quarta-feira, 1 de maio de 2013

Ad Astra et Ultra: Rocket Man Wernher von Braun

An Empire in Space: Europe and America as Science Fact by De Witt Douglas Kilgore

“Always the goal.”

—Michael Flynn (1)


In the closing days of the Second World War, German rocket en­gineers and their technologies became one of the most coveted spoils of a defeated Third Reich. Led by Wernher von Braun and General Doctor Walter Domberger, these were the rocket scientists and technicians who had designed and built the infa­mous flying bomb, the V-2 (Vergeltungswaffen Zwei, or Retalia­tory Weapon Two). (2) Shortly after the Allied victory, the German rocket team was shipped to the United States, where it was re­quired to continue its wartime experiments. The arrival of the Germans on American soil was the necessary catalyst for post­war astrofuturism. Their presence brought together three national spaceflight movements—American, British, and German—that had been sundered by the war (significantly excluding that of the Soviet Union), enabling the collaboration that made the space age technically feasible in the West.

Under the auspices of U.S. Army Ordinance at the White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico, the German rocket team mated a V-2 with a small missile called the WAC Corporal and launched the result. On 24 February 1949, the rocket code-named “Bumper” reached a height of 250 miles in six and a half minutes. At that point, “the missile for all practical purposes was outside the earth’s atmo­sphere.” (3) The barrier to space had been broken. (4) Thus the United States followed Germany in realizing the twenty-year-old dream of the rocket societies, and the official imagination endorsed the space frontier as an achievable reality.


The rocket team had come to the United States under a War Department program called “Project Paperclip.” While many Americans thought that the Paperclip scientists should have been tried as war criminals, a few men in the Army and the War Department believed that the knowledge and expertise of these men were too valuable to waste. The ter­ror that the “flying bomb” had created in London and its suburbs convinced them that this new technology could be an important factor in determining the postwar balance of power.

Pragmatism overcame the moral scruples even of those who knew the conditions under which the V-2 had been produced. In his work on the compromises that the Allies made at the end of the war in the race to profit from German wartime research, Tom Bower notes that the conquering nations were fully aware that the Mittelbau, the underground rocket factory at Nordhausen, which was the first modem mass production facility for ballistic missiles, was supported by a concentration camp system and the most brutal kind of slave labor. The system increased production tremendously but at the cost of thousands of lives:

At least twenty thousand men would die there before the end of the war. Working with­out power drills or mechanical excavators, the slaves were constantly threatened and beaten while they dug, hammered and heaved their pickaxes. Since there was scarcely any food or water and no sanitation or medical facilities, life expectancy rarely ex­ceeded six months. During their daily tour through the tunnels, the Peenemunde scien­tists felt the extreme humidity, the chill gusts of air, the dusty atmosphere, and intense depression. Despite the constant arrival of new labor the number of workers never in­creased. On average, one hundred men a day died of exhaustion, starvation, and disease, or were murdered by the SS guards, either on a whim or as punishment. . . . Replace­ments supplied by the SS from other concentration camps arrived on demand from [Arthur] Rudolph or Werner [sic] von Braun. Neither scientist was directly responsible for these conditions, but they accepted the situation created by the SS without demur. (5)

This record of rocket team complicity in Nazi war crimes was adroitly covered up by the U.S. Army and the War Department to avoid the public outcry that would have resulted from its broadcast.  (6)

Despite the rhetoric of freedom, wealth, and equality that marked the space future vision both in its beginnings during the Weimar Republic and in its reformulation on American soil, the technology and organization required for movement into space were allied to what Dale Carter has called the “Oven State”: the totalitarian technocracy of Nazi Germany, an ideology that found its most vivid expression in the extermination camps of Dachau and Auschwitz. (7) In Carter’s view, the Oven State was replaced after the war by the “Rocket State,” which created an “incipient totalitarianism” in the Western democra­cies. Walter McDougall makes much the same point in his description of the re­luctance with which President Eisenhower took the steps necessary to address the Soviet challenge in space after Sputnik. Eisenhower believed that if a space race began between the United States and the Soviet Union, American institu­tions and policy would be forced into a technocratic mode. Under such a sys­tem, he feared, American values of democracy, individualism, and free trade would be compromised by the large-scale institutions necessary to facilitate the conquest of space. McDougal writes, “Ike cried forth the economic, political, even spiritual dangers posed by the growth of a military industrial complex” and a “scientific-technological elite.” (8)

Eisenhower’s “technocratic nightmare” could not have been more dif­ferent in spirit and intent from the political hopes expressed by the German rocketeers who helped shape an American astrofuturism. They believed the military-industrial complex, which allowed for the creation of space-capable missiles, the largest and most complex of humanity’s machines, would open up new terrains for scientific exploration and material exploitation. It would wage a peaceful war against the limits imposed by the natural world through the creation of spacecraft, space stations, lunar mining colonies, and outposts on distant planets. The result would be a conquest of space generating the same economic, political, and moral benefits that accrued from earlier terres­trial conquests.


These hopes were informed by a historical and ideological faith, common to Europeans and Americans, that the blessings of civiliza­tion followed the course of empire. Arthur C. Clarke represented majority opinion in astrofuturism when he declared, shortly after the war, that “Inter­planetary travel is now the only form of ‘conquest and empire’ compatible with civilization.” (9) On the American ground this has meant that even ardent anti­imperialists, such as Carl Sagan, came to believe in space exploration as a logi­cal and desirable consequence of the Western history of contact with new frontiers. (10)

In essence, whether the space future is defined as an imperial adventure or a peaceful exploration, astrofuturists across the political spectrum have pro­moted the belief that only by escaping its terrestrial cradle will the American experiment realize its full potential. The conquest of the space frontier will re­new virtues they believe are essential to the American character, specifically those allowing for the expansion of individual freedom. Hence the rhetorical and ideological appeal of first-generation astrofuturists would have been in full accord with the values that Eisenhower wished to defend. Thus the astro­futurists ignored the irony inherent in their formulation of space futures: in or­der to achieve the benefits that they expected from the space frontier—more wealth, freedom, and democracy for the individual—the world would have to be organized and its masses mobilized as never before. Megalithic concentrations of power encompassing control of both the public and private sectors would be necessary to concentrate the resources needed to make a lunar colony, establish a human presence on Mars, and mine the asteroids. The controllers of this nec­essarily global initiative would be a technocratic elite who would function as custodians of the common good. It is not surprising that that elite would resem­ble the astrofuturists.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the technocrats of the space future were identi­fied largely as the German émigrés who, by then, held senior positions in the American space program. The rocket team’s rehabilitation as assimilated and valued American citizens was accomplished with astonishing speed. As the cold war with the Soviet Union proceeded, their value to national security could not be ignored by government strategists. However, it was not the de­mands of foreign policy that convinced the general public of their useful and essentially American character. Rather, it was the rocket team’s connection with the optimistic social and political rhetoric of space future advocacy. Astrofuturism, through popular science and science fiction, transformed some mem­bers of the rocket team into celebrities, iconic exemplars of science and the future in the landscape of American culture.

Wernher von Braun was the most prominent representative of the German rocket team in the United States. As an amateur rocketeer in the late 1920s, a civilian employee of the German Army in the 1930s and early 1940s, an SS of­ficer, a prisoner of war and later employee of the U.S. Army, and finally the head of rocket development for NASA, von Braun was part of an international community whose members believed the new technology to be a means to a noble end: freeing humanity from its earthly cradle. Appointed the director of the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, when NASA established the facility in 1960, von Braun continued as the managing engineer of the team that developed the Saturn V carrier rocket and made possi­ble the Apollo lunar voyages. Disneyland, introduced America to a fantastic notion in the most prosaic and commercial of fora. In a move that must have seemed slightly risky, Dis­ney asked von Braun to present the series to its audience. Fortunately, the engi neer proved to be an able and enthusiastic host. As a result, he became part of the pioneering generation of American television personalities. (11)

Despite his wartime background (or, perhaps, be­cause of it), he became a genuine American hero by the end of the 1950s.

