Reconsidering the Foundations of Human Spaceflight in the 1950s

A stunning illustration tieing American westward expansion with destiny and progress.

The Role of Adventure and Discovery: There seems to be little doubt but that adventure and discovery, the promise of exploration and colonization, were motivating forces behind the small cadre of early space program advocates in the United States prior to the 1950s.

Many advocates of aggressive space exploration efforts invoked an extension of the popular notion of the American frontier with its then attendant positive images of territorial discovery, scientific discovery, exploration, colonization, and use. Indeed, the image of the American frontier has been an especially evocative and somewhat romantic, as well as popular, argument to support the aggressive exploration of space. It plays to the popular conception of “westering” and the settlement of the American continent by Europeans from the East that was a powerful metaphor of national identity until the 1970s.

The space promoters of the 1950s and 1960s intuited that this set of symbols provided a vigorous explanation and justification of their efforts. The metaphor was probably appropriate for what they wanted to accomplish. It conjured up an image of self-reliant Americans moving westward in sweeping waves of discovery, exploration, conquest, and settlement of an untamed wilderness. In the process of movement, the Europeans who settledNorth Americabecame in their own eyes a unique people from all the others of the Earth imbued with virtue and justness.

The frontier ideal has always carried with it the ideals of optimism, democracy, and right relationships. It has been almost utopian in its expression, and it should come as no surprise that those people seeking to create perfect societies in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries—the Puritans, the Mormons, the Shakers, the Moravians, the Fourians, the Icarians, the followers of Horace Greeley—often went to the frontier to carry out their end.

This Gemini V mission patch draws a direct connection to American westward expansion of the nineteenth century.

It also summoned in the popular mind a wide range of vivid and memorable tales of heroism, each a morally justified step of progress toward the modern democratic state. While the frontier ideal reduced the complexity of events to a relatively static morality play, avoided matters that challenged or contradicted the myth, viewed Americans moving westward as inherently good and their opponents as evil, and ignored the cultural context of westward migration, it served a critical unifying purpose for the nation. Those who were persuaded by this metaphor, and most white Americans in 1960 did not challenge it, embrace the vision of space exploration.

The Role of Popular Conceptions of Space Travel: If the frontier metaphor of space exploration conjured up romantic images of an American nation progressing to something for the greater good, the space advocates of the Eisenhower era also sought to convince the public that space exploration was an immediate possibility. It was seen in science fiction books and film, but more importantly, it was fostered by serious and respected scientists, engineers, and politicians. Deliberate efforts on the part of space boosters during the late 1940s and early 1950s helped to reshape the popular culture of space and to influence governmental policy. In particular these advocates worked hard to overcome the level of disbelief that had been generated by two decades of “Buck Rogers” type fantasies and to convince the American public that space travel might actually, for the first time in human history, be possible.

The decade following World War II brought a see change in perceptions, as most Americans went from skepticism about the probabilities of space flight to an acceptance of it as a near-term reality. A concerted effort to convince the public followed. Among the most important serious efforts was that of the handsome German émigré, Wernher von Braun, working for the Army at Huntsville, Alabama.

Walt Disney and Wernher von Braun in the 1950s.

Von Braun burst on the public stage with a series of articles in Collier’s magazine about the possibilities of spaceflight. The first issue of Collier’s devoted to space appeared on March 22, 1952. An editorial suggested that space flight was possible, not just science fiction, and that it was inevitable that humanity would venture outward. Von Braun advocated the orbiting of humans, development of a reusable spacecraft for travel to and from Earth orbit, building a permanently inhabited space station, and finally human exploration of the Moon and Mars by spacecraft departing from the space station. The series concluded with a special issue of the magazine devoted to Mars, in which von Braun and others described how to get there and predicted what might be found based on recent scientific data.

Following close on the heels of the Collier’s series, Walt Disney contacted von Braun and asked his assistance in the production of three shows for Disney’s weekly television series in the 1955-1957 period. Both the Collier’s and Disney series helped to shape the public’s perception of space exploration as something that was no longer fantasy.

