Future Tense

How Space-Age Nostalgia Hobbles Our Future

Contrary to popular belief, public support for space exploration in the 1960s was far from universal.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University. On May 21, Future Tense will host an event in Washington, D.C., called “How To Save America’s Knowledge Enterprise.” We’ll discuss how the United States approaches science and technology research, the role government should play in funding, and more. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America Foundation’s website.

The future used to be so much better. At least that’s what everyone under the age of 65 keeps telling me. In the 1950s and ‘60s, people dreamed of—nay, expected—jetpacks and flying cars and colonies on Mars. On Mars!

Legend has it that after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first human-made satellite to ever orbit the Earth, in 1957, Americans rallied behind the idea of a better, more technologically advanced future for all. This nationwide enthusiasm buoyed NASA’s Apollo program and, as much as rocket fuel, propelled us to the moon. During his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama invoked the popular idea of the “Sputnik moment” as he implored Congress to invest more in scientific research and education.

So what percentage of Americans in the 1960s do you suppose believed that the Apollo program was worth the time and resources devoted to it? Seventy percent? Eighty percent?

In reality, it was less than 50 percent.

Erik Conway, historian at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., explains: “The Apollo program only had a majority public support—over 51 percent—for the few months around the 1969 moon landing. That’s it. Otherwise, it was less than 50 percent.” In a 1969 opinion poll taken after the lunar landing, just 53 percent of American adults believed that the moon excursion was worth the expense. In fact, during the nine years of the Apollo program, American support pretty much fluctuated between 35 percent and 45 percent. In a 2005 paper, Roger Launius, chief historian at NASA, wrote, “While there may be many myths about Apollo and spaceflight, the principal one is the story of a resolute nation moving outward into the unknown beyond Earth.” Nostalgia for the Space Age is rooted more in The Jetsons than in reality.

But try telling that to the baby boomers, who insist that they grew up in the most wondrous period of scientific adventure in U.S. history—a time when Americans supposedly united behind a single goal and achieved it. Raised by parents who spoke wistfully of watching the moon landing, Generation X and the Millennials have bought into the narrative, too. This romanticization of the past has real-world consequences because it breeds a certain kind of futility, a belief that we’re simply not able to accomplish things without every American behind the idea. The myth of the “Sputnik moment” means that we spend time hand-wringing over a lack of shared ambition, rather than actually working toward game-changing goals. Time is wasted as we act like petulant children, whining that no one wants to go to Mars anymore, rather than making the case for a manned Red Planet mission.

So where did this myth of national unity around the space race come from? There are two explanations. 1) The people currently telling the story of the Space Age were young in the 1960s. The world is a much simpler (and often much rosier) place through the eyes of a child. 2) Just as history is written by the victors, space history is written by space enthusiasts.

Unfortunately, we don’t have public opinion polls of children from this time. What we do have are toy sales figures.

Immediately post-WWII, cowboys were all the rage. Stanley Breslow of the Carnell Manufacturing Co. explained to The New Yorker in 1950: “Last year there were enough [cowboy gun] holster sets manufactured to supply every male child in the United States three times over. I don’t know where they all go.”

By 1958, the year following the Soviet launch of Sputnik, a full 50 percent of the $1.3 billion U.S. toy market was sci-fi-related. Kids traded in their six-shooters for ray guns. That’s significant to the narrative we see today about Americans’ shared Space Age ambitions. Conway explains:

There’s a tendency to assume that everyone knew all along that [the Apollo program] would be successful and that everybody enjoyed it and so forth and so on. And of course it’s looked back on fondly by the generation who grew up then, not necessarily their parents. And who is it now that are the main spokesmen of … well, everything in the United States, right? It’s folks … who were kids during the Apollo program and who loved it even if their parents didn’t.

In 1989 Howard Schuman and Jacqueline Scott at the University of Michigan published a paper on generations and collective memories. They quantified what seems like common sense: The events that happen around us when we’re children create the strongest memories. Or, to put it in academic speak: “[T]he events and changes that have maximum impact in terms of memorableness occur during a cohort’s adolescence and young adulthood, often referred to as ‘youth.’ ”

The study asked people in 1985 about the past 50 years, a period that included the Great Depression, World War II, the Vietnam War, the Kennedy assassination, the threat of nuclear war, the civil rights movement—the list goes on. The third most-mentioned important “event” from 1935-85 was space exploration, just behind World War II and the Vietnam War.

