Opinion: Space: Making people stupid for 50 years


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It’s striking, in looking back over President Dwight Eisenhower’s memoirs and the contemporary editorializing that marked the original Sputnik launch, to note not only how unhinged and terror-stricken the American media reaction to the event was but how hard the administration worked to calm people down. As Matthew Brzezinski (whose recent OpEd on Sputnik you oughta read) puts it in his wonderful book Red Moon Rising, ‘The more the administration told Americans not to worry, the louder the media beat their doomsday drums.’ Today’s editorial on Sputnik cites a very panicky Walter Lippmann column, which is hard not to quote at greater length:

‘The few who are allowed to know such things and are able to understand them are saying that the launching of so big a satellite signifies that the Soviets are much ahead of this country in the development of rocket missiles... In short the fact the at we have lost the race to launch the satellite means that we are losing the race to produce ballistic missiles. This in turn means that the United States and the western world may be falling behind in the progress of science and technology... The critical question is how we as a people...will respond to...a profound challenge to our cultural the way in fact we have been living our life... With prosperity acting as a narcotic, with Philistinism and McCarthyism rampant, our public life has been increasingly doped and without purpose... [T]here is no standard raised to which the people can repair.’ And so on, and on. You really need to work in news to understand how stupid the news is.


One proud exception to the general knicker-twisting? The editorial board of the Los Angeles Times, whose primary response to the news of Sputnik’s launch was a Pattonesque slap at all the blubbering ninnies. From our Oct. 8, 1957 editorial ‘Moonshine About the New Moon’...

This week-end’s outpourings over the Russian satellite show most of the American spokesmen at their juvenile worst. They act like the alumni who want to fire the coach every time the team loses a game. That is exact: they view the satellite launching as a race which the United States has lost.

With section heds entitled ‘Sputtering Response,’ ‘What We Are Doing’ and ‘Surmise and Facts,’ the editorial goes on to condemn the ‘half-cocked explosion of pseudo expertise,’ chastise one misinformed astronomer for ‘looking through the wrong end of his telescope,’ criticize the Eisenhower administration for not sending hearty congratulations to Moscow and thus reminding ‘the President’s fellow citizens that they have a reputation for sportsmanship to maintain,’ throw cold water on Pentagon efforts to use the crisis to monopolize space development, and dismiss calls for a ‘crash program’ as ‘the squirrel cage reaction which succeeds only in losing sight of facts.’ The editorial board also pulls some quotes from Project Vanguard officials who had noted, in the months prior to Sputnik, that the United States was on schedule to launch its satellite early in the next year (which is how things ended up going), and concludes with a list of the handful of facts then available, finally noting:

It is only a half century since man first got a machine off the ground through the application of power. Now they have gotten a thing out of this world. Perhaps it is a symptom of our time that the first reaction should be apprehension rather than exultant wonder. We ought to recover the pleasant use of our eyes and imaginations.

But the ed board wasn’t through shaming the Chicken Littles. On Oct. 10, an editorial goes into much greater detail, noting that an article in the July issue of Missiles and Rockets had already made clear that the Russians would probably get the first satellite up and thus nobody should have been surprised. (Eisenhower in his memoirs makes the same point.) ‘So far,’ says the board, ‘there have been opinions without measure but very few measured opinions.’ (Lippman’s piece, which falls into every one of the traps the ed board noted, appeared the following day.)

Has America learned to chill in the half-century since this first outbreak of sublunary lunacy? Hardly. A few days ago NASA administrator Mike Griffin mentioned his belief that China may get to the moon before the United States gets back. The AP’s reaction, in an article titled ‘China May Win New Space Race, NASA Says,’ was to phrase what would essentially be a footnote in the history of science as an ominous new loss for American prestige:


CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — The Soviets beat the United States at getting a satellite, and a man, into space. Now, the Chinese may get to the moon before the U.S. can make a return visit. Fifty years after Sputnik became the world’s first artificial satellite, a new race is under way with the finish line on the moon. NASA, the former lunar champion, already is predicting defeat.

As Gen. Kevin Chilton notes in his OpEd today, when China demonstrates its willingness to endanger the world’s civilian and military satellite system, that’s a problem. When China gets to the moon, almost fifty years after Apollo 11, that will be a reason to congratulate the Chinese.

