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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.”

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