He earned his initial celebrity in popular culture as a prominent champion of the new rocket technology and of its application in spaceflight. In a series of books and articles published during the early and mid-1950s, he helped legitimize the spaceflight movement for a broad audience. Never afraid of new technolo­gies, von Braun helped produce the first television documentary on the idea of spaceflight. The “Man in Space” series on Walt Disney’s then new prime-time show,

Disney fostered what Fredric Jameson has called the “common-sense” no­tion of what science fiction does as a genre. (12) Since the mid-twentieth century, practitioners and fans of science fiction have argued that the genre serves a use­ful social function as a literature of anticipation, a way of modeling the near and far future on paper. Through its models, the reasoning goes, we become ac­customed to the future and are prepared to accept the changes that science and technology might cause in our social and political life. Whether or not one agrees with this logic, and Jameson does not, science fiction’s self-definition as an anticipatory genre has been central to the claims of readers and writers who argue for its moral and social utility. (13) In any case, Walt Disney Productions, a motion-picture company whose international reputation was founded on the dissemination of delightful fantasies, provided the visual expertise necessary to make speculative science real in the minds of its viewers.

In contemporary astrofuturism, Wernher von Braun is a foundational but problematic progenitor. According to Carl Sagan, there can be no doubt regard­ing von Braun’s significance: “Wemher von Braun played an absolutely essen­tial role in the history of rocketry and the development of spaceflight—equally on the inspirational as on the technical side. . . . His Collier’s articles and his popular books—especially the Conquest of the Moon and the Conquest of Mars—were influential in shaping my teenage view about the feasibility and nature of interplanetary flight. Much later, his ‘Mars Project’ fell into my hands, and I’m sure affected my later view of Martian exploration.” (14)

There is little doubt that von Braun’s example also encouraged the planetary scientist in his secondary career as a science popularizer and celebrity. However, as an aca­demic scientist with little patience for the military-industrial complex that fostered von Braun’s working life, Sagan also found the engineer’s smooth compliance with the militarism and racist ideology of Nazi Germany “deeply disturbing” (250). The moral that Sagan draws from von Braun’s apparent complaisance under the Nazi regime is that it “is the responsibility of the scien­tist or engineer to hold back and even, if necessary, to refuse to participate in technological development—no matter how ‘sweet’—when the auspices or ob­jectives are sufficiently sinister” (250). (15) While Sagan spent a good portion of his public career working for the scientific exploration of space, he was no fan of von Braun’s single-minded devotion to the dream. Despite von Braun’s emi­nence, Sagan could not sanction his predecessor’s “willing[ness] to use any ar­gument and accept any sponsorship as long as it could get us into space” (251). Whether he served Germany’s Third Reich or the United States and despite drastic changes in his moral and institutional instruments, von Braun’s commit­ment to spaceflight never wavered.

In the Third Reich, government control and funding of rocket technology turned a group of idealistic backyard experimenters into the technical managers of a large-scale enterprise that could use slave labor as an efficient means of production. The central object of the research carried out at Peenemünde did not change with its transplantation to American soil: the rocket team’s work for U.S. Army Ordinance was designed around the overt goal of carrying harm to the enemy. Von Braun was unable to escape completely the implications of this association. However, his biographers and rocket historians, for whom his con­tributions outweigh his shortcomings, consistently portray him as a man who regretted the use of the rocket in war. For von Braun and the other members of the German rocket team, the spaceflight dream represented the innocence of their youth, the cleansing of their wartime records, and the vindication of their promotion of the space future as a natural extension of the American dream.

The von Braun team’s removal to the United States opened up opportuni­ties unavailable in the German police state of the 1930s and 1940s. Von Braun found himself in command of the resources necessary to develop the rocket’s space-going potential and free to campaign for spaceflight as its ultimate and most important use.

In service to this goal he proved his natural gifts as a politi­cian, embracing an American identity that masked but made good use of his privileged background as a scion of Germany’s Junker aristocracy. Shortly af­ter their arrival in America, his rocket team was established at the Army’s base in Fort Bliss, New Mexico. Their first assignment was to assemble and test the V-2s that the American military had spirited away from Germany at the end of the war. At the White Sands Proving Ground near Fort Bliss, the German émi­grés began their service as consultants to the newly named defense community in various phases of rocket technology and ordinance.


The expatriated Ger­mans also threw themselves into the task of becoming American citizens. No one did this with more zest than von Braun. (16) He seems to have made a con­scious decision to change elements of his character, language, and political vi­sion to make him acceptable in the American context. If he wanted to gain access to the U.S. government and to the American people, he could not play the role of a German aristocrat. (17)

The desert environment of White Sands was a fortuitous setting for this transformation and has provided an irresistible metaphor for rocket historians. It was during those years, they say, that von Braun refined the prewar space­flight vision and realized the importance of presenting that vision to the com­mon man: “After five years in the desert von Braun decided to go public in pressing for space exploration.

One day, while walking among the sage brush with his associate Dr. Adolf K. Thiel, he suddenly turned to him and said with bluntness and facility in the idiom of his newly polished English, ‘We can dream about rockets and the Moon until Hell freezes over. Unless the people understand it and the man who pays the bill is behind it, no dice. You worry about your damned calculations, and I’ll talk to the people.’ ” (18) This account of von Braun’s assumption of a public mission is deliberately mythic, evoking widely available stories of desert prophets and religious enlightenment. It im­plies that von Braun the Prussian aristocrat has been replaced by a hellfire and whiskey democrat. It is at variance, however, with Thiel’s more pedestrian account: “One day, I showed the boss some recent calculations I had made about rockets to the Moon. Von Braun at first discussed the matter with great interest, but suddenly he said: ‘You know what? Even if we continued our cal­culations until hell freezes over, we will not touch or move anybody. You may continue your theoretical studies, but I will talk to the people! I will go public now, because this is where we have to sow our seeds for space exploration!’ ” (19) Here the desert is replaced by an office, and the fiery rhetoric of a newly minted populist preacher is exchanged for the cooler tones of an intelligent politician.

Von Braun’s desire to create a political and economic coalition around ex­traterrestrial conquest blinded him to every other consideration. As a result, the technology the engineer nurtured with his inspired management and the means by which he maintained the quality and coherence of his vision have left, in Sagan’s assessment, a decidedly mixed legacy: “The modem rocket, which he pioneered, will prove to be either the means of mass annihilation through a global thermonuclear war or the means that will carry us to the planets and the stars. This dread ambiguity which faces us today, is central to the life of Wernher von Braun” (94). Sagan’s caution is a refreshing corrective to those who would portray von Braun either as a misunderstood saint or an unapologetic sinner. Indeed, most studies represent him as either a hero or a villain in the war and the space race that followed. Writers dedicated to defending his reputation do so by producing an ahistorical figure that is more a force of destiny than a human being.

Writers committed to producing an accurate history of the Nazi regime and the political compromises that followed tend to be fired by a deter­mination to prosecute inadequately punished crimes against humanity. (20) The von Braun they give us is an amoral technocrat who opened a Pandora’s box. Although the latter uncover the history suppressed by the heroic myth of the former, in their turn they often ignore the complexity of human moral experi­ence and the precarious nature of circumstance.

