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Not everyone wanted to live in The Space Age

May 28, 2012

“RetroFuturist” Matt Novak tells us how baby boomers all think the country was united around the goal of getting to the Moon, and how that’s just faulty memory at work:

The future used to be so much better. At least that’s what everyone under the age of 65 keeps telling me. In the 1950s and ‘60s, people dreamed of—nay, expected—jetpacks and flying cars and colonies on Mars. On Mars!

Legend has it that after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first human-made satellite to ever orbit the Earth, in 1957, Americans rallied behind the idea of a better, more technologically advanced future for all. This nationwide enthusiasm buoyed NASA’s Apollo program and, as much as rocket fuel, propelled us to the moon. During his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama invoked the popular idea of the “Sputnik moment” as he implored Congress to invest more in scientific research and education.

So what percentage of Americans in the 1960s do you suppose believed that the Apollo program was worth the time and resources devoted to it? Seventy percent? Eighty percent? In reality, it was less than 50 percent…

SLATE: How space-age nostalgia hobbles our future

I’m not sure who all these people under 65 are, who are telling Matt we really expected to have jetpacks by now.

I’m under 65; I was 12 when The Eagle Landed, just the perfect age to be all dewy-eyed about it under the explanations that follow in Matt’s article. I was a fan, baby, and when it comes to faulty memory, I take second fiddle to no one. For all I know, I really grew up in Japan and just made up my whole childhood digging fossils in the Iowa. So let me tell you how I misremember it…

I do remember Walter Cronkite moved to tears on national television, over the prospect of humans walking on the Moon. But I also remember countless editorials where people said the money should be spent “solving poverty”.  I was an oddly political child, and I remember a divided country, too – over Vietnam, over the space program, over civil rights and nuclear weapons and the environment.

Wait – is it really 2012? It feels like nothing’s changed; like it’s 1970. Only our Vietnam is a mountainous hell instead of a jungle hell now. And the context of nuclear weapons debate has changed slightly – not that anyone in 1970 who thought about it for two seconds didn’t see it coming.

Americans are seldom  - perhaps never – completely united. There were people opposed to involvement in WWII, so I suppose you could write a history that says national unanimity over fighting the Nazis was a myth. But it wasn’t a myth – by and large people put their shoulders to the wheel and pushed. It is good to remember those who were opposed, but history, written by the victors, is a matter of focus. And space-enthusiasts were not the victors in the race to the Moon. As usual, the winners were those who took what we learned going to the moon and did something with it in the marketplace.

Yes, there are people who don’t know that unanimity is rare; perhaps we should take a poll. Then someone can write an article on SLATE about how it’s a myth that Americans were ever united. There’s always been a range of opinion. From what I’ve been able to learn, some people were excited by Sputnik; also large numbers were terrified (which is a kind of excitement I suppose) and quite another large number surely didn’t care in the least.

The future is shaping up some nasty surprises just now. If there is to be hope – any hope at all – it lies in the human imagination and the courage to think about what things would be like… if.  It’s a big “if”, and there will never been unanimity about it. At least, there never has been before.


  • Matt looks like he’s in his 30′s.  Maybe when he’s in his 50′s he’ll be writing grumpy articles about how some whippersnapper won’t get off his lawn.
  • “We should spend the money solving poverty instead” ranks as one of the stupidest arguments against exploration that I can think of. I remember Maya Angelou on television in 1989 using this argument against NASA funding. She was exasperated at her co-panelists but I was exasperated at her. She was not exactly a lone voice in the wilderness, either; people hear “billions” and just react. But discovery has always been our best investment. It’s war and financial speculation that have been the biggest waste in our history.
  • I don’t personally know anyone my age who really wants a jetpack or a flying car. All you have to do is watch ordinary people trying to negotiate the extremely simple rules of a 4-way stop intersection to know why that would be a bad idea.
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  1. WeeDram
    May 28, 2012 at 20:27 | #1

    If I am not full of false memories, the space race was mostly about fear … fear that the Communist regime in Russian might actually be gaining a permanent advantage in both science and military advantage. A substantial portion of the public was not really concerned about the status of science and engineering education and achievement, but about supremacy.

    As for jetpacks … well, there was some expectation that science would bring wonderful, almost utopian developments. We did get better living through chemistry, but it didn’t last long.

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