A requiem for the Space Age
In the Southern California of my childhood, it was always rocket summer.
“Rocket summer” is the heat wave created by Mars-bound rockets in Ray Bradbury’s 1950 science fiction novel The Martian Chronicles. “One minute, it was Ohio winter,” writes Bradbury, “icicles fringing every roof.” Then the rockets exhale, turning winter into a puddle of ice water, the “skis and sleds suddenly useless.”
In Chula Vista, the San Diego suburb where I grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, rocket summer was an unchanging mental season for anyone whose father worked in the aeronautics industry, as my stepdad did. In 1965, he, my mother, and I had headed west in a Volkswagen van, camping our way from New Britain, Connecticut, to Southern California, where the commercial and military contracts were ripe for the picking. My stepdad had landed a job as a machinist at Chula Vista’s biggest employer, Rohr Aircraft, and we promptly rented a stucco bungalow and began living the working-class dream.
We were part of a westward expansion that had begun during World War II. “Ten percent of wartime federal spending went to California,” writes the regional historian D.J. Waldie. “Southern California aircraft plants produced 40 percent of the planes flown by the Navy and Army Air Corps. By the end of the war, 600,000 border Southerners had migrated to Southern California to work in defense industries.” After the war, the tide ebbed, but tales of good pay, palm trees, and endless sunshine continued to draw workers. The tribes of Aerojet and Convair, Litton and Lear-Siegler, Hughes and Northrop, McDonnell Douglas and Ford Aerospace, Rockwell and RAND, and, among the subcontractors, Rohr, were fruitful and multiplied.
My stepdad worked on the tail fins for the sleek, swept-wing fighter jet that would later knock Tom Cruise out of the spotlight in Top Gun—the legendary Grumman F-14 Tomcat, which entered military service in 1972. He had a hand, too, in the engine nacelles for the DC-10, the 727, and the 737; the thrust reverser for the 747; the exhaust system for the Concorde; and the space shuttle boosters.
San Diego was where Ryan Aeronautical built the Spirit of St. Louis (with Fred Rohr as foreman); where Charles Lindbergh took off from North Island, en route to New York for his legendary flight to Paris, and to which he returned in triumph, reassuring a jubilant crowd of 60,000 that “San Diego has always been in the foreground of Western aeronautics and San Diego, I believe, always will be in the foreground.”
Weekends, my family bodysurfed at Coronado, where in 1911 Glenn Curtiss made history’s first successful seaplane takeoff and landing. Sometimes we picnicked on the scrubby Chula Vista hill where, in 1883, John Montgomery strapped himself into his seagull-inspired “Gull Glider” and flew 600 feet, “open[ing] for all mankind the ‘great highway of the sky,’” as the Montgomery memorial’s stone marker proclaims.
Disney’s Tomorrowland fueled my fantasies. Once a year, on Rohr night, when the park opened its gates to Rohr employees only, I thrilled to the space-jock jargon and simulated microgravity of the Flight to the Moon (brought to you by McDonnell Douglas) and the Incredible Shrinking Man effects of the Adventure Thru Inner Space (brought to you by Monsanto). By moonlight, Tomorrowland’s aerodynamically cool monorail and spaceport architecture made the master-planned technocracies and interstellar odysseys in my stepdad’s Isaac Asimov novels and Popular Science magazines seem suddenly, thrillingly real.
But Tomorrowland only literalized the Visions of Things to Come floating around in postwar America. Space evangelists such as Willy Ley, Wernher von Braun, and Lester Del Rey spread the gospel of space exploration and colonization through children’s books that were equal parts edutainment, pulp science fiction, and boys’ adventure story. Ley’s inspiring 1949 tract, The Conquest of Space, cut the die for the genre: ringingly romantic evocations of space travel, brought to life by the superreal clarity of Chesley Bonestell’s artwork. Bonestell’s Saturn Seen from Titan, The Surface of Mercury, and Exploring the Moon were stills from a movie not yet made, one that every schoolkid was certain he would one day star in. “The younger generation of rocket engineers is just beginning,” wrote Ley, in 1951. “They are of the new generation to which space travel is not going to be a dream of the future but an everyday job with everyday worries in which they will be engaged.”
While my stepdad built the casings for the boosters that launched the moon rockets, I climbed Bonestell’s dramatically lit lunar ridges, plumbing the depths of their shadowed craters. I teleoperated the spiderlike robots in Ley’s 1958 Space Stations, assembling a huge, ring-shaped space lab high above the earth. I flew through the cosmic void in Del Rey’s 1959 Space Flight: The Coming Exploration of the Universe, propelled by the jetpack in my weirdly medieval metal spacesuit, mechanical claws sprouting from my gloves and boots.
Like the rest of my generation, I was itching for liftoff.
On July 20, 1969, I watched, enthralled, with half a billion other earthlings, as Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong took that momentous first step onto the moon. I marveled at the astronauts’ near-weightlessness in the moon’s microgravity and strained to make out the desolate, meteor-bombed landscape around them in the ghostly TV transmission.
As everyone knew, Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” was only the first step. Within two weeks of the moon landing, von Braun was exhorting a presidential task group to pursue an integrated space program that would establish a permanent moon base and space stations, springboards for a nuclear-powered mission to Mars.
And then, as soon as it began, the future was over. Partying in Los Angeles with President Richard Nixon after Armstrong and his crewmates had gotten out of quarantine, a drunken astronaut raised his glass in a sardonic-and prophetic-toast: “Here’s to the Apollo program. It’s all over.”
