Marina Benjamin has been asking that question ever since her childhood fascination with space exploration ended in disappointment. Rocket Dreams is her thought-provoking look at the Space Age and the shadow it casts on the fabric of our modern lives. When the futuristic expectations we pinned on Apollo came crashing back to earth, Benjamin argues, new phenomena took up the cause. Pulling movies, literature, junk culture, and the Internet into an irreverent alternative account of the post-Apollo years, she links the demise of the Space Age to groups like the "church" of Noetics -- founded by astronaut Edgar Mitchell -- to the spread of UFO believers, even to the birth of fantasy literature. Propelling us through the golden age of Space Age-dreaming during the seventies and eighties, Benjamin finally touches down on...the Web. Has cyberspace become the new frontier we once thought outer space would be?
From Florida's overgrown rocket graveyards to Roswell, New Mexico, and beyond, this skillful blend of history and social observation examines the rise and fall of America's space obsession as never before.
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Sitting between the subtropical party towns of Daytona Beach and Vero Beach on Florida's eastern coast, Brevard County is a strip of humid backwater, mosquito infested and stiflingly hot. Everywhere you go the air is soupy, but it hangs more heavily in the northern and eastern districts, where the exotic-sounding Indian and Banana Rivers have sliced the land into spindly fingers and created steamy lagoons full of squawking wildlife and lazing alligators. Rising out of this prehistoric landscape is Merritt Island, a fat belt of white middle-class suburbia shaped like a clothespin and shored up by coastal dunes and brackish marshland. It is a place of little apparent distinction. With its rickety beach houses, green-blue swimming pools, and dowdy strip malls, Merritt Island looks like a poor cousin to the Florida Keys and life there follows the same idling rhythms of fishing and sunbathing. The island is an unlikely destination, yet each year it pulls to its swampy shores thousands of people from around the world. Driving east from Orlando, north from Palm Beach, and south from Jacksonville, the tourists pour in to visit what has become known as the Space Coast. In particular, they come to Cape Canaveral, the unassuming nub of shore land from where mankind took its greatest leap toward the stars.
A few years back, I followed the crowds to Merritt Island, genuinely curious to discover what was so spacey about the Space Coast. I wanted to take in whatever the tourist industry had to offer, cruise along coastal roads where Mercury astronauts once raced Corvettes, and size up the Saturn V moon rocket, now reposing in a huge storage hangar like a dozing giant. Beyond that I was open. I would see where fancy led me. Although I decided to trek out to the cape on a whim (I was in Florida for work, and visiting the Space Coast is one of the things you do when you're in Florida), I knew from the outset that I would end up taking the trip to heart, because, for me, revisiting the Space Age entailed revisiting a part of myself I had left behind long ago: the child whose space-related hopes were boundless. Growing up in central London, idolizing the astronauts from afar, I had tracked the moon landings with a diligence that bordered on obsession. If a flag had been planted, a buggy deployed, a crater explored, or moon rocks scooped into specimen boxes, I knew about it. Too young to witness Yuri Gagarin's famed feats or John Glenn's heroics, my head was filled instead with Apollo trivia. Crew members? No problem. Mission objectives? I was on it. What's more, I'd made a point of acquainting myself with the geography of the solar system, fully expecting that Jupiter and Saturn, Ganymede, Eos, and Callisto would in no time become as familiar as the outlying stops on the London Tube.
What I did not know when I set out for the cape nearly thirty years later was that this pilgrimage would produce only questions; it was as if the space fanatic in me had suddenly reawakened, demanding to know why the future had not unfolded as promised.
Some of the questions that nagged me were germane to the ongoing American space program, a schizophrenic enterprise that seems to lack any kind of continuity with the past. After the glory years of the space race and moon landings, NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) shrank from the challenges of exploration in order to putter around in Earth orbit, belying its homespun tales of enterprise and daring. Why was the Moon abandoned? Why hadn't we struck out for Mars? And if space was a "new ocean" waiting to be explored, as John F. Kennedy once proclaimed, why hadn't commercial backers stepped in to establish the equivalent of trade routes? Other questions were more reflexive in nature, as they threaded back into my childhood dreams and threatened to expose them as delusions, or else reminded me why so many of us once invested so much in NASA's dream peddling. Was I naïve to believe we'd simply hop from the Moon to the planets and thence to the stars? Or did the prospect of leaping off the planet really speak to some deep-seated urge in the human soul? When it came to the hard-sell mythology of the space race, was I dupe or co-conspirator?
What happened after Apollo is a familiar story; funds were cut, jobs were lost, programs scrapped, and space ambitions curtailed, while telecommunications satellites burgeoned into a profitable business. But the history of the post-1969 space program sheds little light on the fate of the utopian, escapist, and conquistadorial hopes that originally enlivened the effort to put humans in space and meant so much to a generation of Space Age dreamers like me. What it highlights instead is how rapidly those hopes were frustrated by what we were -- or in this case weren't -- ultimately willing and able to do. In the early days of space exploration, even those extraterrestrial aspirations that today strike us as outlandish -- building moon bases, constructing floating space colonies, terraforming distant worlds -- went hand in hand with the development of space technology. Indeed, the two were so tightly coupled it was often difficult to tell which was driving which. But then the exigencies of politics and the limits of engineering wrenched them apart and they have gone their separate ways ever since. Technology looked to the market, to science, and to business for inspiration: the aspirations, as well, went elsewhere. This is the story I wish to tell.
