Reaching for Stars When Space Thrilled and Paranoia Ruled
"Reaching for Stars When Space Thrilled and Paranoia Ruled"
New York Times
: It was “Mad Men” meets “Flash Gordon.”
: The years from 1957 to 1962 were a golden age of science fiction,
: as well as paranoia and exhilaration on a cosmic scale. The future
: was still the future back then, some of us could dream of farms on
: the moon and heroically finned rockets blasting off from alien
: landscapes. Others worried about Russian moon bases.
: Scientists debated whether robots or humans should explore space.
: Satellites and transistors were jazzy emblems of postwar
: technology, and we were about to unravel the secrets of the
: universe and tame the atom (if it did not kill us first).
: Some of the most extravagant of these visions of the future came
: not from cheap paperbacks, but from corporations buffing their
: high-tech credentials and recruiting engineering talent in the
: heady days when zooming budgets for defense and NASA had created a
: gold rush in outer space.
: In the pages of magazines like Aviation Week, Missiles and Rockets
: and even Fortune, companies, some famous and some now obscure, were
: engaged in a sort of leapfrog of dreams. And so, for example,
: Republic Aviation of Farmingdale, N.Y. — “Designers and Builders of
: the Incomparable Thundercraft” — could be found bragging in
: Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine in 1959 about the lunar
: gardening experiments it was doing for a future Air Force base on
: the moon.
: Or the American Bosch Arma Corporation showing off, in Fortune, its
: “Cosmic Butterfly,” a solar-powered electrically propelled vehicle
: to ferry passengers and cargo across the solar system.
: Most Americans never saw these concoctions, but now they have been
: collected and dissected by Megan Prelinger, an independent
: historian and space buff, in a new book, “Another Science Fiction:
: Advertising the Space Race 1957-1962.” It is being published on
: May 25 by Blast Books.
: Ms. Prelinger and her husband, Rick, operate the Prelinger Library,
: a private research library in San Francisco with a heavy emphasis
: on media, technology and landscape history.
: In an e-mail message, Ms. Prelinger said she had grown up “on a
: cultural diet of science fiction and space,” memories of the moon
: landings and “Star Trek” merging in her mind. “As a result,” she
: said, “I grew up believing that I was a junior member of an
: advanced technological society.”
: The book, she said, was inspired by a shipment of old publications
: to the library, including Aviation Week & Space Technology and
: Missiles and Rockets. “I little expected that the advertising in
: their pages would seize my attention more than the articles
: themselves,” she writes in the introduction to her book.
: The ads are chock-full of modernist energy and rich in iconography
: in ways Ms. Prelinger is happy to elaborate on.
: The late ’50s were also the years of the Organization Man. The
: cover illustration, from an insurance ad, shows a man in a gray
: flannel suit who is a dead ringer for the existentially confused
: Don Draper of “Mad Men,” floating alarmed and bewildered among the
: planets and stars. Time and again, the mountains and valleys of the
: moon, for example, are portrayed as if they were the mountains,
: canyons and deserts of the American West, making the space program
: just another chapter in the ongoing narrative of Manifest Destiny.
: In one illustration, the hands of God and Adam from Michelangelo’s
: Sistine Chapel ceiling have been transformed into a giant pair of
: space gloves reaching for each other. In another, the silhouette of
: a spaceship forms a cross.
: “These images suggest that the furthest reach of what humankind
: hoped to find in space was in fact the very essence of infinity,”
: Ms. Prelinger writes.
: Leafing through this book is a walk down my own memory lane. I grew
: up in Seattle, which was a one-company town dominated by Boeing.
: Almost everybody worked there sooner or later. My best friend’s
: father helped design the Saturn V rocket that lifted humans to the
: moon. After limping out of M.I.T. with a physics degree in the late
: ’60s, I, too, worked there for a year, playing a kind of space war
: — shooting high-speed aluminum balls at sheets of aluminum arrayed
: to simulate the structures of aircraft or spacecraft, to see what
: the damage would be under various conditions. At the end of the
: day, my desk was buried in piles of sharp dented and charred sheets
: of aluminum. I had to count all the holes.
: It’s hard to know what to be more nostalgic about, all those
: childhood dreams of space opera or the optimism of an era in which
: imagination and technology were booming and every other ad ended
: with a pitch to come work for the thriving company of the future.
: “To advance yourself professionally, you should become a member of
: one these teams. Write to N. M. Pagan,” reads a typical notice from
: the Martin Company, now part of Lockheed Martin.
: You don’t hear that much these days.
: Back then, you, too, sitting at a drafting table or in a cubicle,
: designing antennas or self-locking nuts among acres of such boards
: and cubicles — “Reaching for the Moon, Mr. Designer?” reads a
: Kaylock ad — could be a space hero.
: And of course it was almost exclusively men depicted in the ads.
: One exception was an ad from the National Cash Register Company for
: a new electronic machine for posting checks. “And what the
: POST-TRONIC does electronically the operator cannot do wrong
: — because she doesn’t do it at all!” says the ad showing a woman
: floating in space at the machine’s console.
: Naturally, there was a hook to those recruitment ads, as Ms.
: Prelinger points out. The real business of most of those aerospace
: companies was not the space program but defense — building
: fighters, bombers, missiles and other implements of the cold war,
: not to mention commercial airliners. For many of these places, the
: space program was more of a hindrance than a boost to the bottom
: line, a sort of prestigious loss leader to attract cutting-edge
: Occasionally, as Ms. Prelinger reports, the darker side of this
: work bled through into the trade press and the ads, like when the
: Marquardt Corporation, which made small control rockets for
: satellites, showed a spy satellite aiming its lens down at Earth.
: If the space fever began in 1957 with Sputnik, it cooled by 1962,
: when the basic plan for the Apollo moon missions was set and there
: was no more space for imaginations to run wild. Also, by then
: NASA’s budget was leveling off. Ms. Prelinger said that during this
: period about half a million engineers, scientists, draftsmen and
: other people followed the clarion call to blend their talents into
: the new age, swelling the ranks of aerospace workers to more than a
: Some of them might have wound up like me. When the “impact
: mechanics” group was downsized, I was sent to the “weights and
: measures” group. Our job was to scrutinize rocket blueprints to
: determine the position and weight of every nut, bolt, washer and
: any other item on a small upper-stage booster that was to deliver
: an unknown payload to orbit. The information could be entered into
: a computer program that would calculate the center of gravity and
: other dynamical properties of the rocket package.
: It was essential but brain-numbing work, and I learned a lot about
: shooting rubber bands from the wars that broke out every day after
: But it was men and women like these, working in cubicles, who saved
: the astronauts of Apollo 13 in 1969, by figuring out how to bring
: them back from the moon alive in a crippled spacecraft.
: In the wake of the moon landings and then the end of the cold war,
: many of those jobs, exciting or not, disappeared, as did many of
: the companies that advertised them. What has not disappeared in all
: these years and decades is the yearning and arguing about space.
: We’re still fighting about what NASA should do as far as human
: exploration of the universe is concerned, collectively looking more
: and more like that bewildered advertising man floating in space on
: the cover of Ms. Prelinger’s fascinating book. The argument has
: been going on for my whole life. Since those advertisements
: appeared, the United States invaded Vietnam and left; the Soviet
: Union crumbled and China rose; the whole nation stopped smoking.
: We never did find the essence of infinity — at least not yet.
Mark Reiff <markreiff@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
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