The strange thing about space hysterias is that given the lead time involved in getting up there, space breakthroughs almost never come as a surprise. One of my all-time favorite books, Mae and Ira Freeman’s You Will Go To the Moon, was published way back in 1959, yet as these illustrations by Robert Patterson make clear, the basic ideas of the Apollo-style (or CEV-style) mission were common knowledge enough at the time to be the material for a kids’ book:

OK, so the fashions are a little dated, and the basic idea of a rocket on a launching pad had been in existence at least since Wernher von Braun was doing his best to wipe London off the map. But keep in mind this was at a time when the Russians had only managed to kill a dog in space, yet the basic structure of the ship on the pad, the elevators, and so on, were all familiar to anybody who had been paying attention. Actually, the wide base of the rocket looks a little too Soviet, but note that it’s a three-stage vehicle — a point that both the Freemans and Robertson understood very well, as we can see once the rocket gets off the ground and starts on its mission of carrying the kid to the moon.

Just as in the eventual real-world model, the rocket loses first its third-stage booster...

....and then its second:

But the almost-resemblances don’t end there. Once the boosters have been shucked and the lander is on the moon, we see that, with some pretty broad imaginary license, Robertson again had the basic idea right. (I’m leaving out a picture where the lunar module performs a loop-de-loop over the surfact of the moon):

Again, the resemblance isn’t perfect, and in fact this all-glass enclosure is pretty far from the final model, but it sure looks cooler than what eventually got to the moon, and is no less authoritative than the moon lander in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, which came nine years later and with substantially more moon-shot information than was available to the publishers of Beginner Books.

In fact, the main inaccuracies present in both versions probably stem from the fact that both Kubrick and the Freeman’s were working from the conceptual basis of the von Braun vision of space exploration (about which more in a moment). In that vision, which has shown remarkable durability despite having been trumped by reality many times over, you don’t take your rocket directly to Luna, but stop off at the space station:

The space station layover is truly the only civilized way to get to another major heavenly body. Dig the space stevedores hovering around the hub. What a job that would be. Unionized, no doubt — this being the late 50s, when even the Republicans were Democrats. In fact, the whole space industry of You Will Go To the Moon seems to be some kind of government makework universe, where people dressed vaguely like old-school Texaco attendants do work that isn’t very clearly defined or necessary.

But not everything is so ‘progressive’ in the space station. Dig the interior:

I understand the all-male look of the moon and space station was revised in a 1971 reissue of the book. According to Amazon reviewer John Resanovich: ‘The art in the 59 edition is more in the vein of 50’s fantasy. One of the big draws in the 59 edition is that you will be able to see what’s going on by watching a Television. The 71 edition is clearly based on Apollo. In the 59 edition there are no female ‘Spacemen,’ by 71 one there are female astronauts in the book.’ I’ve never seen this version, but in any event there are other predictions that didn’t come true, among them this vision of a permanent moon society:

Again, this idea of permanent moon settlements returned more famously in 2001, with William Sylvester and the gang kicking back inside swanky moon houses and heading out for field trips in hoppers and rovers. None of this stuff has come true, of course, and much of it probably never will, because there’s just not that much up there of interest — and also because space turns out to be a much harsher environment than was expected back when Kirk and his crew were finding Class M planets every 15 minutes or so.

Or as the scientist Ernie Ray said when the first readings came back from the U.S. Explorer I satellite, ‘My God, space is radioactive!’ This non-trivial problem of longterm space travel will be addressed tomorrow in the conclusion of Homer Hickam and Rand Simberg’s Dust-Up. In the meantime, or until the next America-is-all-washed-up panic, here’s one more bit of wisdom, from a Times editorial published on February 4, 1958, a few days after the United States got its own satellite into orbit:

[R]ocket fuel research is still young. Something may be done with atomic charges which will make all the present fuels as obsolete as Roger Bacon’s primitive gunpowder. Still, all this is academic this week while we are admiring our new satellite, built by Americans, loaded by Americans and fired by Americans, all without the benefit of the Russian system of education.

All illustrations from the 1959 edition of You Will Go to the Moon, published by Beginner Books.