Visions of Tomorrow from the 1950s and 1960s by illustrator Klaus Bürgle; the future that was.
This son of the Space Age turns 60 today.
Since I am now officially "young-old," here is my first official elderly long winded rambling monologue on the age I was born into, the Space Age; including the Space Race, the Sixties, and the look of the Space Age in a style that people now call Mid-Century Modern.
Let's start with a little music...
The real Telstar. Few people now remember this, but Telstar was probably more momentous for our age than the moon landing. Telstar was the first telecommunications satellite in history. Without Telstar, there would be no GPS, no live international broadcasting, and you would not be reading this.
I came into the world in the year Sputnik scared the hell out of everybody by being history's first artificial orbiting satellite. It was about as big as a beach ball and did nothing more than beep. Us Yanks always terrified that the Reds would murder us in our sleep, could see the thing passing overhead in the night sky and hear it on our radios. If they could send a beeping beach ball over us, then what's next? A missile armed with godless Communism? A nuclear weapon?
Thus began the Space Age.
While Russia would start the Space Age in triumph with a steel beach ball hurtling around the earth, state of the art American aerospace technology frequently went kablooey. Early rockets almost always exploded, sometimes without even getting off the ground. This one was comparatively successful. The Atlas missile that would eventually do the heavy lifting during the early Mercury missions here actually gets airborne before the engines start conking out.
One of the many things I find striking about this formerly top secret film is the very casual dress of all the engineers and technicians. The buzzcut, bleached white shirts, and narrow black ties of 1960s NASA are still in the future.
The Space Race began for the USA in despair and paranoia.
The first news event that I remember, John Glenn's one orbit around the earth in 1962. I remember being awakened early in the morning as my parents wheeled the heavy "portable" Motorola into the living room of our cracker box 1950s dream home so that we could bask in the radioactive glow of the cathode rays of history. I remember the launch vividly, though not much of the rest of it. Those Atlas rocket launches were always great roaring operatic spectacles even on grainy early black and white teevee. This was my first one.
For us Yanks, this was tremendously exciting. For the rest of the world, it was an anticlimax. The Russians beat us again in 1961 by sending Yuri Gagarin up on top of a missile as the first human in space, and the first to orbit the earth. A few months later, the USA put Alan Shepard on top of a Redstone rocket and sent him on a very short trip above the atmosphere into space, but not high enough to attain orbit. Supposedly in the last 5 seconds of the countdown, Alan Shepard was heard to pray "O Lord, don't let me fuck up." Always a favorite prayer of mine
We watched John Glenn orbit the earth on something like this.
I lived through the 1960s, but I was the generation that was the tail end of the Baby Boom. As far as I was concerned, the 60s was something that happened on teevee that didn't affect me any. I was way too young for the Big Rebellion of the late 1960s, and too young to cash in on the Big Sell Out of the 1980s. I was part of the Punk generation that made our own excitement.
Jerry Rubin in 1968
Jerry Rubin in 1984
Jerry Rubin stands for so many who rebelled and then sold out when they figured out that moving money around on the financial markets was a lot more profitable than making macrame. As a political revolution, the Sixties was a fizzle. No real power changed hands. The same people who own and run the USA now have always owned and run it. As a social and cultural revolution, it was an earthquake. The last vestiges of Victorian culture finally came to an end in the USA (they already ended in Europe in the disillusionment of the First World War). People's expectations out of life and how they conceived of happiness and success changed and expanded dramatically. That transformation continues even now.
Then many of the Boomers figured out they could have their sex and weed, and make lots of money too. When women, minorities, and the poor began demanding freedom and dignity, it turned out that while some kept a generous spirit, a lot of other Boomers could be just as self-serving and bigoted as their parents ever were. In the end, many of that generation will be remembered as notoriously self-absorbed, traveling all the way from rebellion to reaction. Donald Trump is their parting gift to all the rest of us.
It seems to me that those who came out of the Sixties with honor intact and crowned with enduring glory are those from despised populations of second class citizens. African Americans, women, Latinos, Asians, LGBT folk got a taste of being needed and their services valued during the Second World War. The experiences of all of these groups during the War raised expectations that were frustrated in the paranoia of the 1950s and the Cold War. In the 1960s they worked and fought to realize those expectations, sometimes at very high cost. All of these groups had little to lose and everything to gain by refusing the sub-status assigned to them all. African Americans, long consigned to the bottom of the USA's bizarre racial caste system, demanded the equality promised in the Declaration of Independence, "all men are created equal." No more would they suffer their humanity to be insulted and to be expected to clean up after the white folk. Women demanded a status of equality other than being the servants of men; there was more to life than being a mommy and a concubine to some spoiled man-child who thinks he's superior. Other racial and ethnic minorities demanded recognition as full citizens who always belonged in the USA. LGBT communities had nothing to lose but the humiliation of seeing their legitimate desires criminalized and pathologized. The work of all of these movements remains unfinished and their expectations unfulfilled. But the generations from this era are now remembered as brave pioneers.
