Ancient Astronauts and Forgotten Dreams

A requiem for the Space Age

| November-December 2006

  • moon

    Image by Flickr user: jurveston / Creative Commons

  • moon

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.”

Jordan Bassior
4/17/2012 6:06:20 AM

This is a common reaction on the part of people who feel _personally_ cheated by America's unwillingness to follow-up on Apollo -- that Man's exploration of and expansion into space are forever over. It's an illogical conclusion, and I examine the reasons for it in -- basically, it boils down to preferring to believe that human colonization of other worlds will NEVER happen than to believe that it just won't happen in the lifetime of the Boomers.

Heywood Poole
4/11/2012 2:40:21 PM

Sure, I lived the dream in my childhood too, but instead of continuing on as a dilettante, I became aware of how wrapped up the idea of the final frontier was with the ideas of freedom, the free market and the personal qualities of diligence and creative insight. I saw how the government steam roller was squashing every chance for further movement into space from the 1970s all the way through the early 2000s, and how small scrappy alt-space startups are the best hope for this industry as they have been for the computer and biotech industries.

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