He was right. Apollo 11, the capstone of the Space Age, turned out to be its tombstone. My Lai, Kent State, and Watergate steadily eroded the Father Knows Best trust in authority that had written President John F. Kennedy a blank check to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth. To many, the space program looked like a costly boondoggle (Apollo alone had cost a staggering $24 billion), diverting the nation’s attention from more pressing matters: Vietnam, racial tensions, urban blight, the environment. When the last of the moon missions, Apollo 17, splashed down on December 19, 1972, the world barely noticed.
Driving through San Diego’s inland suburbs one furnace-hot August recently, I wondered what benefits we had reaped from our lunar crusade. Inevitably, footage of Apollo 14’s Alan Shepard golfing in the moon’s Fra Mauro highlands, or Apollo 17’s Harrison Schmitt singing “I was strolling on the moon one day” in the Taurus-Littrow valley, makes boomers like me wonder: What did it all mean?
The lunar missions pushed the envelope of knowledge, though they would have pushed it far further if Schmitt hadn’t been the only scientist NASA sent up. For politicians, of course, the benefits of the space program were clear: JFK’s stirring declaration that “we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard” covered the dashing young president in moondust and glory—and facilitated his political resurrection, after the embarrassment of Sputnik and the Bay of Pigs.
For the rest of us, the moon shots were sacred events, robed in religious rhetoric: In the seconds before Apollo 11 lifted off, an expectant Norman Mailer realized that he “was like a penitent who had prayed in the wilderness for 16 days, and was now expecting a sign.” Then his prayers were answered: “White as the shrine of Madonna in half the churches of the world, this slim angelic mysterious ship of stages rose without sound out of its incarnation of flame and began to ascend slowly into the sky.”
These days, the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral is a shrine to fading glories. In Rocket Dreams: How the Space Age Shaped Our Vision of a World Beyond, the cultural critic Marina Benjamin describes the Atlas, Titan, Gemini, and Redstone missiles at the visitor complex’s “Rocket Garden” as “so lackluster, so tired, they speak only of yesterday. And yesterday is where the Space Center and its surrounding attractions are for the most part stuck, caught up in a loop of reminiscence for Apollo.” Despite the insistent title of the center’s Imax movie The Dream Is Alive, NASA is the Vatican of the Space Age, reverently preserving the sanctified fragments of futures past.
True, NASA continues to launch satellites and unmanned missions, while the International Space Station and space shuttle programs limp along. In 2004 George W. Bush had a Buzz Lightyear moment: Delivering an uplifting homily that sounded, at times, like a reading from the Book of von Braun, the president dreamed aloud of a $15 billion “crew exploration vehicle,” a lunar base, and, sometime after 2020, a manned mission to Mars. To infinity-and beyond!
But building popular support for the mega-billion-dollar program will be a tough sell in a country bled white by Operation Iraqi Freedom. After the horror of the Challenger and Columbia disasters, not to mention more laughable pratfalls, such as the 1999 screw-up that sent the $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter kamikaze-ing into the red planet (NASA had failed to convert English measures to metric values), much of the nation seems convinced that boldly going where no man has gone before just isn’t worth it.
The Space Age is ancient history. Why not admit, then, that its greatest contribution to American culture is the rich fund of symbolism it has given us? The 20th century’s greatest myth, space exploration is the only true new religion since the Bronze Age. Christianity gave us the unforgettable fable of the alien messiah who touched down on planet Earth, assumed human form, sacrificed himself in order to save the species, then rose from the dead and returned to the stars.
The Space Age offers a new cosmology, better suited to our age of technological wonder and terror, scientific miracles and monsters. NASA has given us martyrs, saints, and icons, proof positive that there are more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in our old-time religion: Gemini 4’s spacewalking Edward White, savoring the sheer ecstasy of unfettered freedom as he tumbles weightlessly over the Gulf of Mexico at 17,500 miles per hour. Bootprints in lunar soil, like traces of the last human on some postapocalyptic beach—prints that are likely to remain sharply etched for a million years or more. A snapshot of Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke’s family in their Houston backyard, left by Duke on the sands of the moon’s Descartes Highlands—an image of almost unbearable loneliness. And, at the other end of the emotional scale, the awful grandeur of a 36-story Saturn V rocket, shattering gravity’s shackles in a mighty blast. “I didn’t think my heart could take it,” said one observer. “It was such an intense experience. I felt it shake every bone in my body. It was an exalted feeling.” The image of technological transcendence par excellence, a Saturn V blasting off was the 20th-century version of Burke’s sublime, with 7.5 million pounds of thrust.
Space exploration has taught us new parables, too, most hauntingly Charlie Duke’s dream, six months before he went to the moon:
In my dream, we were driving the [lunar] rover up to the [North Ray crater]. . . . It was untouched, the serenity of it, had a pristine purity about it. We crossed a hill. I felt, “Gosh, I’ve been here before!” And, uh, there was a set of tracks out in front of us, so we asked Houston if we could follow the tracks and they said yes, so we turned and followed the tracks. Within an hour or so, we found this vehicle, it looked just like the rover, with two people in it, and they looked like me and John [Young]. They’d been there for thousands of years. It was not a nightmare-type situation, nothing like that. It was probably one of the most real experiences of my life.
Duke’s dream felt so premonitory that he found himself scanning the North Ray crater for tire tracks as he descended onto the moon in the lunar module Orion. Perhaps it was a prophetic glimpse of the end of the Space Age—a moment symbolized by a pair of ancient astronauts, on the highlands of the moon, waiting for a future that will never come.