Von Braun’s most powerful contribution to the inspirational astrofuturism that fed the national interest in space during the 1950s and 1960s was as a politician. And as do many professional politicians, he practiced the arts of compromise and the possible. If he could not convince the majority that space is the terrain of manifest destiny, then he would appeal to the minority interest in the attractions of an ever-expanding capitalism; if the expansion of human rights displeased, then he allowed that an incipient totalitarianism could be ac­commodated; if an audience was unmoved by secular rationalism, then he would deploy the gospel of space. Carl Sagan’s complaint that “there were many von Brauns” gives us some insight into the strategies of this natural politician. (21) At the heart of von Braun’s charisma was his ability to allow his audiences to project onto him and through him their desires and fears as he pur­sued his own project. Tellingly, he defined his approach as “the art of letting someone else have your will” (94).

Von Braun’s skill at framing the space frontier for a wide variety of inter­ests and factions implies that there was no core to his own vision. In a sense this is true. Von Braun was not a utopian in the classic sense of proselytizing a blueprint for a better world some place else. His interest lay solely in the process and technique of getting there from here. However, this is not to say that we cannot identify the kind of social vision von Braun represented at mid­century. Consider, for instance, the image he projected through the medium that made him famous: television. In 1954, von Braun became a consulting “imagineer” for Walt Disney on a series of episodes for Disneyland, the network television show that helped transform the animation studio into a cultural su­perpower. In the midst of his busy schedule as director of rocket development for the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, von Braun took time to become part of a significant force in American cultural history.

At this time, Disney was at the height of his career as a national impresario. His studio set standards for Ameri­can animation; he was a pioneer in television and was on the verge of reviving the theme park as a form of mass entertainment. Disneyland combined educa­tion with amusement through a site plan organizing images paradigmatic to the national imagination: the small town (Main Street), the frontier (Frontierland), wild animal safaris (Adventureland), medieval romance (Fantasyland), and the future (Tomorrowland). As they planned both park and television series, the imagineers turned to von Braun and Willy Ley as the experts who were build­ing the hardware that would make tomorrow a reality. The engineers were brought into the Tomorrowland project to teach their science to scriptwriters and artists. (22) The result was a three-part series, which placed an authoritatively American stamp on the conquest of space: “Man in Space” (which first aired 9 March 1955), “Man and the Moon” (which first aired 28 December 1955), and “Mars and Beyond” (which first aired 4 December 1957).

These episodes present space travel not as the dream of some far distant future but as an imminent reality. Von Braun frames the scientific explanations of Heinz Haber and Ley, well-crafted models of space stations and craft, and animations illustrating the functions of his designs with the declaration, “If we were to start today on an organized, well supported space program, I believe a practical passenger rocket could be built and tested within ten years.” (23) In “Man in Space,” von Braun introduces his design for a four-stage moon rocket. In “Man and the Moon,” the conquest of space proceeds with the presentation of “a realistic and believable trip to the moon in a rocket ship” (154). In this episode as well, von Braun reveals his classic space-station design, a key ele­ment in his early thoughts on how a lunar trip might be accomplished. The final episode, “Mars and Beyond,” illustrates the next step, a trip to Mars using the mission profile argued for in The Mars Project and rocket team member Ernst Stuhlinger’s ambitious plan for an “atomic electric space ship” (155).


The enthusiastic reception of the spaceflight dream in the early 1950s after so much indifference must be considered within the tenor of the times. At the dawn of what some historians have called “the American century,” a time of tremendous national power and international influence, the space futurists found themselves speaking to a public as nervous about the national position as that which greeted the Weimar spaceflight movement. (24) The American victory in Europe and the Pacific brought a peace that seemed vulnerable to hot (Ko­rea) and cold wars against communism, the insurgent civil rights movement, and the overwhelming burden of the atomic bomb. (25) American scientific expertise would lead the human caravan into outer space” (310, emphasis in original). But acceptance of that brave new world also meant embracing a future dominated by the large corporations and government agen­cies that Disney and von Braun so ably represented. For instance, the space future’s materialization in Tomorrowland’s rocket to the Moon ride was spon­sored by Trans World Airlines (394). Following the example of the futuristic world’s fairs of the 1930s, Disney and his German-American collaborators of­fered a future that marshaled familiar economic and political forces. (27)

The prospect that von Braun and his associates offered to the American public provided a fresh itera­tion of the frontier nostalgia that dominated popular culture in the 1950s. Dis­ney writers dressed up the space future with the triumphant rhetoric of a “new frontier,” thus reassuring their public that the great and good in America would survive and prosper. Steven Watts makes a strong case that the “Man in Space” series was understood by a good portion of its audience as a weapon in the cold war with the Soviet Union. (26) He argues that the series was “true to the impera­tives of Cold War culture” and that its narratives “confidently assumed that Von Braun and his

colleagues lavished a great deal of energy on the Dis­ney project. One of Ray Spangenberg and Diane K. Moser’s informants recalls that von Braun approached the effort in the same manner as if he were build­ing an actual piece of hardware. The Disney collaboration gave him a bully pulpit from which to declaim his vision, and working on the programs func­tioned as a dress rehearsal for the real thing. The general impact of the “Man in Space” television series should not be underestimated. Indeed, the confluence of German-American science and spaceflight enthusiasm and the fantastic con­ventions of American cinema is a key turning point in postwar astrofuturism.

The combination joined the technical avant-gardism, which carried Disney’s apple-pie nostalgia to the exotic but hard-edged space-future vision of rock­etry’s pioneers. The most significant benefit for von Braun and his colleagues was access to the Disney stamp of unimpeachable Americanism. Henceforth, their patriotism was guaranteed by Walt Disney’s standing as a highly visible anticommunist and his clandestine status as a “Special Agent in Charge con­tact” for the FBI. (28) Disney also provided an aesthetic of documentary film- making that mixed “education with entertainment,” a genre fine-tuned by the studio’s experience at producing celebratory narratives hailing the domesti­cation of nature and the taming of natural forces. (29) It was a match made in heaven.

Mike Wright records that when the American Rocket Society held a 1955 regional meeting in southern California, its members screened “Man in Space” and toured Disneyland. (30) Randy Liebermann notes that after viewing its first broadcast Dwight D. Eisenhower called Disney, borrowed a copy, and kept it for two weeks to show it to Pentagon officials. (31) He further speculates that ex­posure to the piece may have convinced the Eisenhower administration to announce that America would participate in International Geophysical Year, 1957-58, by launching an earth satellite. (32) Disney also released a copy to the scientists and engineers of Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The success of the first episode convinced the studio to rebroadcast it twice in the following year and to release it as a theatrical film.

A result of the Disneyland episodes’s success was von Braun’s elevation to public celebrity as an ambassador for an American space program. (33) He and his work became central to Disney’s animation of America’s future in all the media at the studio’s command—film, television, comic books, and amusement parks. The new technoscience of rocketry was at last able to bring its ambitions to a mass audience. To make its aims palatable for the broadest possible con­sumption, it domesticated them through the nostalgia for frontier prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s. Henceforth the notion of space as an American property would dominate mid-century discourses on the power of Western science to ex­pand social and economic freedoms.