I think others who came out of The Sixties with credit intact are those who did their duty in the Vietnam War; those who did their duty and served in the military (especially those who paid the last full measure, and those who paid in injuries), and those who felt their duty was to resist the war effort and paid the full price for their temerity in prison time and permanent exile.
All I knew about the Vietnam War at the time was that it was a bloody horror show every evening on the news. The teevee practically dripped blood all over the floor during the news. But the body counts ended every report on the war, and it always looked like we were winning that football game...until we didn't. It was only later that all the lying about the war and surrounding the war came out; the deliberately provoked Tonkin incident, the cooked intelligence reports, the lying back and forth between superiors and inferiors, all the profiteering defense contractors, the sabotaged peace talks, the secret wars in Laos and Cambodia, and on and on.
The Vietnam War was a historic tragedy straight out of the pages of Thucydides; a democratic state drives itself to a terrible fall out of pride and hubris. We were America, greatest country in the world; there's nothing we can't do; we're all powerful, and (worst delusion of all) we are all good and our cause is always just. Blinded by jingoism and Cold War ideology no one bothered to look into that small Asian country where we were racing to slay the Communist dragon. Those who did and told us we had it all wrong were ignored. We've been living with the consequences ever since. We even repeated the whole tragedy in Iraq and will be living with those consequences for generations.
I was way too young at the time for any of that.
I'm grateful now to have been born and raised at a time when being middle class was an advantage, and that I got to see the Space Race.
The part of the Sixties that I remember most vividly and followed eagerly was the Space Race. It was all so very exciting, more so than anything else I've experienced since. I was less interested in Russian American rivalry than I was in all those big missiles rising up into the sky in a roaring blaze of glory. I was more interested in getting to the moon than in the Cold War.
I followed all of the Mercury missions, all the flights of the now nearly forgotten Gemini program, and of course all the triumph and drama of the Apollo program. These flights were very exciting at the time.
The only time we watched teevee in grade school class was to see these launches. A great big teevee would be wheeled into the class to watch. It looked exactly like this. A Mercury launch or a Gemini or Apollo launch would be like a holiday. No arithmetic, no spelling, and we were actually encouraged to watch teevee in class. NASA could usually be counted on to deliver a big roaring fiery launch with those massive early liquid fuel rockets, always a thrill for us kids.
From left to right, M. Scott Carpenter, Leroy Gordon Cooper, John H. Glenn Jr., Virgil I "Gus" Grissom, Walter M. "Wally" Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Donald K. "Deke" Slayton.
All of them were experienced pilots who insisted that they be able to control and fly their spacecraft over the objections of engineers like Werner Von Braun who thought of astronauts as nothing but payload.
Project Gemini that followed Project Mercury is now almost forgotten. The manned Gemini missions carrying 2 astronauts lasted from 1964 to 1966. The Gemini missions were the necessary basic training for flying in the incredibly hostile environment of space; the vast nothingness with no atmosphere or gravity, no up or down, and no protection from heat, radiation, and meteorites of all sizes.
Many of the Gemini missions were about learning how to drive in space; how to steer and stop, and how to rendezvous and dock with another craft. Above and below are photos of Gemini 6A and Gemini 7 making just such a rendezvous and docking in 1965
It turns out that I had a small personal connection to the space program. I had relatives who worked for NASA.
The balding man on the left is Dr. Donald Stulken, head of recovery operations for NASA since its beginning, seen here on May 26, 1969 at the end of the Apollo 10 mission. He is with astronauts (left to right) Tom Stafford, Gene Cernan, and John Young. Dr. Stulken was a cousin of my mother, and the two of them were childhood friends. We always watched the recovery operations on teevee for him. He was almost always the first to greet astronauts when they arrived on the flight decks of Navy aircraft carriers sent to fetch them.
I had another cousin Paul Wayne Schumacher who also worked for NASA as an engineer.
The high point of all this was the Apollo program and its missions to the moon. Few things were as thrilling in my boyhood as watching the Saturn V rocket take off. Five of the mightiest engines ever built propelled people and their equipment to the moon.