The coming together of public perceptions of space flight as a near-term reality with the technological developments then being seen at White Sands and elsewhere, created an environment much more conducive to the establishment of an aggressive space program. The convincing of the American public that space flight was possible was one of the most critical components of the space policy debate of the 1950s. Without it, the aggressive exploration programs of the 1960s would never have been approved.

The Role of Foreign Policy and National Security Issues: At the same time that space exploration advocates were generating an image of space flight as genuine possibility and no longer fantasy and proposing how to accomplish a far-reaching program of lunar and planetary exploration another critical element entered the picture, the role of spaceflight in national defense and international relations. Space partisans early began hitching their exploration vision to the political requirements of the cold war, in particular to the belief that the nation that occupied the “high ground” of space would dominate the territories underneath it. In the first of the Collier’s articles in 1952, the exploration of space was framed in the context of the cold war rivalry with the Soviet Union and concluded that “Collier’s believes that the time has come for Washington to give priority of attention to the matter of space superiority. The rearmament gap between the East and West has been steadily closing. And nothing, in our opinion, should be left undone that might guarantee the peace of the world. It’s as simple as that.” The magazine’s editors argued “that the U.S. must immediately embark on a long-range development program to secure for the West ‘space superiority.’ If we do not, somebody else will. That somebody else very probably would be the Soviet Union.”

Artwork by Chesley Bonestell depicts the most fearsome of outcomes in the Cold War. Two nuclear explosions obliterate New York City. Fortunately, this never happened.

Couple this sense of terror with the reality of the Soviet Union successfully testing an atomic bomb on August 29, 1949, in Semipalatinsk, Siberia, and the nightmare had become reality. This shock was still reverberating when the Soviets tested their first hydrogen bomb in the early 1950s. After an arms race that had a definite nuclear component and a series of hot and cold crises in the Eisenhower era, with the launching of Sputnik in 1957 the threat of holocaust for most Americans was now not just a possibility but a probability.

One of Lyndon Johnson’s aides, George E. Reedy, summarized the feelings of many Americans at that time in October 1957: “the simple fact is that we can no longer consider the Russians to be behind us in technology. It took them four years to catch up to our atomic bomb and nine months to catch up to our hydrogen bomb. Now we are trying to catch up to their satellite.” Then Senator John F. Kennedy agreed during the 1960 presidential campaign that “if the Soviets control space they can control earth, as in past centuries the nation that controlled the seas dominated the continents.”

Final Thoughts: The linkage between the idea of progress manifested through the frontier, the selling of space flight as a reality in American popular culture, and the cold war rivalries between the U.S.and theSoviet Union made possible the adoption of an aggressive space program by the early 1960s. The NASA effort through Project Apollo, with its emphasis upon human spaceflight and extraterrestrial exploration, emerged from these three major ingredients, with cold war concerns the dominant driver behind monetary appropriations for space efforts.

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2 Responses to Reconsidering the Foundations of Human Spaceflight in the 1950s

  1. Heinrich Monroe says:

    The challenge of human spaceflight, coupled with the frontier myth, is a storyline that sustains the human space flight enterprise. It’s about sending people out to look, learn, and take control. The problem with the frontier myth is that it never acknowledged the possibility of virtual presence, or at least telerobotic control. To do things took human flesh. Doing those things don’t need it now. This was not the case in the 1950s or even really in the 1960s, but is very much the case now. If Thomas Jefferson had Earth resources satellites, Meriwether Lewis would have spent his life at Goosepond. I’m not suggesting that human space flight is unnecessary, but just that the whole paradigm of human space exploration that is based on historical exploration is wrong. We can now look, learn, and assert control at locations in space without being there. Our telerobots are good now, and they’re only going to get fabulously better. Time delay is a handicap, and human space flight may be needed to mitigate some of that delay, but our current perspective of human space flight is largely now that of using humans as robots. Until we learn the fallacy of the frontier myth for human space flight, and can see beyond that, we will not make any progress.


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