In the attractive mix of fact and fancy sold by Disney, von Braun held cen­ter stage as both scientific consultant and charismatic presenter. In this role, he took on the mantle of a particular kind of hero: young, handsome, outgoing, a leader, a scientific genius, a brilliant engineer. He embodies, with Disney’s me­diation, a boys’ own image of an explorer who seeks new territory and tames it with his technology. This is not to say that von Braun pretended to be what he was not. Rather, the very masculine ideals and images that organized his own life also organized the way he could be perceived by a popular audience. In their 1995 biography, Spangenberg and Moser review his credentials as a pilot in gliders and advanced military aircraft (Stuka and Messerschmitt) and his exploits as one of rocketry’s first flight test pilots. (34) In an earlier biographical sketch, Erik Bergaust draws attention to his enthusiasm for big game hunt­ing and deep-sea diving. In a culture that celebrated the adventurous white masculinity exemplified by Theodore Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway, von Braun easily fit into the mold of boy’s idol.

Von Braun’s American success must also be attributed to the positive value assigned to whiteness in the middle of the last century. Von Braun and his associates could be models for American youth because he was an educated and cultured European and was not racially other; to be blunt, he was German and not Japanese. (35) Moreover, his rapid assimilation of colloquial American English and his willingness to avoid any overt reliance on his aristocratic back­ground made him an easily consumable public figure in a nation that tolerated and in some places required racial segregation. Whatever cultural refinements the German émigrés brought to their new hometown of Huntsville, Alabama (and there were many), there is no evidence to suggest that that they were fired by a determination to overturn several generations of white supremacist prac­tice. As Europeans representing a cultivated heritage and as U.S. government employees of the Alabama Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA), they fit neatly into the racial dynamic of Huntsville as members of its white elite.


Von Braun’s position in Huntsville forced him to confront race under political circumstances drastically different from those that structured life in Germany. By the time he became Director of the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in 1960, Alabama had experienced almost a decade of civil rights activity. The deep southern cities of Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma had become the heart of the African American campaign for an end to racial segregation and race-based inequities. The political conditions under which von Braun worked underwent an almost overnight transformation from the presumption of white supremacy as ordinary culture to emergent conditions of racial equality. The civil rights movement was considered as an emergency by both white and black authorities, indeed by anyone who had an investment in the standing order of things. As they had done in Hitler’s Germany, von Braun, his family, and colleagues lived, worked, and found their places in the standing order. However, the challenge of the civil rights movement also made it impossible to ignore the agency and critique of the disenfranchised.

In Stuhlinger and Ordway’s account of that time, the civil disturbances around civil rights were also perceived as a challenge to Huntsville, Alabama’s part of the newly minted space program (187). James E. Webb, then NASA Ad­ministrator, “implored von Braun to make every effort to hire qualified blacks into MSFC’s labor force” (187). In response, the director moved to “avoid any trace of racism” in his operation and “desegregation proceeded smoothly in Huntsville” (187). In contrast to Governor George Wallace’s famous stand in the schoolhouse door, Stuhlinger and Ordway point out that von Braun estab­lished an early “affirmative action initiative with local contractors,” worked to create technical contracts with traditionally black Alabama A&M University, and gave a number of talks to local businessmen encouraging support for im­provement of local “education, transportation and recreation” (188). Conclud­ing their account of von Braun’s civil rights record, his memoirists quote a congratulatory 1965 newspaper account praising the visionary as “one of the most outspoken and persistent spokesmen for moderation and racial reconcilia­tion in the South” (188). With satisfaction they record that “civil rights leaders saw little reason to campaign in the city” (187).

In their haste to establish von Braun’s benevolent social credentials, Stuhlinger and Ordway neglect the record of civil rights activity in Huntsville, including “lunch counter sit-ins, boycotts, picket lines” and a visit by Martin Luther King, Jr. (36) Nevertheless, if we take seriously von Braun’s singular goal, his intervention into civil rights, prompted by federal interest in civil sta­bility, makes sense. No doubt von Braun was sincere when he encouraged George Wallace to “shed the shackles of the past” during a 1965 encounter in Huntsville. But, characteristically, he did not tell Huntsville’s elite that ra­cial equality should be offered on constitutional or principled grounds. Rather, he argued that “Alabama’s image is marred by civil rights incidents and statements.” Since he was speaking to the chamber of commerce of a segre­gated Huntsville, it is safe to read this statement not as an indictment of white racism, but as a complaint against black objections to racism. Von Braun was concerned to make improvements that would allow the state to save face and contribute to the social peace required for a quiet and dependable work force.

Von Braun reached the pinnacle of his visibility when Soviet success with placing artificial satellites into planetary orbit threatened American prestige and self-interest. (37) The U.S. Navy’s attempt to mount a quick response to the Soviet initiative through its rocket program resulted in an embarrassingly pub­lic failure when Vanguard I exploded on the launch pad in December 1957, to the delight and dismay of a national television audience. The reaction of the media was immediate and rancorous. (38) When Von Braun’s team successfully answered Sputnik by launching Explorer I in 1958, they gave their adopted homeland the confidence it needed to initiate a superpower-dominated space race. The nation breathed a sigh of relief and von Braun was lionized by the na­tional press. In February of that year, “Missileman Von Braun” joined other fa­mous faces on the cover of Time magazine. The 17 February issue included an article that told von Braun’s story, from his early experiments with the VfR to the triumph of Explorer I. One thing stands out in the resume provided by Time: von Braun’s professional life was circumscribed by his work in the military—both German and American—developing weapons designed to de­liver destruction at long range. Even so, the writer of the article contends, creat­ing weapons was not what drove the scientist. Rather, he was motivated by was the heroic dream of conquering the space frontier:          

[of] the legions of scientists, generals, admirals, engineers and administrators at work on missiles and man-made moons, German-born Wemher von Braun, 45, best personi­fied man’s accelerating drive to rise above the planet. Von Braun, in fact, has only one interest: the conquest of space, which he calls man’s greatest venture. To pursue his life­long dream, he has helped Adolph Hitler wage a vengeful new kind of war, has argued against bureaucracy in two languages and campaigned against official apathy and public disbelief on two continents through most of his adult years. (39)

Such accounts present spaceflight as a noble end in itself, and represent von Braun as a hero and martyr transcending the petty allegiances of this world in his devotion to the promise of the future.

Von Braun’s celebrity helped domesticate the spaceflight agenda. It broad­cast the wonderful dream in familiar cultural narratives through easily accessi­ble views. By 1960, his fame was so great that Hollywood released a laudatory bio-pic called “I Aim at the Stars,” with German actor Curt Jurgens in the star­ring role. NASA Administrator T. Keith Glennan attended a Congressional screening of the film and provides an intriguing glimpse of the engineer’s re­sponse to his celebrity: “Von Braun was there and spoke briefly before the film was shown. He was his usual relaxed and seemingly good-natured self.

He stated that it was a little difficult to be objective about a film of one’s own life but that, given the usual discount for love interest and drama required by screen writers, he thought the film was a reasonably accurate portrayal.” (40) Glennan and his wife found the film disingenuous at best. “Von Braun is made out to be an anti-Nazi and seems to epitomize the scientist’s lack of responsibility for the end use of the products of his mind,” Glennan wrote. (41) The Hollywood attempt to make von Braun fit the sanitized formula it used for great historical figures— conventions that exchange complex human realities for icons-—was only par­tially successful. Even at the height of his fame, some American collaborators harbored doubts about the icons made of the man and his vision.

