Two things happened yesterday whose synchronicity was inescapable.

Apple released their tablet device, the iPad.

And the White House’s budget proposal for NASA was leaked, showing that they are killing the Ares and Constellation projects, effectively leaving the United States with no spacecraft at the end of September of this year.

Two seemingly unrelated news items, but they tell the story of scientific development over the last half of the 20th century.

Let’s just back to just after World War 2. Ballistics and rocketry were the new, hot sciences. The Americans were willing to let the Russians conquer part of Germany so they could snap up the German rocket scientists who had built the V2 and who were working on a German version of the Manhattan Project.

Back then, science was this big, epic thing. We were envisioning blasting off to the far reaches of space on rockets the size of skyscrapers powered by the safe and near limitless power of the atom.

(Don’t forget, this is the generation where we were irradiating people and spraying them with DDT just to show how safe it all was. The actions of history are relative unto their times.)

But, there was a catch with this titanic science: it was hard to control. There was a lot of math involved in the calculations necessary to put a several ton piece of metal in the sky. Government money was dumped into college campuses to develop computers that could plot a rocket trajectory from the heart of America to all those places where naughty people live.

The Russians beat us to a successful ICBM program by two years, you know. Those crazy frost bitten bastards were ahead of us, and we even had von Braun, the man who’d invented the science of modern rocketry. But the Russians didn’t need him. They just gave bits of a broken V2 rocket to an unknown man named Sergey Korolyov, who’d just barely managed to escape a purge of intellectuals by showing a flair for making rocket engines do things they weren’t supposed to be able to do. Korolyov was probably the most unknown genius of the 20th century, without him, God only knows when or how we’d have gone to space.

I’m getting sidetracked.

So we were building these amazing metal arrows to shoot into the heavens, but we needed computers to tell us where to point them and just how much of a kick to give them. Computers were basically vacuum-tube driven difference engines up until the advent of the microprocessor, when something interesting happened.

For the most part, the development of computers and rockets were tied together. The development of either came from military research and funding. You’d build a bigger rocket, so you’d need a new computer. You’d figure out something else you could do with a computer and that would let you build a new rocket. But with the release of the microprocessor in 1971, the commercial applications of computing exploded. No longer was a computer a huge investment that required whole rooms to house, but it was something that could be owned in an everyday home for day to day uses.

Those giant cylinders of metal that went up into the stars…well…they had less of a commercial application. Luckily, the Cold War was still raging, and the US’s dominance of space was a point of pride over those filthy Commies (who’d beaten us out of the gravity well in the first place). So we were able to justify the development of the the space shuttle program, which we’re still using today. But after that, things sort of stalled out for massive space science. The International Space Station was the last big project, and that took over a decade to full construct with no clear reason for existing in the first place.

While the space program was faltering, computing was booming. Moore’s Law was in full effect, with the processing power of a chip doubling every 18 months. Technology was obsolete within days of hitting the streets. Smaller, more powerful processors meant that you could put them in more and more things. By the 90s, they were in toys, in radios, in toasters; by the turn of the century, computers were in shoes, clothes, even inside of us in medical implants.

At some point, some small impossibly insignificant moment, we abandoned macro science for micro science. Rocketry, super-engineering and atomic energy gave way to digital devices, genetic engineering and sustainable, low-impact energy sources.

You might be curious why the two things I mentioned at the start had synchronicity for me. It is the trading of big, real, important science and engineering for frivolous and consumeristic pursuits. I can almost guarantee you that Apple spent more money on the iPad than the Russians spent to put Sputnik or Yuri Gagarin into space. The element of profit has changed everything with technological development.

I think I’ve said all of this before, but I’ll keep saying it for as long as I live.

We traded in our jetpack and rocket cars for an iPhone and Avatar in IMAX 3-D. And there’s no right or wrong to this, just simply a nagging doubt in the back of my head about what could have been.