Staff Reviews

The Men Who Sold the Moon

Advertising the early space race

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A decade into the far-flung future of the 21st century, manned spaceflight seems to be on the verge of completing a cycle from science fiction to science fact to history. The Space Shuttle Atlantis took its last flight to the International Space Station, as NASA's shuttle program—the main way human beings have slipped the surly bonds of Earth these past three decades—will finally be mothballed this year.

Meanwhile, moon-stepping astronauts Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan were cursing Barack Obama before Congress for his plan to abandon governmental efforts to free us from the gravity well. The president wants to cease funding NASA's Constellation program, which had been tasked to develop a new means to get people to space and also to fund a possible moonbase.

Megan Prelinger's Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race 1957–1962 (Blast Books) takes us back to the days when the extra-terrestrial human future seemed expansive, endless, and fecund in a hundred ways. It illustrates this history through a fresh lens: industry advertising.

Another Science Fiction combines art, history, and criticism. The art is the military-industrial-space complex's surprisingly imaginative efforts to sell—to would-be employees, to the government, and to each other—the wonders of bringing man and his machines to earth orbit, the Moon, and outer space.

The selections are stylish in that manner that today is most closely associated with the TV show Mad Men. The graphic designs, influenced in turn by constructivist, modernist, minimalist, and expressionist art, are epitomes of the advertising that the show simultaneously criticizes and valorizes. (Willi Baum's work is particularly startling and fresh.) Mad Men prop master Gay Perello gave the book a glowing back-cover blurb, aptly calling it "a concise visual-historical reference of mid-century advertising."

As in Mad Men, this sense of cool, smart, unexpected genius was deployed not just to sell a product but to evoke and steer a romantic longing—in this case, escape from the eternal bonds of gravity and atmosphere and the conquest of the last possible frontier (and last possible territory to colonize). There is a more rational longing as well, the desire to solve the many technical problems inherent in getting people and their artifacts off the planet, while keeping them alive and reasonably comfortable in the process.

Between the lush and lovely reproductions of more than a hundred ads, most from the industry magazines Aviation Week and Missiles and Rockets (and thus not intended to sway the general public), lies a smart and nuanced history of how even in the managed, bureaucratic process of space exploration, reality took many contingent and unexpected turns. 

Promising paths went unexplored, or proved too tangled to navigate. Such military schemes as Project Orion (using nuclear-powered rockets for interplanetary travel) and Project Horizon (building a military moon base) fizzled on the proverbial launch pad. Many intelligent folk—including Vannevar Bush, the engineer often credited with first imagining widespread personal computing—thought that manned space exploration was a dumb idea to begin with. "Putting man in space is a stunt," Bush said. "The man can do no more than an instrument, in fact can do less."

But both science fiction writers and the politicians were right: Without human astronauts, no one, neither industry nor government, could have cared enough to make space travel happen.

Intelligent as Another Science Fiction is, it begins with a mistake that the book's own evidence belies: In her first paragraph, Prelinger writes that "the interplay between the real and the imagined in space is as dynamic in the twenty-first century as in the days of Flash Gordon." 

In fact, the days when industry and government felt they held a huge stake in selling the American people on dreams of space travel are gone, at least for now, and space's cultural prominence is at a perigee in many ways. As Prelinger later writes, beginning in the mid-'60s, "because consensus about the direction of the civil space program no longer dictates the solvency of major aerospace corporations, the need for astronaut-oriented advertising has vanished." With it has vanished a sense that space would be a dominant part of the human future. 

But some dedicated people are working hard to launch a new phase in the space age, a return to the vision of such postwar science fiction tales as Robert Heinlein's "The Man Who Sold the Moon" and Rocket Ship Galileo: exploration driven not by big government and its corporate contractors, but by plucky private entrepreneurs.

When Prelinger's history enters the 1970s, she traces an encouraging shift in America's space fantasies. In that decade, our chief source of space visions was not bureaucrats, big companies, or science fiction writers: It was freelance intellectuals such as Gerard O'Neill and Stewart Brand, who in Prelinger's words took the idea "out of industry and into the cultural sphere rather than any official activity." In this period, "the technological idea of space colonies [was] resituated from the dystopia of military one-upmanship into the domain of utopian social thinking." 

It was that era, not the supercool but supercontrolled days of the first wave of the space race, that inspired two of the current kings of private space travel, Peter Diamandis, cofounder of the X Prize, and Robert Bigelow, founder of Bigelow Aerospace, a leading commercial aerospace firm.

Space's place in the public imagination may be in low orbit, but the real space age is just beginning. The government bureaucracy and military-industrial complex so stylishly sold in this book may have been the thrust that gave launch energy to man's travels off planet. But a new steering system is emerging for the greatest voyage in human history. 

Senior Editor Brian Doherty is author of This is Burning Man (BenBella), Radicals for Capitalism (PublicAffairs) and Gun Control on Trial (Cato Institute).