It was von Braun’s good fortune to be the right man at the right time. His crusade took him far beyond the laboratories, lecture halls, and conferences fa­miliar to most scientists and engineers, and gave him the energy to produce “a barrage of talks and articles on every aspect of astronautics that was to fasci­nate Rotarians, Kiwanians and, for a few critical years, senators and congress­men, as well as readers of the popular press.” (42) His training as an ordinance engineer in Germany and in the United States authorized his public persona as a popularizer of science, technology, and the conquest of space during the 1950s. Here was a man who, unlike the legion of writers of pulp science fic­tion and cheaply produced Saturday morning serials, knew what he was talking about and had the backing of big science and government money. He was a man of great personal charm, and his passion in promoting the space future made him a very persuasive salesman. Frederick C. Durant III, science writer, spaceflight advocate, and von Braun intimate, recalls:

Over the years I have had the opportunity to introduce von Braun to numerous people of widely diverse backgrounds—editors, physicists, the military, Madison Avenue types and businessmen, large and small. Again and again, I have seen von Braun’s personality work magic on opinionated individuals who had preconceived notions and erroneous impressions of von Braun himself, his projects and accomplishments. It is human nature I suppose, to suspect and to be a little envious of someone who had been a wartime enemy and who has had subsequent widespread publicity in a technology as yeasty as rockets and spaceflight. But over and over I’ve watched these opinions change, usually within a few minutes of a first meeting, as von Braun’s personal warmth and engaging manner and obvious honesty are communicated as if by a sixth sense. (43)

Von Braun proved equally persuasive to politicians in the wake of the first Sputnik:

[Testifying before Congress had become a relatively simple task for von Braun. He had considerable experience from his many contacts in the Pentagon, and his frequent visits to Capitol Hill to appear before this or that committee soon became routine.... Indeed, several congressmen welcomed the opportunity to question von Braun—simply be­cause he mesmerized them with his overwhelming knowledge, wisdom and charm. “Listening to Dr. von Braun,” the late Senator Alexander Wiley said, “is like listening to a radio science fiction spectacular in the old days.” (44)

Of course, von Braun and other first-generation astrofuturists may have contested the senator’s comparison; they were eager to present their future vi­sions to the general public as factual science, not science fiction. (45) The com­parison does emphasize, however, one of the most interesting characteristics of astrofuturism since 1945: the constant interchange that occurs between fact and fiction, fantasy and valid scientific speculation within the field. While the main thrust of astrofuturist work has been in the realm of popular science— explaining the space future to a lay audience as a feasible project for current science and technology—communicating that vision through the medium of journalistic articles, lectures, and documentaries allied it with science fiction. Because of their backgrounds in technoscience, astrofuturists have felt a close affinity with science fiction and have used the genre to communicate their spec­ulations to a mass audience. In fact, many astrofuturists who have served as professional scientists and engineers, including von Braun and Carl Sagan, point to boyhood reading of science fiction as the initial motivation for pursu­ing technical educations and careers in science and engineering. (46) Von Braun’s early enthusiasm for the spaceflight movement can be traced to his adolescent reading of Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Garrett P. Serviss, and Kurd Lasswitz. (47)

As with any other field of literature, early exposure and continued affec­tion led many of the astrofuturists to try their hand at writing science fiction. Some of the more successful accomplished the move from working in the aero­space industry to professional writing on the strength of their work. But whether or not an individual futurist became a successful writer, the early astrofuturists as a group had a tremendous impact on science fiction. The popular science es­says and books that they produced supplied the basic information and tech­nology for the work of such authors as Robert A. Heinlein and Lester del Rey. Before Sputnik, science fiction had become a critical outlet for the astrofuturist vision, in part because of its pedagogical function for a young audience. Von Braun knew that the scientific or technological imagination could not be ex­plained adequately to the public simply by showing graphs, diagrams, and equations. Illustrating the future technical feasibility of a space station or a lu­nar voyage was not enough; such ventures had to be explained in a way that proved compelling within the social, political, and economic confines of the present. The scientific and technological platform of von Braun’s astrofuturism required literary explication through a set of expository conventions that would explain it and place it within the existing culture. In short, the space future needed science fiction’s characters, plots, narratives, and adventures to make it glamorous to the public.

During his time at Fort Bliss, von Braun’s desire to reach the public prompted him to write a novel that described what a trip to Mars would be like sometime in the near (1948) future. Perhaps he was encouraged by the postwar boom in science fiction to believe that there might be a receptive market for his speculations if they were properly packaged as a standard science-fiction ad­venture. (48) As Frederick Ordway and Eric Bergaust tell the story, it was those years of enforced isolation and boredom in the New Mexican desert that stimu­lated the space adventure that von Braun called Das Marsprojekt. They write, “The high, thin clouds above the light sandy soil of the desert had turned his re­ceptive imagination to thoughts of Mars. He formulated a plot and a story of seventy passengers and their journey to the red planet.” (49) However, like many a first-time author, von Braun found the market more resistant to his offering than he would have liked: “von Braun, with all the pride of anticipation of a man who had written his first book, sent the manuscript of [The] Mars Project off to a publishing house in New York. After six weeks it came back with a polite no. ‘It sounds too fantastic,’ the reply said. Von Braun tried some­where else, and again the answer was no.” (50) The Mars Project was eventually published in 1952, but without the fantastic adventure von Braun had originally hoped would sell the book. His publisher decided that the novel’s appendix was the most valuable part of the exercise; it contained the detailed equations, charts, graphs, and cost estimates that represented von Braun’s early thoughts on what it would take to actually mount an interplanetary expedition to Mars. Significantly, the publishing house was German. Mainstream American pub­lishers could see no market for a trip to Mars too exotic for science fact and too quotidian for formulaic adventure. (51)

In The Mars Project, von Braun emphasizes a theme that recurs time and again in American astrofuturism: a future in space is no dream but, with cur­rent science and technology, an immediate possibility. Through tables, graphs, and equations, von Braun describes and illustrates the elaborate infrastruc­ture he thought necessary for a successful trip to another world. Unlike the cost-conscious scenarios of a later date, his imagined expedition of the late 1940s followed precedents set by earlier, terrestrial explorations. Invoking the memory of Columbus’s New World voyages, von Braun imagined the first Mars trip as an immense project requiring an armada of ten ships with a crew of at least seventy astronauts. His justification for the commitment and expense required to undertake the voyage refers to the man he takes as a predecessor: “In 1492 Columbus knew less about the far Atlantic than we do about the heav­ens, yet he chose not to sail with a flotilla of less than three ships, and history tends to prove that he might never have returned to Spanish shores with his report of discoveries had he entrusted his fate to a single bottom. So it is with interplanetary exploration: it must be done on the grand scale.” (52)

The scale of von Braun’s project is based on his assumption that the first journey to the red planet will lead inevitably to the establishment of a permanent human presence there with all of the development that implies. He also advocates the creation of a social and technological infrastructure that violate popular American sto­ries of technoscientific progress accomplished through the efforts of backyard mechanics and visionary inventors. Von Braun realized that he had to convince the public to think beyond the democratically inflected “Yankee Tinkerer” no­tion supported by a great deal of science fiction and by the popular mythology surrounding inventor/industrialists such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, and George Eastman. From his own experience in the development of rocketry, von Braun knew that the efforts of the “back-yard inventor, no matter how ingenious he might be” could not bring about the dawn of the Space Age. That goal “can only be achieved by the coordinated might of scientists, techni­cians, and organizers belonging to very nearly every branch of modem science and industry. Astronomers, physicians, mathematicians, engineers, physicists, chemists, and test pilots are essential; but no less so are economists, business­men, diplomats, and a host of others” (10). Instead of the solitary man of ge­nius who dominates popular fiction, a vast corps of people recruited from every walk of life must contribute to the conquest of space. American society would have to be reconfigured to meet the challenge offered by the space frontier.

