Skip to Content
Uncategorized

The Danger of Expectations

Space and the American Imagination

Since its beginnings, the U.S. space program has been motivated by a highly romantic dream,” writes Howard E. McCurdy, a professor of public affairs at American University, in the introduction to his latest book, Space and the American Imagination. With its engaging cover and the author’s promise to examine how “the rise of the U.S. space program was due in part to a concerted effort by writers of popular science and science fiction,” the book seems to offer readers a study of how fantastic space imagery has affected space policy and NASA’s direction. However, instead of discussing the positive influence of space imagery, McCurdy uses examples culled from science fiction novels, magazine illustrations, film, and television, to criticize the image-makers for creating impossible-to-fulfill fantasies that politicians and NASA can never realize.

The author has zeroed in on some of this terrain before; NASA was the subject of McCurdy’s two earlier books, Inside NASA: High Technology and Organizational Change in the U.S. Space Program and The Space Station Decision: Incremental Politics and Technological Choice. The twist offered here is a “cultural studies” emphasis in place of the socio-political exegesis offered in those earlier studies.

Although McCurdy admits that “works of imagination dealing with space exploration are among the most entertaining in American culture,” his affection is tempered by the sense that such material muddies the public debate about space exploration. For example, McCurdy describes how President Dwight D. Eisenhower was primarily interested in channeling NASA’s activities toward unmanned space probes, a proclivity that was overturned when Sputnik was launched. The public hysteria about “catching up” to our Cold War enemy, from the author’s perspective, played into the hands of NASA officials seeking funding for manned missions. Suddenly the issue of Americans in space was transformed into a national security issue as well as a manifest-destiny dream.

McCurdy criticizes the manipulation of public opinion through outrageous cultural images suggesting that America faced nuclear annihilation if it let the former Soviet Union maintain the upperhand in space exploration. It was as if media coverage of Sputnik opened a Pandora’s box in the national psyche. He highlights Chesley Bonestell’s illustration of an atomic attack on New York City, which the former Soviet Union supposedly could initiate from the moon. The visual accompanied an article in Collier’s entitled “Rocket Blitz from the Moon.”

From its third chapter, which describes Sputnik’s impact, to its conclusion, McCurdy’s book takes a curious turn: It sheds the trappings of an academic study and becomes a sermon attacking the unsavory aspects of romantic imagination pertaining to space.

The list of sinister figures accused of “inflaming” the public imagination to expect unrealistic miracles from NASA evokes the methods of Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCurdy scapegoats everyone from science fiction novelists (Arthur C. Clarke and Carl Sagan are among the best known targets) to NASA “visionaries” (not a flattering term in McCurdy’s world) like Werner von Braun. Even classic fantasy authors like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells come in for their share of criticism. Their crime? McCurdy concludes his book with this damning accusation: “Works of imagination have become so pervasive in American culture that the latitude of the government to satisfy them grows narrower by the day. Politicians are obligated by the nature of their jobs to satisfy public expectations, but the expectations that imagination creates grow more and more unattainable.”

Even if one grants the truth of this unproven contention, one might marvel at the narrowness of McCurdy’s vision. “Gaps between expectations and reality invite discontent,” writes the author. Who would argue the point? But how much discovery and invention in the world of science and engineering occurs precisely because of the possibilities offered by imagination? One need not be a rocket scientist-literally or metaphorically-to appreciate the observation of the poet William Blake that “everything now called real was once imagined.”

Keep Reading

Most Popular

Europe's AI Act concept
Europe's AI Act concept

A quick guide to the most important AI law you’ve never heard of

The European Union is planning new legislation aimed at curbing the worst harms associated with artificial intelligence.

Uber Autonomous Vehicles parked in a lot
Uber Autonomous Vehicles parked in a lot

It will soon be easy for self-driving cars to hide in plain sight. We shouldn’t let them.

If they ever hit our roads for real, other drivers need to know exactly what they are.

supermassive black hole at center of Milky Way
supermassive black hole at center of Milky Way

This is the first image of the black hole at the center of our galaxy

The stunning image was made possible by linking eight existing radio observatories across the globe.

transplant surgery
transplant surgery

The gene-edited pig heart given to a dying patient was infected with a pig virus

The first transplant of a genetically-modified pig heart into a human may have ended prematurely because of a well-known—and avoidable—risk.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.