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by Howard E. McCurdy
Smithsonian Institution Press, $29.95
"Love and Rockets"
This is the saddest story I have ever read.
I suppose I should offer a caveat here, since one or two readers might reasonably question the emotional impact of a scholarly work about US public policy issues---even one as profusely illustrated as this, and so obviously intended for popular consumption. But I have had a lifelong and intensely tormented relationship with the American space program. This is something I thought everyone shared, until a year or so ago when I found myself in a hotel room weeping copiously over a documentary on Werner von Braun while my partner watched dry-eyed at the sight of the cancer-ridden von Braun, the German space scientist frail and shaken past all recovery by the betrayals of the government agency he had helped create. Since then I've had numerous recovered memories of similar experiences, all involving documentary footage (and occasionally written accounts) of NASA's early years.
Cynics might call this yet another instance of misplaced Baby Boomer midlife nostalgia/angst, but in fact I never was very nostalgic about the last frontier. This was due, in large part, to what can most gently be termed an accident of employment, when for almost ten years beginning in 1977 I worked for the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum in Washington, DC. Disgruntled taxpayers often demand to know where all the GS-1s are within the vast machinery of American bureaucracy, and now it can be told: I was a GS-1.
Actually, I was an IS-1 (the I stood for Institution), and for several years my job involved wearing a mustard-colored polyester uniform meant to evoke the authority and pomp of an airline pilot (in fact it was identical to the uniforms of Century 21 real estate agents), while "instructing" tourists on how to "fly" a genuine Link General Aviation Trainer, or GAT. I use the term "instruction" in its loosest sense. For twelve hours at a stretch, I sat in a small chair that moved dizzyingly around and around in circles while an endless progression of overweight, badly dressed and extremely enthusiastic men, women and children did as much damage as they could to a beautifully sophisticated piece of technology, a mockup of a Cessna 52 aircraft reduced to a Disneyland attraction.
It was not a job with a lot of growth potential. The exhibit was dismantled a few years later. Those IS-1s who had worked there were farmed out to other parts of NASM (with some happy futures: Geoff Chester is now an astronomer with the Jet Propulsion Lab, Bernie Gallagher an historian, Bill Doorley is at the Pittsburgh Planetarium, and Greg Bryant remains at Nasm as an archivist). When I left the museum, just a week before the Challenger disaster, I had managed to rise to the lofty rank of IS-7. But I thought of the GATs while reading Space and the American Imagination, because in many ways those poor overworked machines met the same fate as the space program. Initially embraced for their imaginative potential and entertainment value, they were discarded when their technical and imaginative limitations caught up with them, and when they failed to live up to the growing expectations of a public whose hunger for technological innovation far outstrips our ability to feed it.
Space and the American Imagination begins where any history of the space program must, in an examination of its iconic roots as a sort of rogue outgrowth of the popular vision of the American frontier. This is a tale that has been told before---SF critic John Clute has said that science fiction is the story of how the 20th century could be made to work (as opposed to the more nostalgic genre of fantasy, which implicitly states that our century was simply wrong)---and within this framework we can recognize in the tale of the American space program that story we tell ourselves as it grows darker outside, darker and colder and more dangerous. The most successful version of the story, of course, is Tom Wolfe's immensely popular book The Right Stuff (1979), and the enthralling movie it inspired; more recent and similar ventures include the film Apollo 13 and the TV documentary series Space.
But both The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 (I haven't yet seen Space) buy into the frontier myth of the challenging vista that must be tamed and the lone helmsman who can conquer it. It's a patriarchal vision, of course, with the rough technical language softened for a general audience: for all its irony and explication of NASA's in-jokes, The Right Stuff is a love letter, and Apollo 13 is a love letter from the front line. In Space and the American Imagination, Howard McCurdy doesn't give us the right stuff but the real stuff, the minutiae of policy debate and political razzing that brought the space program into being and seems destined to bury it. It's a meandering, sometimes confusingly organized book, but an important one. McCurdy's prose style is understated and occasionally drab, but free of annoying postmodern tics---you'll find no references to the "Spa[CE] Pro/-gram" here---and for even a casual reader or SF fan, the book assembles a fascinating congeries of facts and fictions about trips to the moon, real or imagined.