Von Braun’s articulate defense of the rocket state does not mean that he dismisses individual genius as irrelevant. On the contrary, that genius must be harnessed to create a dedicated elite whose training would fit it seamlessly into the managerial and technological machine required by the grand scale of inter­planetary exploration (2). In The Mars Project, von Braun works hard “to ex­plode once and for all the theory of the solitary space rocket and its little band of bold interplanetary adventurers” (1). Instead, his conquest of space is under­taken by a vast army of specialists “trained to co-operate unfailingly” (2). In other words, while von Braun respects his literary predecessors, he rearticulates their future vision in the light of his own experience. Reasoning from the immense complexity of the rocket and his own experience of the large organi­zations necessary to its development and manufacture, he implies that only a military-based society can marshal the resources, precision, and expertise nec­essary for a Martian expedition. For example, he reassures the reader that “the logistic requirements for a large, elaborate expedition to Mars are no greater than those for a minor military operation extending over a limited theater of war” (4). His assumption of the prominence of a military-style organization in the conquest of space was also a response to the continuing necessity of per­suading the government officials who controlled America’s purse strings. Dur­ing one of his first meetings with T. Keith Glennan, NASA’s first administrator, von Braun bluntly declared, “Look, all we want is a very rich and very benevo­lent uncle.” (53) Thus, he wove issues of national security and the cold war into his delineation of the benefits of mounting a Mars expedition or building a space station.

In “Prelude to Space Travel,” his contribution to the pioneering anthology Across the Space Frontier, von Braun provides further details of the endeavor he imagines. He argues that a space station must be built as a permanent base for manned space operations. Such a station would provide a staging ground for exploration and its personnel could make useful contributions to meteo­rology, astronomy, and ocean navigation. It would also serve as “a guardian of the peace.” (54)


Technicians in this space station, using specially designed, powerful telescopes attached to large optical screens, radarscopes, and cameras, will keep under constant inspection every ocean, continent, country, and city. Even small towns will be clearly visible through optical instruments that will give the watchers in space the same vantage point enjoyed by a man in an observation plane only 4,000 feet off the ground.

Nothing will go unobserved. Within each 2-hour period, as the earth revolves in­side the satellite’s orbit, one-twelfth of the globe’s territory will pass into the view of the space station’s occupants; within each 24-hour period, the entire surface of the earth will have been visible. (12-15)

Despite this Orwellian description, von Braun does not mean to suggest that his space station will be the instrument of some dystopian oppression. On the con­trary, he argues that in the proper hands, American hands, such surveillance will serve the interests of peace and freedom: “because of the telescopic eyes and cameras of the space station, it will be practically impossible for any nation to hide warlike preparations for any length of time” (15). This space station is the ultimate observation post, unassailable in its occupation of orbital and moral high ground. Here von Braun supplies the ideological building blocks on which the 1960s space race found its political justification.

Across the Space Frontier was published in 1952 during America’s in­volvement in Korea, with its implications of a coming war with “red” China. International tensions kept the military agenda foremost in the minds of futur­ists who owed their living to the military-industrial complex. (55) It is no surprise, therefore, that von Braun offered his space station to those leading the postwar rush to impose an international order. Commanding the orbital high ground, it would be the ideal place for hitherto unheard of concentrations of military might. Making explicit its strategic importance, he wrote, “It can be converted into an extremely effective atomic-bomb carrier. Small winged rocket missiles with atomic war heads could be launched from the station in such a manner that they would strike their targets at supersonic speeds. By simultaneous radar tracking of both missile and target, these atomic-headed rockets could be accu­rately guided to any spot on the earth.” (56) A detailed description of the tactical considerations of this conversion follow, and the passage closes with a discus­sion of why a fully armed space station would be virtually invulnerable to attack. Here von Braun caters to the needs of the early cold war and to the po­litical desire for a dominance accomplished through sole ownership of a high technology. He concludes, “The important point is that the station could defend itself in case of attack and that it could prevent rival stations from being estab­lished. Therefore, whether in the hands of a single peace-loving nation, or in the hands of the United Nations, the space station would be a deterrent which might cause a successful outlawing of war.” (57) In the right hands, the space sta­tion could be the all-powerful doomsday weapon that would force the end of humanity’s favorite pastime. As H. Bruce Franklin points out in his invaluable study War Stars, the idea that a super-weapon might secure a lasting peace, the first condition of utopia, frequently recurs in the popular culture of techno­science. (58) In his astrofuturism, therefore, von Braun follows a venerable tradi­tion in the technological imagination of the West.

Failure as a fiction writer did not diminish von Braun’s desire to write and publish. Rather, it forced him to concentrate his energies on making the fantastic real within contemporary life. In an account of himself as a writer von Braun remarked, “After a day of excruciating meetings for the Redstone Proj­ect.. . it is such an enjoyable relaxation to transpose yourself to the lunar sur­face and simply charge ahead with a colorful description of all the exciting adventures that expect you [sic] there. ... I mix me some martinis, put a Bran­denburg concerto on the record player, and just write and write . . . until Maria [his wife] gets out of bed and reminds me that I must be in the office two hours from now.” (59) The space future is an adventure to which von Braun could escape the pressures of creating the vehicles he hoped would make it possible. He pre­sents his literary activity as a culturally expressive act dignified by professional activity and the consumption of middle-class luxuries. The astrofuturist places himself within a context of industrial activity and suburban domesticity, thereby offering his readers is a fair example of how astrofuturism could make sense during the 1950s and 1960s.


Astrofuturism’s expository conventions were not, however, the creation of one man. Willy Ley, another German émigré, was the necessary mediator in the importation and integration of German spaceflight enthusiasm into what be­came an American vision of the space future. With the exception of those years when the National Socialists were in power in Germany, Ley’s career was inti­mately intertwined with that of von Braun and the other members of the rocket team. He was a founding member of the Verein fur Raumschiffahrt when it was established in 1927 and he served as its vice president from 1928 through 1933. During the society’s early experiments, Ley helped devise some of the basic principles and methods that guided the development of liquid-fueled rocketry in Germany. (60) His greatest contribution to science, rocketry, and astrofuturism, however, was not as an experimenter, but as a writer.

While von Braun received the call to carry the gospel of the space future to the American public during his late 1940s exile at the White Sands Proving Ground, Ley found his commission much earlier. It is apparent from the slim biographical material that exists on his life that Ley provided much of the en­thusiasm and energy required to bring together the early group of German space visionaries. For example, he is credited with introducing von Braun to Hermann Oberth, the Transylvanian educator who inspired rocketors on both sides of the Atlantic with his 1923 book Die Rakete zu den Planetenraumen (The Rocket into Planetary Space). (61) Moreover, Ley’s rough facility with for­eign languages allowed him to become astrofuturism’s first international publi­cist. (62) During the late 1920s and early 1930s, he corresponded with all the major spaceflight and rocket societies in Europe, America, and the Soviet Union, keeping in touch with major practitioners of the art and serving as a clearing­house for information. He also kept spaceflight enthusiasts on both sides of the Atlantic apprised of developments and progress in the German society. Ley’s international correspondence complemented his freshly minted career as a sci­ence popularizer. In 1926, he wrote Die Fahrt ins Weltall (The Journey into the Universe), a popularization of Hermann Oberth’s heavily technical book. The success of his first effort to make the subject comprehensible to a popular audience can be measured by Oberth’s enthusiastic approval and by the strong reception the book received in the general literary market. (63)

