an egalitarian technology, like non-smartphones? TV ads that show sequestered women in rural Haryana using their smartphones to access educational resources would have you believe so. Of course, TV ads playing on the same channels also claim that “Love and Nourish” soap will give you perfect skin like Kareena Kapoor, and “Juzt Jelly” candies will give you the strength of the children’s cartoon hero Chhota Bheem. In the case of smartphones, though, this technology may indeed give economically disadvantaged people access to knowledge resources that were too expensive to access beforehand. Or smartphones might prove to be just a passive form of entertainment, opening the way for huge sections of the Indian population to become addicted to the next “Candy Crush.” I suspect that smartphones in India are already on their way to proving themselves as both useful tools and useless toys.

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