In retrospect, the gargantuan Saturn V was the ultimate American creation of that era; tremendously powerful and successful, and also incredibly wasteful of fuel and equipment. All those tons of fuel and machinery could be used only once, and then the whole thing was as spent as a used bottle rocket.
The Apollo project began in disaster with the deaths of 3 astronauts (Ed White, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffee) who perished in a flash fire during a rehearsal for the Apollo 1 mission in 1967.
But the project recovered to deliver a string of spectacular historic firsts beginning with Apollo 8's first journey to the moon, orbiting around it, and coming back with amazing pictures of the moon and the earth from a point of view no one had ever seen before.
Soviet successes came to an end when the giant N1 rocket they were planning to use to send cosmonauts to the moon exploded on the launch pad causing massive destruction and knocking the Russians out of the race to the moon. We didn't find out about this until decades later.
The deaths of cosmonauts (the Soviet space program lost a lot of cosmonauts and ground crews), and losses of astronauts in the Apollo 1 fire, the near loss of Apollo 13, and the disastrous losses of Challenger and Columbia along with their crews in the Space Shuttle program remind us just how risky these ventures into space really were. Travel into space is still very risky. One thing we definitely learned in these enterprises is that we are creatures of gravity and atmosphere dwelling at the bottom of an ocean of air. The form and function of our bodies depend on gravity and atmospheric pressure. Space is the most hostile environment people have ever explored; no atmosphere, no gravity, no up or down, and exposure to all kinds of lethal radiation. We are still trying to learn how to live and work in this environment without serious injury.
Significantly, no one since the end of the Apollo moon program in 1972 has seen this view again.
Beginning with Apollo 11 and ending with Apollo 17 in 1972, human beings walked on something that wasn't earth for the first time ever. It remains to be seen how significant these events will be. No one has been back to the moon since. There are no serious plans out there anywhere to go back despite the occasional bluster from the Americans, the Russians, or the Chinese.
Like Americans always do when they arrive someplace new, they want to drive a car and go sightseeing; and so it was on the moon. Here is just such a car from the Apollo 17 flight at a time when going to the moon was getting routine and dull for people despite spectacular images coming back from there like this one.
It is likely that by the end of the lunar program in 1972 that these missions were overtaken by events on earth. By the early 70s, the Vietnam War became a grinding disaster consuming lives and treasure. The war would end in 1975 with defeat and humiliation for the United States. The stresses of the war caused the social fabric and political structure of the USA to come unglued, and they've never been the same since. We remain a contentious sullen paranoid people 40 years since that war ended. The American and Soviet space programs would never again have the glamor and popularity of their glory days at mid century.
The space race is the only thing I truly miss about the 1960s. It really was quite an exciting thing to experience, and I haven't seen anything quite like it since. People really did come together to watch these adventures, even people who hated each other. There was this shared sense, not so much of accomplishment or pride, but of wonder at seeing something unprecedented that our ancestors never imagined, of seeing what was previously unknown now revealed and made familiar. I'm grateful that I was a around for it and that I was a child at the time.
The success, the excitement, and the national pride generated by the space program pervaded all aspects of life in the USA by the 1960s. The period from roughly 1955 to about 1968 called itself the Space Age. The Age and its styles embodied the optimism and great expectation of that era before it all went south in the course of the Vietnam War.
The Home of Tomorrow, from a 1967 documentary series, The 21st Century narrated by Walter Cronkite.
Interesting what the futurists of the time predicted; what came to pass and what didn't.
One of the contrasts with our era is how much people thought about how the future would look. All we have now are mostly the glamorous dystopias inspired by the movie Blade Runner from 1982. In the 1950s and 60s, people still looked forward hopefully to the future. This post leads off with some illustrations of those Worlds of Tomorrow from yesterday by Klaus Bürgle, one of the best such artists and visionaries. Before the Vietnam War, many Americans believed they were living on the cusp of a bright and better future. Sci Fi melodramas of that time from 'Forbidden Planet' to 'Lost In Space' to 'Star Trek' come out of those great expectations.
The late 1950s and 1960s created a popular design style that we now know as Mid-Century Modern. In its sophisticated -- and not so sophisticated -- manifestations, it was a style about Tomorrow, about The Future. In some respects, it's a reincarnation of an earlier popular style that looked forward, Art Deco from the 1920s and 30s. Like that earlier style, Mid-Century Modern affected all aspects of design from graphics to furniture to architecture. It was popular across the spectrum of class from the homes of the rich and powerful to furniture for the humble; and especially in the homes of the once broad middle.