The study only measured attitudes toward the space program for those who mentioned it as a momentous achievement, but it still found a distinct difference between generations. While those of the Greatest Generation and the Silent Generation simply expressed awe at the achievement, often using words like “amazing” and “fantastic,” the baby boomers were the ones who talked about national pride and the inevitability of space in their future.

A 24-year-old woman in the study said, “Our world will change in the next 50 years because of what’s going on the space industry. We may make moves to live elsewhere.” That woman was 8 when humans first set foot on the moon and, if she’s still alive, is now about 51. Similarly, a 27-year-old woman remarked, “Well, we might even have space stations and so if we destroy our world, we will have a place to go.” She was 11 during the lunar landing of 1969 and would be 54 today.

You almost have to feel bad for the baby boomers for not getting the future they were promised. When they were kids, there was a deliberate effort to get children excited about, and emotionally invested in, scientific and technological progress. Dr. Athelstan Spilhaus, the dean of the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Technology, started one of at least two Sunday newspaper comic strips borne out of concern that American kids were falling behind the Russians intellectually and weren’t sufficiently interested in science and technology. The comic explained scientific principles, often with a futuristic flair, and by 1959, Dr. Spilhaus’ “Our New Age” appeared in more than 100 U.S. newspapers.

Dr. Spilhaus sat down with Louise O’Connor, who recorded oral histories over three years with him in the late 1980s. Spilhaus recalled, “I decided to [start writing Our New Age] right after Sputnik, when I was disturbed about kids knowing very little about science. Rather than fight my own kids reading the funnies, which is a stupid thing to do, I decided to put something good into the comics, something that was more fun and that might give a little subliminal education.”

But even as parents were buying up space toys for their kids and encouraging them to read the more educational Sunday funnies, they were skeptical, even surly, about the funds spent on Apollo and NASA. Those people with reservations about the space program seemed to be primarily concerned that the money spent on space could be better invested in more earthly problems.

Shortly after the Apollo 11 crew was launched, destined for the historic first landing on the moon, a reporter from the Delaware County Daily Times in Pennsylvania went to the local mall to ask how people felt about the imminent moon landing. Many thought that the money should be spent elsewhere.

Sheila Larkin of Brookhaven told the reporter that there were “better uses for much of the money that goes into the space program. It’s great that they can do it, but there is so much poverty in the country that the money could go other places.” George Conaway, a retired machinist, said that the trip was “foolish and a waste of money—money that should be spent on the poor people in this country.” Giles Jones said that it was important the U.S. would land there first, but offered reservations: “We’re supposed to be the greatest country and we can show that this way. But there are other good uses for much of the space program money.”

The day after the moon landing, a number of Associated Press articles reflected the mixed public opinion about the historic event. One of the articles focused on the feelings of New Englanders and was generally positive, quoting people who called the achievement “amazing” and “unbelievable” but the piece also quoted people like Barbara C. Sauer from Portland, Maine, who said, “It’s really a good accomplishment, but the money should be spent here on earth.” The article also quotes Frederick W. Varney, a 50-year-old service station operator from Bangor, Maine, who said that he hope it does some good but, “I think it’s a waste of money.”

That widespread ambivalence plays into another part of the “Sputnik moment” myth: that NASA’s coffers were bursting during the ‘60s. Erik Conway, the historian at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told me, “The basic facts are that every year after 1964 Congress cut the NASA budget. Why did they do that? Well, the reality simply was that the public support wasn’t there.”

Personally, I’d like to see NASA well-funded. Space exploration is an important part of our future, and I firmly believe that we can push the boundaries of science while still addressing important domestic issues of poverty, racism, and health care—just as we did to certain degrees of success in the 1960s and ‘70s. But if we continue to perpetuate the inaccurate myth, we’re essentially declaring that America’s best days are behind us, instilling a certain futility. How might we live up to the greatness of an era when everyone got along and the nation stood united in a single goal? By approaching the future and the challenges ahead with a better understanding of history—stripping away the fictions of our retro-futures—our greatest obstacles may start to seem surmountable. With any luck, our children’s children might romanticize the 2010s as a time when people used to get things done.