From the start, McCurdy tells us, the American space program was shaped as much by the press as by Capitol Hill, with generous assistance from other media. In the late 19th century, newspapers were filled with accounts of thrilling expeditions to polar and wilderness regions, and with the advent of Argosy magazine in 1896 the pulp industry was born, subsidized in large part by readers' vicarious delight in the exploits of explorers like David Livingston and Roald Amundson.
"The public desire to personally, and safely, experience the great expeditions helped create interest in travel and promote the family vacation, a trend promoters of the national park movement and their allies in the American railroad industry made effective use of. Whether the last great era of exploration had actually closed was of less importance than the dwindling supply of mysterious terrestrial lands in which to set entertaining tales."Fortunately, extraterrestrial worlds were right around the corner, just waiting to be exploited. By the turn of the century, Edward Everett Hale, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells had all published popular works of what would come to be known as science fiction, and a Trip to the Moon ride was introduced at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition. A year later this spaceship ride reappeared at Coney Island, where millions of tourists were exposed to the notion that spaceflight was not only fun, but perhaps feasible. McCurdy posits that it was this particular, and peculiar, alliance of instincts---commercial, imaginative, and scientific---that made the space program possible.
In a way, what is most astonishing about the conquest of space is not that we had the technical know-how to do it, but that Jane and John Q. Public were ultimately convinced that it could in fact be done. McCurdy cites a 1949 Gallup poll in which Americans named those developments which would be in place by the year 2000. 88% believed in a cure for cancer; 63% thought we'd be riding around in atomic powered trains. But when presented with the notion that "men in rockets will be able to reach the moon within the next 50 years," only 15% agreed.
All this changed so fast it would make your head spin---and by "all this" I mean the American public's perception of outside reality, something all cynical, independent, gun-toting free-thinkers love to believe is above manipulation by government, let alone commercial or industrial interests. In his 1985 political history of the Space Age, Walter McDougall names the magic triumvirate that made it all possible: a thriving economy, sophisticated technology, but above all what McDougall terms "culture, the realm of symbolism," and which McCurdy more succinctly calls imagination. McCurdy makes a persuasive argument for the impact that the media has had on influencing US policy for well over a century. Uncle Tom's Cabin was instrumental in changing attitudes towards slavery. Thoreau, James Fenimore Cooper, and the painter Thomas Cole all created works that gave Americans a vision of their country as a wilderness to be revered and protected, and inadvertently contributed to the process of creating a system of national parks and forests. Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, a graphic depiction of laborers in Chicago's stockyards, reached a huge and appalled audience. Meat sales plummeted; less than six months after The Jungle's publication, Theodore Roosevelt created what would become the Food and Drug Administration. McCurdy also cites Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) and its influence upon policies that led to the deinstitutionalism of the mentally ill. Kesey's counterculture classic does a good job of illustrating Walter McDougall's premise---it appeared during a period of strong economic growth, when medical advances in psychotropic drugs seemed to provide a magic bullet for schizophrenia and other illnesses.