What follows concerns the imaginative legacy of Apollo and the subsequent career of a handful of interrelated dreams once fueled by the moon landings, but then deprived of further such nourishment. What happened to those dreams? Did they dry up "like a raisin in the sun," to paraphrase the poet Langston Hughes, or did they find an alternative means of survival? I found that the dreams often ran to ground in subtle ways, altering our understanding of what it meant to reach the Moon, for example, or encouraging existing beliefs about the fundamentally enchanted character of space. More important, I learnt that while the dreams, hopes, aspirations -- call them what you will -- associated with leaping into space are admittedly harder to map than developments in technology, their course seems at least as logical and has evolved faster than that of the technology.
My journey to trace an alternative history of the Space Age took me across a broad landscape of ideas and into some unlikely corners of philosophy and culture; from the "gospel of flight" (a virtual religion that produced its own pilgrims and prophets) through Gaia and environmentalism, Noetics and the New Physics, to SETI@home (a collective hunt for alien radio signals) and thence to the outer frontiers of cyberspace. I began to see how much we internalized our outward-bound aspirations, even before it became clear that human life would not be expanding across the solar system any day soon. The impact of seeing the Earth from space focused our energies on the home planet in unprecedented ways, dramatically affecting our relationship to the natural world and our appreciation of the greater community of mankind, and prompting a revolution in our understanding of the Earth as a living system. It is no accident, I think, that the first Earth Day on April 20, 1970, coincided with Apollo's return to Earth; or that a new school of spiritualism based on charting the deep space of the human psyche has been developed by one of the astronauts. Nor is it hard to understand why, in the wake of an exploration curtailed, people should be drawn to an innovative model for the domestic economy sprung free from the American space program by NASA administrator James Webb.
The urge to reach out and somehow get beyond the limits of the known world did not disappear altogether, however; and that is why a tour of the post-Space Age environment would be incomplete without a visit to Roswell, New Mexico -- a place that is in so many ways a distorting mirror of our extraterrestrial ambitions. Roswell first came to public attention in 1947 because of claims that a flying saucer crashed in its midst and it has since become the "magnetic north" of UFO belief -- a belief that began its most dramatic growth not in 1947, or 1957, or 1967, but at precisely the time the space program began its descent. For many people, the enduring mystery surrounding the place is a hedge against having to relinquish a fundamental yearning for contact.
In taking time out to revisit Roswell, I do not wish to give the impression that in the aftermath of Apollo and the moon landings, no fresh ideas made their way onto NASA's drawing boards, dooming us to endlessly playing out our fantasies of evolution, expansion and contact in increasingly convoluted ways. There were new ideas -- and one of the most daring and popular was the scheme to create sealed-off colonies in space, where thousands of people might live in a Nirvana of neopastoral self-sufficiency. Extremely influential in the 1970s, this dream has also mutated over time, and while few people today believe we will literally migrate into space, vast numbers of people are doing just that elsewhere and building experimental colonies in cyberspace.
These are just some of the stopping points in the book -- enough to suggest that the post-1969 narrative of the Space Age dramatically illustrates the never fully resolved tension between the human urge to explore and the urge to commune, or create communities. Explorers, in their purest form, have always been those who want to leave existing communities, often, to be sure, in search of the utopian ideal of a better one, but also in the belief that to pursue the dream of being truly free, it is necessary to quit their known society. In contrast to this distinctively human pressure to move outward, the desire to dwell together in communities falls in line with our perpetual attempts to bring the outside in: to tame the wild unknown, to colonize new lands, to find a common identity, and to erode the difference between here and elsewhere. Like the force of gravity, this impulse to commune always brings us back to ourselves.
Cast in these terms, the task of characterizing the post-Apollo climate finds a ready analogy in the solving of a problem in introductory physics: the ballistic trajectory, an equation that describes the path of an unpowered projectile that has exhausted its initial momentum and is forced to descend to Earth. Where it lands, and how quickly, is affected only by gravity and atmospheric friction. In basic physics, the challenge may be simplified for the purposes of convenience; we assume away an atmosphere and arrive at a single, elegant solution. In the real world, however, you have lots of friction and thus lots of solutions: your projectile, in other words, could land anywhere.
Copyright © 2003 by Marina Benjamin
Table of Contents
CHAPTER 1: The Sky's the Limit
CHAPTER 2: One Small Step
CHAPTER 3: Forever Roswell
CHAPTER 4: Space for Rent
CHAPTER 5: Aliens on Your Desktop
CHAPTER 6: Ground Control to Major Tom