Ley’s career began in the early days of the rocket societies, when the groups were searching for funds and a sense of legitimacy in their nations. Al­though all the amateur spaceflight enthusiasts dreamed of the same goal, the conquest of space, tempers flared and bitter arguments occurred as each faction fought to establish its priority, the power to command resources, and the right to set the agenda both within and outside the rocket community. As Ley re­ported the impressive advances made by the VfR, for example, he was met with cries of “foul,” “idea piracy,” and “patent infringement” from some mem­bers of the American branch of rocket invention. In 1944, following the publi­cation of Ley’s Rockets, Robert H. Goddard, rocket pioneer and Professor of Physics at Clark University in Massachusetts, complained to Edmund Wilson of The New Yorker that Ley neglected American (that is, Goddard’s own) con­tributions to liquid-fueled rocketry in his haste to promote German advances. (64) In correspondence with Pendray, Goddard indicated that his “patience was tried by the Ley book.” (65) In response, Ley attempted to redress the balance in later editions of his rocket history, but argued that although Goddard’s work was im­portant, the early isolation of rocket experimenters by distance and language made duplication of effort and independent creation inevitable. (66)

It is interesting that the members of the VfR should have been so success­ful both in experimentation and in the publication of their work. Their success in both areas is attributable to the fact that of all the early amateur rocket soci­eties, they were the most fortunate in terms of physical and economic resources. As Michael Neufeld has demonstrated, they were part of the intellectual and cultural ferment of a nation pursuing projects that could recover the pres­tige and stability lost in its 1918 defeat. (67) They survived longer than any other group of active experimenters outside the military-industrial complex that be­came crucial to the mature development of rocket technology. Raketenflugplatz with excitement and envy. That success drew the interest of the German government, which had more earthbound reasons for be­ing interested in rocket technology: when Colonel Becker and Captains Domberger and Dorn of German Army Ordinance visited the VfR’s test site in 1932, they were looking for a way around the Versailles conventions that limited the type and size of their long-range guns. The nascent technology of modem rock­etry looked like a promising way of achieving that goal.

Their unblushing idealism and commitment to developing the technology exclusively for a space future also lasted longer than all but that of the British Interplanetary Society. By the early 1930s, the international rocket community watched developments at the Berlin

While the interest of the Reichswehr was attractive as a stable source of income, it also meant that the rocketeers had to play by military rules rather than by those of an amateur scientific club. That was made abundantly clear as first von Braun and then other vital experimenters were hired away by Army Ordinance. The Army then began a campaign to shut down German participa­tion in the international spaceflight movement. VfR veteran Rolf Engel was ar­rested “for corresponding with prominent space pioneers in other countries.” (68) Ley’s own journalism and networking quickly got him in trouble with security­conscious Army authorities, who “ordered [him] to cease writing on rocketry for foreign publications.” (69) The campaign proceeded with a Gestapo raid on the Raketenflugplatz, which Ley witnessed in October 1933. Reichswehr ordinance program dropped a veil of secrecy.
(70) Army maneuvering eventually resulted in a water bill that the rocket group could not pay and the fi­nal loss of their lease on the old ammunition dump that had been their home for three years. (71) Ley’s connections with VfR innovators were severed as the

By 1934, the VfR disbanded and the vigorous astronautical network that Ley had helped build dissolved. (72) In 1935, Ley wrote his overseas correspon­dents that he was in trouble with the authorities. And on the eve of the 1936 Olympic Games held in Berlin, Ley became a part of the migration of German intellectuals and political dissidents fleeing the rise of national socialism. (73) As the storm clouds of war gathered, spaceflight activity in Europe ground to a halt. (74) Ordway and Sharpe note that, “With Ley’s departure from Germany, the flow of rocket society news virtually ceased—and hardly anyone noticed. This is not surprising, for outside of small amateur societies operating on shoe­string budgets and occasional isolated dreamers and experimenters typified by America’s Robert H. Goddard, interest in rocketry was virtually nil in the United States and the United Kingdom.” (75) Spaceflight advocates who remained and continued their work in Nazi Germany were pressed into the practical busi­ness of making weapons.

After a short stay in London where, under the sponsorship of the British Interplanetary Society, he presented a series of lectures and articles on rocketry, Willy Ley arrived in New York. There he was given a warm welcome by repre­sentatives of the American Rocket Society and found that his work was easily transferable to the American context. In short order, he was ready to raise American public awareness of the latest in rocket technology and the space­flight vision. (76) Not surprisingly, Ley took his ideas on the space future to the most receptive audiences America had to offer: the amateur rocket societies and the science-fiction community. In 1937, he began contributing popular science articles to Astounding Science Fiction, a magazine that was moving toward a hard science bias under the editorial direction of John W. Campbell. (77) By 1952, he became the science editor for Galaxy Science Fiction, a position he held un­til his death almost two decades later. While producing popular science articles and many books on natural history, he also dabbled in writing genre science fic­tion. (78) Because of his intimate connection with science fiction in America, Ley became an important link between European rocketry and its American coun­terpart. During the early 1950s, he reestablished contact with those of his old Raketenflugplatz colleagues who had been brought to America by the U.S. Army. By the middle of the decade, he was working with von Braun and others from both the German rocket team and the American scientific and science- fiction communities on a series of books that described an imminent conquest of space. (79)

By the mid-1950s, the conquest of the space frontier seemed to be an idea whose time had come. The derision and embarrassed dismissal the subject had encountered in earlier years evaporated as a growing number of writers and artists with solid science and engineering credentials came forward to promote it. In contrast to an earlier generation of writers who used space as a back­ground for formulaic pulp adventures, many of these new writers, including von Braun, held positions of authority within the scientific and technical com­munities of their day. Although their faith in the importance of space and its relevance to a scientific agenda made them a definite minority within those communities, they could not easily be dismissed as crackpots. They were tied into a postwar military-industrial complex that was actively experimenting with the new rocket technology, doing research and development that had gov­ernment sanction. The aerospace industry that emerged from this constellation of interests in the 1950s also realized the importance of selling the new tech­nology to the public. The American people had to be convinced that the invest­ment being made in rocket technology was the only sure way of guaranteeing a tranquil and prosperous future.

The astrofuturist agenda, as a result, dovetailed nicely with the interests of the aerospace industry. As astrofuturists wooed the public with their wonderful space futures, they also demystified rocket tech­nology and advertised the benign intent of the industries behind it. Their mes­sage was that crossing the space frontier was no fantasy for the far future; rather, it was a goal that could be accomplished in the near future. Their books and articles presented a conquest of space that would not threaten social and political constants. On the contrary, it would allow for an endless renewal of the democratic values and prosperity central to the American way of life.

Almost twenty years after David Lasser’s pioneering effort, Willy Ley wrote his own version of The Conquest of Space, a book that sought to widen the audience for the spaceflight dream. (80) Published by the Viking Press in 1950, it gained wide notice in the spaceflight and science-fiction communities on both sides of the Atlantic. In a contemporary review of the book, Arthur C. Clarke describes it as “an outstanding example of co-operation between art and technology.” (81) The synthesis that excited Clarke and his colleagues was a result of Ley’s collaboration with Chesley Bonestell, the architect who would make space art a respectable discipline in the aerospace and science-fiction commu­nities. Ley’s technical authority coupled with Bonestell’s hard-edged illustrations of the machines and landscapes of space exploration helped move astrofuturism from the fantastic to the real. By creating the atmosphere of technological verisimilitude essential to the project, Bonestell’s illustrations and paintings supported Ley’s history of technology, replaced the tin-pot space ships so fa­miliar from the Flash Gordon science-fiction serials of the 1930s and the pulp iconography of spaceships produced by artists such as R. Frank Paul, and con­nected rocket flight and space travel to other transportation revolutions.

