Goodbye, Space Child

The space age's bureaucratic dreams sputtered out


Anybody seen Space Child lately? You surely remember him: He was the big-eyed icon of a transcendent tomorrow, the trans-evolutionary infant who appears at the end of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), after the big cosmic light show.

Space Child once stared out at us, it seemed, from all over the place, especially from the future. But that was decades ago. Is he gone? If so, his obit should note that he didn't exactly die; he just failed to be born. The future that he presaged lost its meaning and evaporated, negating his existence.

When did such a thing happen? It happened when the Space Age became a part of the past.

Where's My Space Age? demands a new book by Sean Topham (Prestel). The heavily illustrated work is about, as the subtitle puts it, "the rise and fall of futuristic design." It concerns itself not with Space Child, but with spacey graphic art, spacey fashion, spacey architecture, and so on. Yet Topham believes that "art and culture have always reflected the public's mixed emotions" about the space era, whether awe (at its achievements) or repulsion (at its Cold War motivations). Bit by bit, toy-box illustration by comic-book cover by metallic dress by modular house, Topham offers us the now-obsolete material evidence of anticipation, the stuff Space Child would have eventually unloaded at a garage sale before moving into an assisted-living facility.

Here, for example, is a tattered wrapper from Man on the Moon chewing gum, and an old box of Space Patrol candy in the form of "sweet cigarettes." Maybe you missed those. (Russia produced a line of tobacco cigarettes named for its space dog, Laika.)

But here's something no one who lived through the period missed: It's the sleeve from The Tornadoes' 1962 instrumental hit "Telstar," the first release by a British group to hit No. 1 on the U.S. Top 40. (The group's bassist reportedly became a bakery deliveryman, a little fable, perhaps, of unfulfilled tomorrows.)

If you were born too late for The Tornadoes, you can land at Los Angeles International airport and check out its "futuristic" Theme Building, a remaining echo of space design that survived its obsolescence and has now achieved nostalgia.

The Space Age is hardly the only future that didn't happen. Magazines like Popular Science and Mechanix Illustrated are troves of misdirected speculation about how various optimistic futures would look and how they would work. Misdirection also marks the work of such design institutions as Germany's Bauhaus, with its elite notion of a stripped-down, barely furnished world to come that the "workers" would gladly occupy. The American science slicks were a lot less somber about the future than were the European intellectuals, but far more insightful. The actual future turned out to be one of material, individuating plenitude and not at all of minimalist class conformity.

Space Age speculation drew on both of these approaches, and of course the Space Age stands out among various futures because, like the Atomic Age that it overlapped, it seemed to be taking shape. But only some of it—communications satellites, for example—reflected people's desires. Much of it was a state program established for geopolitical reasons, as part of the competition with the USSR, which meant that it was to follow the trajectory of the state's needs. As those needs shrank, as bureaucratic and budgetary issues buffeted NASA, the Space Age that depended on the state's shrinking dreams got ever smaller too.

Politically mandated futures don't develop, because the forces behind them are artificial. While many of the scientific achievements of the space program were certainly impressive (and many have indeed changed people's lives), the cultural Space Age that author Topham examines in his pages was an illusion. The stuff of future fashion, and future junk, was a design fad, rather like the design enthusiasm for Egypt that followed the unearthing of King Tut's tomb.

"The space age entered the home as a child's plaything," writes Topham, "but from the toy box it threatened to take over the whole house." Did it? Even if it didn't, his is nevertheless a good formulation. The future that lies in a toy box is a serious future. It reflects real fantasies, not political needs.

There's a Space Age still waiting to emerge from such a box, one into which a real Space Child—in fact, a future full of them—will be born.