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The 1960s Science and Technology: Overview

The 1960s Science and Technology: Overview

Before the 1960s, space travel was considered to be pure fantasy, the subject of science fiction novels and films conjured up by writers with vivid imaginations. However, the beginning of the decade saw the first human beings flying through space and orbiting the Earth. In April 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri A. Gagarin became the first man in space, orbiting the Earth in a 108-minute flight on board the Vostok I spacecraft. Less than a month later, astronaut Alan B. Shepard became the first American in space. His flight lasted 14 minutes and 28 seconds. Before the decade ended, human beings had landed on the moon. Neil A. Armstrong, one of three astronauts participating in the Apollo 11 mission, became the first to set foot on the moon's surface. It was the 1960's most highly publicized scientific and technological achievement. In one of the decade's most celebrated quotes, Armstrong noted, as he set foot on the moon, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." The date was July 20, 1969.

Exploration of the heavens was not limited to humans traveling in spaceships and landing on the moon. Satellites were launched into outer space throughout the decade. As they circled Earth, they performed a range of functions, from relaying live television signals across the oceans to recording weather patterns. During the 1960s, astronomers increased knowledge of the solar system by measuring distances between planets and mapping out their surfaces. They observed cosmic events, newly discovered stars, and quasars (the most distant objects from Earth).

While astronomers were investigating the nature of the heavens and astronauts, cosmonauts, and satellites were orbiting Earth, scientists were also exploring the depths of the ocean floor. Forms of life were discovered in deep seas where none were thought possible. It was determined that, over the course of time, the ocean floor was widening. Three Sealab expeditions to the ocean's depths set out to ascertain if individuals could live and work underwater for extended periods of time.

Great strides were made in the evolution of computers. More were produced, and they became more readily available for business and commercial use. While the age of the home computer still was well into the future, the development of silicon chips and integrated computer circuits created an electronics revolution. A range of previously unimaginable devices and products were developed, invented, or patented during the decade, including cordless, battery-powered telephones that were precursors of cell phones, word processing machines, and computer keyboards.

Advances in medicine brought new or improved vaccines for many diseases, including polio, measles, and rubella (German measles). The marketing of the birth control pill also allowed women unprecedented control over their reproductive cycles.

In biology, the first genes (which are the basis of heredity) were isolated, and much was learned about the nature of heredity. Researchers were also striving to learn about the history of our planet. Archeologists and anthropologists devised ways of determining the origin and age of Earth, the manner in which human beings evolved, and the age of artifacts of earlier time periods. The "big bang" theory was thought to explain the origin of the universe. In addition to the focus on Earth's past, scientists devoted attention to the planet's future. Environmental science emerged as a relatively new field of study during the decade. There was increasing concern about the effects of pollution generated through human activity, and the decade saw the first warnings that a greenhouse effect (also known as global warming) could alter Earth's temperature.

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