Of course the reality of deinstitutionalization was more complicated and far more tragic. So, in its way, was the history of the space program. From the visionary writings and applied research of a relatively small number of men came an entire industry that really did change life on Earth. McCurdy is concise and quite eloquent on the pioneering scientific contributions of Konstantin Tsiolovskii, Willy Ley, Werner von Braun, Robert Goddard, and Herman Oberth, but he gives equal time to their not-so-silent partners in our Trip to the Moon---purveyors of pop culture like Chesley Bonestell, Arthur C. Clarke, Fritz Lang, Carl Sagan and the Great Oz Himself, Walt Disney. From its inception, the space program often seems to have been equal parts Barnum razzmatazz and Me Decade opportunism. In a quote that still manages to raise the hair on one's spine, McCurdy cites R. C. Truax, then commander of the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics (one of NASA's precursors), in an address to the Hayden Planetarium's third symposium on space travel in 1954:
"Ultimately every thing we do is done simply because we want to."Now, when he said that Truax probably wasn't thinking of Aleister Crowley's dictum, "Do what thou wilt shalt be the whole of the law;" but he might as well have been. The subsequent history of the space program is checkered enough to accommodate any number of theories of otherworldly intervention, including the most recent rash of crackpot theories spun out of programs like The X-Files. Every age and society gets the Art it deserves, and the same seems to apply to Science. The great schism in the early space program was between those who wanted Real Science---satellites, robotic probes, a serious long-range project aimed at establishing space stations and operations platforms---and those who wanted Real Guys in Space. As everyone knows, the Real Guys won out, for a while: NASA officials rightly sensed that Americans would be more supportive of a program with a human face. But, as McCurdy notes of events in the 1980s,
"Eisenhower's alternative space program, with its emphasis upon robotics, eventually came to dominate military space policy in the United States."What's interesting and strange about all this is how radically our perceptions of science and humanity have changed. Perhaps because of that very emphasis upon controlling the image of "the calm, brave astronauts," we no longer trust the human face. The independent militia movement's hatred of government is directed at people---computers can't be stopped with guns the way bureaucrats can be. And given the choice between a GPS navigational device in a rental car, or a Rand McNally map, how many of us opt for the map? McCurdy makes a broad but apt judgment when he states that "It is difficult for humans to respect strict moral codes when those doctrines are based on patently false cosmologies." The promise of space was presented as a dream on the verge of coming true. When it didn't, when we all woke up to the big post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-Reagan hangover, it was bye-bye Buck Rogers.
This was ironic, to say the least. For all the "aura of competence" that NASA cultivated in the 1960s and early 1970s, when the Space Program operated at full throttle,
"In fact, NASA conducted a less accident prone flight program in the 1980s than it had during the 1960s when the sense of competence arose . . . As history shows, however, facts do not always play the dominant role in the creation of images about the U.S. space program."In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe did an exemplary job of showing how the Mercury and Apollo astronauts became "architects of our image." Howard McCurdy demonstrates that NASA's sometimes uncanny ability to tailor its programs to popular taste and expectations---abetted by the news and entertainment media---may well have served as its undoing. In a remarkable national display of cognitive dissonance, people began to believe in the practicality of everyday space flight, interplanetary voyages, alien contacts, FTL drive---despite all evidence to the contrary. McCurdy quotes John Mauldin's contention that
"When a theme as common as travel to the stars is taken for granted in a large but fictional literature, the public tends to assume that the concept will become certainty, even that particular methods will be developed fairly soon."Alas, the clock is ticking down to 2001. The dilithium crystals have yet to appear, and we all know Major Tom's a junkie. In the popular mind, the dream of space buccaneers won out over the more feasible goals of space science, but Wolfe's dictum "No bucks, no Buck Rogers" has sadly been reduced to "Fuck Buck Rogers." In his book's most chilling summing-up, McCurdy quotes Paul Theroux on "the real future"---
"Forget rocket-ships, super-technology, moving sidewalks and all the rubbishy hope in science fiction. No one will ever go to Mars and live. A religion has evolved from the belief that we have a future in outer space; but it is a half-baked religion---it is a little like Mormonism or the Cargo Cult. Our future is this mildly poisoned earth and its smoky air . . . There will be no star wars or galactic empires and no more money to waste on the loony nationalism in space programs."To many people, I know, the disappointments and achievements of NASA don't amount to a hill of beans, especially when measured up against population pressure, global warming, and the difficulty of finding a parking space; but Cargo Cult or not, I always took all that space stuff seriously. I still do. Given the choice between gazing into Theroux's gutter or McCurdy's finely-tuned optic pointed at the stars, I choose the latter. Houston may have a problem, but we're working on it.
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Copyright © 1998–2020 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide