A shorter version of this profile article ran in the November edition of the Richmond Review newspaper, a community news source serving the Richmond District of San Francisco. Now A View From The Brink presents an extended version of the interview with much more information.
Cover art for Another Science Fiction
by Thomas K. Pendergast
Her family can trace ancestors back to pioneers that settled around the Eugene Oregon area in the 1840s, and she grew up with a strong sense of western lore. As a child, however, author Megan Prelinger's earliest memories were of the Apollo moon landings on television, plus episodes of "Gunsmoke" and "Star Trek."
Perhaps, as she browsed a collection of old aerospace industry trade magazines from the early days of the "space race" while sitting in her Richmond District apartment in 2006, it was inevitable she would notice certain connections between cowboys, or pioneers, and space exploration.
The articles were mostly about different projects that various aerospace companies were working on and industry trends, yet the advertisements told a very different story, in which science fiction fantasy dominated.
Two recurring themes of the advertisements showed images of commonplace domestic scenes on some other planet or in future space stations. Frequently, they used a strong western motif.
"It's not just the domestic environments but also the transference of the sense of the west and westward expansion onto outer space," said Prelinger. "Like, settling space, it's about using visual imagery to make space exploration feel natural, inevitable and an extension of things that we're already doing. And, natural like it's going to be comfortable when we get there and space is going to somehow warmly receive us."
She also noticed that the idea of peaceful space exploration was being used as a recruiting tool for companies that had little to do with peace, yet everything to do with building missiles for expanding US nuclear war capabilities.
In 2010 the end result of these insights was the publication of her book "Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race 1957 - 1962," by Blast Books. It's a slickly produced, glossy-paged documentation of a grand mixing between the realities of a brave new technological world and the scientific fantasies of future possibilities.
"Most of the research, development, manufacturing and funding was focused on weapons systems and a relatively tiny percentage of federal funding for rocket and missile development really got applied to NASA, the first civil space exploration. Think about the Cold War military. It was nothing compared to that," she said.
While the articles informed her of the reality, the advertisements were about something else entirely.
"In each of the ads there was a picture and the picture was often of a fantastical landscape. The artist maybe imagined a spaceship that did not yet exist. The imagery is a real fantasy space but … the very copy in the ad itself says 'actually what we're recruiting for is we need engineers to work on the titan missile and ICBM projects and Nike, Zeus rocket programs.' What they're showing is astronauts heading to Saturn or something like that and I was thinking hmmm, there's a discrepancy there.
"The advertisements are their own body of literature and they're like science fiction. They're telling stories. They're spinning ideas about the future. … And I thought 'wow somewhere there's got to be a really beautiful book that's been done about this artwork. I'm going to see if I can find it.'"
She went online and tried to find a book about aerospace advertising artwork from the Cold War era but found nothing. She asked in bookstores but no one knew about such a book.
"I decided that it actually had not been done and it needed to be done and that I was going to do it. That was my "Eureka" moment."
Prelinger first discovered San Francisco when she visited City Lights bookstore as an 11-year-old girl, while on a family road trip to Mexico. She lived in the Richmond District briefly in 1985, then after graduating from Reed College with a BA in anthropology, she moved back to the district in 1993.
She met her husband Rick in 1998. The next year they married and moved into the mid-district house where they still live.
In the same room where she was inspired to write the book, she recently talked about the Cold War period and the space race.
"The ads don't directly reference the Cold War because they tend to be about a fantasy space, about technology and peace and space exploration," she explained. "The reality was that people didn't know how many warheads the Soviet Union had and they didn't know what the space capacity of the Soviet Union was going to be. They just knew that the U.S. had to be on top. Later, intelligence found out that back when we thought we were behind in the 'missile gap,' that we were actually ahead but we didn't know that. We had a sense of being behind and having to just work as hard as humanly possible to close the gap and have the largest nuclear arsenal."
Prelinger thinks the ads also served to both create a cultural mythology and an opportunity for companies in the aerospace industry to show off in front of their competitors.
"I think they thought that the space mythology was a very powerful recruitment tool and at the same time ... the space mythology really will come true and it'll get funded and they'll get the jobs."
All of this was being fueled by a pervasive fear of nuclear war that was an ever-present fact of life for many during the Cold War.
"I had some awareness of it even when I was six, seven, eight, Watergate era," she recalled. "I remember thinking when Watergate happened 'does this mean we're all going to get killed in a nuclear war if we don't have a good president?'
Many ideas in the advertisements are obviously prototypes for today's high-tech weaponry, like flying drone planes that spy and cruise missiles. Other ideas seem downright laughable today.
"I think it's an interesting look at the rapid pace of the change of technology," she said. "We think technology is moving fast now but it was also moving really fast back then. Stuff that was very real in 1965 had been complete fantasy in 1955. So, there really were a lot of ideas, especially in the 1950s. Technology moved so fast in the 25 years post war that people really did tend to over-imagine what might be possible.
“By the 60s we knew what wasn’t going to be possible anymore. It’s just interesting to make note of the fact that the kind of technological change we tend to think is privileged to our modern moment is not privileged. It’s happened at other times in the past as well and I don’t know if we are smart enough to be able to learn from it but I would love to know how to learn from … how do you actually imagine a future and then build it so that it comes out the way that you want?”
Or if a certain future that's being imagined is even possible.
“A lot of physics and engineering problems just hadn’t been solved yet in the 50s that ultimately dictated a lot about what the cost would be to actually go to space. That’s one of the main reasons, ... there are a couple of main reasons we haven’t been beyond orbit since '73 or '74. People really couldn’t see and in some ways they had more faith in technology than was warranted because they thought that there would be a lot of alternatives, working alternatives to chemical rockets by 1970 and there weren’t, because of cost problems, materials problems and then the nuclear winter problem.”
The so-called 'nuclear winter problem' highlights that sometimes the imagination can overwhelm common sense with even the smartest people.
“People really thought ‘well we’ll just have nuclear rockets and we’ll have fast, cheap and easy access to space,'" said Prelinger.
“But when people actually played out scenarios of launch failures, if you have a launch failure of a (nuclear) reactor on a launch pad it would make a 30-mile-radius around the launch pad uninhabitable for a half million years or whatever. … These were going to be civil nuclear rocket programs, with nuclear reactor engines.”
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see why that idea wouldn't fly.
“We can see that now but they couldn’t see it then and actually built the things and then couldn’t politically even get them tested. ... For the obvious reasons. Then it was like 20/20 hindsight came on and people are ‘why did we ever build that? We can never test it, much less launch it; much less use it.' But it wasn’t that obvious. I think the pace of change was so fast that it created like a cloud that inhibited people from seeing clearly.”
But all of these soaring imaginations were funded by the taxpayers and with broad public support, after the Soviet Union launched the very first satellite, called Sputnik.
“The space aspect, it starts with Sputnik. The US had two satellites programs but they weren’t very well funded and they didn’t have a lot of public or political support, until Sputnik. And then very abruptly Congress funded our two missile programs.”
Prelinger said the boost in public support was a mixture of both national pride and fear.
“Really, they were worried about the Russians being able to spy on us and they wanted to catch up and immediately make it so that Americans could spy on the Soviet Union and that was where the funding really came from.
“And then, kind of at the public level there was just this idea that if the Russians got to the moon first it would be just terrible for our national image, just that the Russians got to space first. That was an event that had resonance at both the cultural level of ‘space is the place’ kind of level and at the Cold War level, both at the same time.
“And that’s when the advertisements really started to be colorful and inventive because they represent those two things at once, that space suddenly became much more real as a near-term human destination. So everybody’s rocket, moon and Mars dreams suddenly became one big step closer to reality and that fact really fueled the science fictional aspect of it.
"Whereas at the same time, at the military level at the Department of Defense funding level they’re going ‘oh crap! We’d better make sure we can have flyover surveillance just like them and we’d better make sure that if they’re going to set up a military base on the moon that we can do it too, and if they’re going to launch,' they were actually worried about people launching rockets from space. So at the military level that really drove a lot of funding.
“So suddenly a lot of, not only NASA but also various branches of the military had new waves of funding to do new kinds of works, toward space sciences. So those waves of funding that came into the military paid for a lot of those recruitment ads, whereas the cultural level, the science-fictional aspect lent the ads their visuals.”
Yet it was not all about utopian visions. The potential for disasters and problems was very much a part of the futuristic fantasy, although they often addressed these with an optimism characteristic of that era. One of the potential problems has in fact now become a reality.
“Some of the ads anticipate that there will be space junk in the future and they promote the idea that the technology being developed can be applied to clean up space junk. When I tour for the book I always talk about that.
“There are pictures of space stations being hit by asteroids and the little science fiction scenario that’s going on in the picture is of a rescue vehicle. The idea is in the future we’re going to need rescue vehicles ‘cause actually our spaceships are going to be vulnerable and there’s a picture of a space station being blown up by an asteroid. ... They were kind of working that angle as business opportunities.”
In hindsight, the last years of the Eisenhower Administration and the first two years of the Kennedy Administration were an odd mix of optimism and pessimism, of great hopes and great fears, all wrapped around the Cold War.
“You can’t separate it from the Cold War when there was a very clear tension between optimism and pessimism because the threat of nuclear annihilation hung over everything," she said. "And I think in a way that makes this utopian science fiction kind of stand out more clearly and be more distinctly its own thing that inhabited its own world and stood for a kind of utopian thinking. It had to really be a whole space apart from the Cold War threat ...because the vision of space exploration that’s promoted in the ads is pretty removed from the everyday realities of the Cold War. The ads are talking about Mars colonies and interplanetary spacecraft and intergalactic spacecraft and stuff like that. I think space was used as a kind of template for thinking about utopia in a way that didn’t tend to directly reference the Cold War. Maybe the tension of the Cold War kind of enhanced that.”
Prelinger's vision of the future for space exploration is also a mixture of optimism and pessimism. She sees both problems and opportunities.
“The single biggest threat to space exploration is public indifference," she said. "People should be excited about space and care about what happens up there and continue to see and feel space as an extension of the world that we live in and an extension of a place where we have control over what happens and investment in what happens."
Yet in these hard economic times, every dollar that goes to space exploration has to come from somewhere else, and with funding for education, infrastructure and social security all in question right now, is it the right time to be sinking public dollars into reaching for the stars?
"We spend more money on drones in a year than we spend on space exploration," Prelinger responded. "Don’t even put society and education in opposition to space exploration because society and education are not in opposition to what space exploration is all about. Space exploration leads education, it leads curiosity, motivates people to participate in society, to participate in education systems. It’s one of many big carrots hanging out there for kids to get through school, to do science, to think that they might be able to operate a telescope or understand what it’s telling us about the universe. The positive educational values of space exploration, we can just call it an extension of the education budget and it’s a tiny one at that.
“And also the public value of science, just for its own sake. Do we appreciate having knowledge about our climate instability? We can thank NASA for that. Weather satellites started to give us a picture of our climate that we never had before. So space sciences, as science, are an extension and a beneficial part of the whole of society and education. They’re not separate from or opposed to society and education.
“Take the question of human space exploration a little differently. It is really expensive and it has cultural value more than scientific value and I think that cultural value is really, really important. It’s, again part of what motivates people.
And what of the new competition from private companies, no longer tied to governments, who are now vying to enter the space race?
"I’d say it’s ok, it’s appropriate for private industry to take some of that risk, because it’s actually quite a bit of financial risk to develop an interplanetary human exploration program. ... As long as somebody’s doing it. We have the technology to go to Mars and Mars is not unfeasible. There are plans under which we could get to Mars in a matter of years, like a couple of years. And so Mars is a place people could actually go to and come from.”
“And colonize, in the span of a human life. So I think if we have the technology we shouldn’t refrain from experimenting and trying to do it. I think we have the technology. What we need is the funding and the will to do it on a pretty large level. The funding and the will should be brought to bear and that we should get to go. I wouldn’t necessarily fight anybody that the American public at this moment in history should pay for it. Everything from now on is going to be industry and NASA partnerships to some extent.”
"Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race 1957 - 1962" is available at www.Amazon.com. For more information, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. It can also be found at Green Apple books on Clement Street at Sixth Avenue and Booksmith on Haight Street in San Francisco.
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