Seattle and the Space Age that fizzled

We ushered in the manned Space Age with Century 21. As the Space Shuttle programs end, its time to consider one failing: We made the New Frontier a place for experts and elites, not the people.

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Century 21, Seattle 1962

We ushered in the manned Space Age with Century 21. As the Space Shuttle programs end, its time to consider one failing: We made the New Frontier a place for experts and elites, not the people.

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.

When the Seattle fair was in the planning stages, consultants looked at what would be popular and noted that the then relatively new experiment of Disneyland in southern California had a futuristic attraction in Tomorrowland, similar to the theme to the proposed Seattle expo. It featured the TWA Moonliner and the Monsanto "House of the Future."

But the consultants also noted that it wasn't very popular. What did kids at Disneyland really want to see? Frontierland. That was a blow to planners of a Seattle fair seeking to shed the old frontier image for a New Frontier future. Century 21 mostly skipped such old-fashioned things, though Roy Rogers got headlines when he visited the fair. 

Still, it should have been a warning that the New Frontier of space might carry too high a price still. It remains a gated community to the common man because of its costs, distances, and because it is open mostly to military and science professionals and the occasional billionaire. How is the public supposed to stay engaged if space is simply for elites?

In the coming manned space program interregnum, one hopes that the private sector science buffs like Paul Allen will continue to break barriers and excite the public in ways the government sector will not. 

Astronauts are facing a setback, but if we can democratize, even commercialize space a bit, we might be able to re-seed the New Frontier with some of the spirit of the old.

Editor's Note: Knute Berger has been commissioned to write the official history of the Space Needle for its 50th anniversary.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.