So grab a Fiesta Ware bowl full of popcorn, smell the new nylon carpeting, and let's take a look at the design of a bygone era, The Space Age.
Empoli glass floor decanters
Blenko glass in tangerine and green
star burst chandeliers
Some modern-as-tomorrow interiors.
Below are some vintage Mid Century Modern homes in my hometown of Dallas, Texas: an entire city built in the late 1950s in Mid Century Modern style.
The Meadows Building in Dallas, a little Midcentury masterpiece.
The Meadows shortly after it was completed. The small wings with the designs visible only from the air are now gone.
Details from the Meadows Building in Dallas
My favorite Space Age extravaganza in Dallas, the old Republic National Bank building.
Dallas may have built itself as a Midcentury Modern City, but some of the most spectacular and palatial examples of the Space Age style can still be seen in New York City
Lincoln Center, the Versailles of Mid-Century Modern. Architect Edward Durrell Stone's Space Age update of the Metropolitan Opera's "Diamond Horseshoe."
The ultimate in starburst chandeliers at the Metropolitan Opera House.
A major Mid Century Modern masterpiece is Eero Saarinen's 1962 TWA terminal at JFK airport in New York (then known as Idlewild Airport). While the original terminal buildings were demolished long ago, the main lobby with its winged design remains and is currently being restored by JetBlue for use as their terminal lobby. Below are some old photographs of it in its glory days.
Eero Saarinen's TWA terminal was but a gateway for the ultimate Mid Century Modern extravagance, the 1964 - 65 World's Fair in New York City.
Below are some glimpses of the 1964 General Motors Futurama; a thrilling look at a future that was.
The General Electric Tower of Light
Below are some examples of the outer limits of Mid Century Modern design. Your Modern-As-Tomorrow dream house of 1955 - 1965.
People dreamed of cantilevers a lot back then, and here is a famous/notorious cantilevered Mid Century Modern dream house, the home of the villains in Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest. In the foreground is Cary Grant.
The ultimate Mid Century Modern family
Growing up with this style, I didn't think much about it or much of it. We called it "Art Yucko." In the 1980s when I was in my 20s, it became a very ironic style associated with the last stage of American 1950s culture called "Retrostyle." Its obsolete visions of the future made it funny and harmless; visions of the future once promoted by parents, teachers, and Authority Figures now drained of their power and made ridiculous. Now it is "Mid Century Modern," the stuff of intense nostalgia for people who are too young to have any memory of this style. The 20 and 30 somethings see in this style the sunset glow of the glory days of the American Empire just before the Vietnam War. For them, Mid Century Modern is steeped in the glamor of Jack and Jackie Kennedy, Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, heroic Astronauts, Andy Warhol, giant gas guzzling cars with V8 engines, etc.
And now, as I am myself become a newly minted Mid Century Modern antique (though hardly sought after in swanky stores), I can enjoy this style for what it was. It was a very imaginative power style of the last days of the American Empire when it looked forward with great optimism into the future. Well, now I live in that future that they once looked forward to. It didn't exactly pan out the way that they expected (it's certainly a lot trashier than I expected). The World of Tomorrow is today, and it turns out the future was not exactly our oyster.
It seems to me that we are paralyzed with nostalgia these days. I can't imagine a clearer expression of the desire to go back to an irretrievable past than "Make America Great Again." As beguiling as these things are, they belong in the past, to a unique and unrepeatable moment in history. I think we should look squarely into our future and ask ourselves what kind of tomorrow do we want for our children and ourselves. While there is plenty of cause for anxiety, there is also reason for hope. The technological means are available to us for the first time ever to eliminate gross poverty from our country, and from the world. A full and comfortable life can be made available to us, and to all of us. The means, the know-how, and even the money are all there. We can have all of this while taking care of the natural world that sustains us instead of plundering it for profits. We even have the means and the money to realize all of this and have a viable space program at the same time. We just have to want to do it. The price for all of this is that we have to share it with people who are not like us; who don't look like us, speak like us, believe like us, eat like us, etc. For too many people these days, that is too high a price to pay. They would rather cling to a familiar but fading vision of a homogenous country where they are clearly in the driver's seat; a vision that is no longer affordable and whose price is a rotting democracy, growing poverty and a declining standard of living for everyone.
It's time to face a post imperial future. It's time to make a new and better democratic cosmopolitan USA to once again lead the world as part of a global community and not just as the biggest dog on the block. I plan to use the time I have left looking forward with hope rather than back in melancholy. I want to help create a better future if not for me, then for those who are young now and for the generations to come after me.
The British version...