Funny that on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Century 21, devoted to the theme of "Man in the Space Age," America is ending the Space Shuttle program with the final flight of Atlantis.
If Seattle was supposed to be the launch pad to this century's conquest of space, who knew that our manned flight program would end with our astronauts reliant on a Russian space bus for trips to and from an orbiting space station? The fair's amusement zone, the Gayway, which morphed into the now defunct Fun Forest after the fair, featured a Flight to Mars ride. What baby boomer ever thought that's as close as we'd ever get?
It was the space race that was the genesis for Seattle's fair: Dwight Eisenhower and our twin senatorial vikings, Warren G. Magnuson backed by Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson, raided the public coffers to promote a science exhibit in the post-Sputnik years. Tensions were high, so were the stakes: Who was going to dominate earth orbit, the moon, the planets beyond?
In 1962, only one man appeared on more LIFE magazine covers (3) than the Space Needle (2): John Glenn. He also visited the fair where NASA displayed his Mercury space capsule, and the "enemy" Russian cosmonaut Gherman Titov also dropped in. There was competition, yes, but also a sense that science and space exploration could unite the planet, literally asking us to rise above ourselves once in awhile.
With the space shuttles gone to museums, that will be a little more difficult for Americans, though the international nature of the space stations offers some hope in that regard. If anyone pays attention.
Part of the problem with the actual Space Age is that since the Moon landing in the summer of '69, it has mostly been anti-climax, beginning with astronaut golfers and Boeing's dune buggy tearing up the moonscape — feats that suggested our move into space would be little different than colonizing suburban Phoenix. The hype of space, the power of film, television, and science fiction soon outstripped the reality. We wanted warp drive and got shuttles. We wanted Star Wars and got Tang. We wanted worlds to conquer and got a handful of moon rocks.
The early 1960s was also on the cusp of the era of becoming focussed on the downside of the upside of technology and "progress." Jane Jacobs railed against urban freeways, Rachel Carson warned us of toxins in Silent Spring, Ralph Nader scolded us for driving Corvairs which were "unsafe at any speed." We drove up space program costs by putting safety first. It was humane, but ponderous, and extremely expensive.
By the mid 1960s, the priorities shifted from a world in which risk and ambition were the solution to one in which they were always beside the point because there was so many chores at home to do. In 1967, the Puget Sound League of Women Voters worried that "Americans will soon be standing in waste up to their knees launching rockets to the moon." There was truth in that: a shift from weightlessness to more earth-bound concerns. The soaring rhetoric of the Kennedys that made us believe in something more youthful, adventurous, and high-spirited was being silenced.
The Seattle world's fair was also built by hands that helped make manned space flight possible. One example: The chief structural engineer for the Space Needle was a big man of Armenian descent from Southern California who had cut his teeth building radio and TV towers in the west. John K. Minasian had also built huge rocket gantries, those steel contraptions on wheels as high as 30-story buildings that held up Saturn rockets at Cape Canaveral. He was the man who took pencil and slide rule in hand and calculated what would keep the Space Needle standing. He was one of many who helped move man into actual space.
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