The Ley and Bonestell collaboration drew interest from the world beyond the science-fiction ghetto. While Lasser’s The Conquest of Space was almost completely ignored, the later book met with widespread acclaim. The twenty- year gap between the two books helps explain the difference in popular recep­tion. Produced in the 1930s, Lasser’s Conquest appeared at a time when science fiction was in its infancy and rocketry was not dignified by government funding or corporate profits. By the early 1950s, all that was changing. Rocketry had become a strategic asset, a tool of international science and campaign fodder for politicians with presidential aspirations. Lester Del Rey writes that as a re­sult of these changes, the American public began to accept science fiction as more than “that Flash Gordon stuff”: “The atomic bomb was partly responsible for this; science fiction had accepted and written about atomic power when there was total ignorance of the subject elsewhere—partly caused by an im­posed government secrecy, of course. As a result, a sort of grudging respect en­tered into mention of the field in newspapers and other magazines. For the first time, being a writer of science fiction carried a measure of respectability.” (82)

In the popular mind the technological power represented by rocketry was conflated with that of the atomic bomb. The most recognizable technological icons of the 1950s and 1960s were that of the rocket and the atom, often placed in immediate juxtaposition. During the 1950s, the two became symbols not only of science fiction but of any forward-looking company hoping to identify itself with the future. They were used on the painted covers of science-fiction magazines and paperbacks, and became the trademarks of science-fiction pub­lishers such as the John C. Winston Company. (83) Automobile manufacturers used the rocket as a design feature on their cars to suggest the idea that a look or an engine was produced by cutting-edge research and development. For ex­ample, O. B. Hardison, Jr., notes that “between 1950 and 1965 General Motors put tail fins on its cars to intimate that they were rockets.” (84) In this atmosphere, Ley’s The Conquest of Space with its Bonestell paintings and coffee-table pre­sentation reached a popular audience hungry for information that would ex­plain the technology of the rocket and its possible impact on American culture.


Ley’s The Conquest of Space introduced its audience to what Michael A. G. Michaud calls the “classic agenda” for manned spaceflight: a technosocial plan that represents the core of the space future as it was imagined in the 1950s and 1960s. Michaud points out that the “classic agenda is positive and expansionist. To the advocates of spaceflight, humanity’s outward expansion was not only desirable but obviously so.” (85) It is around this agenda that the first-generation astrofuturists formed their technical and ideological consensus in the 1950s. The Conquest of Space set the epistemological framework for the astrofuturist project by weaving together the literary, scientific, and technological background to the spaceflight idea. It also used the narrative strategies of science fiction to present the reader with attractive social and cultural reasons for accepting its inevitability. Perhaps the most important aspect of the Ley text is his presen­tation of the space future as a natural extension of Western and, therefore, American culture. For Ley, the conquest of space is mandated by natural and historical law, ordained in the same fashion as the European conquest of the New World. Support for this teleology comes from his understanding of history as the advancement of Western science and technology.
To persuade the reader that the conquest of space is a logical consequence of humanity’s fascination with the stars from ancient to modem times, Ley fo­cuses attention on the development of the sciences, particularly that of as­tronomy. According to Ley’s account, there have been two eras of astronomy up to the early 1900s. The first era covers “the time when Babylonian astronomer- priests looked up to the lights in the sky to see the abodes and possibly to learn the will of their gods to the time of Kepler’s own teacher Tycho Brahe.” (86) The second era proceeds from the invention of the telescope in the Netherlands (by Anton van Leeuwenhoek) and its use by astronomers from Galileo Galilei to the present. According to Ley, the telescope “gradually added a new discipline to astronomy, that of exploring and describing the surfaces of the heavenly bodies.” (87) Ley’s 1950 vision situates the beginning of the third era of as­tronomy in the first manned landing on “the shining island of Levania of which Kepler dreamed”: the Moon. (88)

For Ley, an astronomical/historical era is distinguished by its technology.

He defines the first two eras of astronomy by the technology of sight: the un­aided eye is superseded by the primitive telescopes of sixteenth-century Europe and their ever more powerful and sophisticated descendents. Optical tech­nology is still a part of Ley’s postulated third era, but with the addition of a transport technology powerful enough to escape Earth’s gravity. Although in his discussion of Kepler he acknowledges astronomy’s theoretical side, he believes that the discipline advances through practice, not theory. In other words, progress occurs through advances in technology, not through abstract reasoning. The spaceship, therefore, is the next logical step in the progress of astronomy:

It almost seems that each era of astronomy does best when it comes to solving the problems of the preceding era. The inaccuracies of naked-eye observation were easily corrected by the optical instruments of the second era. The questions posed by the telescope—mostly concerning the surface conditions of the planets—will be answered by the spaceship. If the third era also poses new problems and questions without an­swering them, it will be up to the scientists of the third era to find ways and means toward a fourth era. (89)

Using astronomy as both metaphor and guide, Ley presents the conquest of space as a historical inevitability arising from the technological progress forced by the needs of scientific observation. Thus science and technology are placed in the service of a human need to control the material universe. Progress in astronomy is not measured by an interest in abstract knowledge, but by the increasing ability to provide the tools necessary for an inventory of the weltall. Astronomy itself becomes a technoscientific tool that will allow us to explore other worlds, just as it enabled the exploration of distant islands and continents on our own. Projecting this instrumental view of astronomy into the future and aided by a further forty more years of science fiction and technological specu­lation, it is easy to imagine what the fourth age of astronomy might be: the direct manipulation of extraterrestrial bodies—asteroids, planets, and even stars—for fun and profit.

Ley’s historical scheme speaks to presuppositions of science fiction well grounded in the Western scientific and technological imagination. In one of his popularizations not dedicated to spaceflight, Engineer’s Dreams (1954), the science writer speculates about the possibility of mammoth terrestrial proj­ects such as a tunnel between Britain and continental Europe, a central African lake, moving icebergs to warmer climes as a source of fresh water, partially draining the Mediterranean Sea to provide new land mass, and a range of by now familiar alternatives for generating energy: geothermal, solar, oceanic induction, and wind. The book’s reigning presupposition is that there is no limit to humanity’s ability to reshape nature to suit its own ends. (90) The grand scale of Ley’s dreams echoes the great civil engineering endeavors that transformed the North American landscape in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including the Brooklyn Bridge, the Hoover Dam, the Panama Canal, and the projects of the Tennessee Valley Authority. As his title indicates, he also in­vokes popular narratives of heroic engineers who tame nature for the public good. (91)
In an atmosphere of public optimism about such work, it is not surpris­ing that gigantic engineering projects—encapsulating the Sun to capture all its ambient energy, moving asteroids into Earth orbit for easy access to the miner­als they contain, and “terraforming” other planets—have been commonplace in space futurist speculation since the 1920s. (92) Ley mobilizes this history to vali­date both the present in which he lives and the future he desires. His teleology comes vested in the robes of progress; it is, in effect, a technological manifest destiny. The classic agenda of manned spaceflight that he promoted was an ex­tension of the technological triumphs and subsequent terrestrial expansion that marked the conquest of the American west in the nineteenth century and the na­tion’s imperial adventures in the early twentieth.


At this point in the development of American astrofuturism, however, the space-future vision was recognized as desirable only by its immediate con­stituency, habitual readers of science fiction and boys’ adventure literature. The evangelism of the pioneering astrofuturists demanded a wider audience, one that transcended the generic and social confines of that era’s science-fiction community. The search for that audience led to the creation of a symposium at the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York focusing exclusively on the topic of space travel. It was the brainchild of the ubiquitous Willy Ley, who, while in contact with Robert R. Coles, the chairman of the planetarium, mentioned “the annual astronautical congresses which were then just starting in Europe.” Because of the distance involved, Americans had difficulty finding the time and money to attend the European conferences. While the home-grown American Rocket Society did hold annual meetings, sessions on space travel took up very little of its time. On the other hand, the European meetings “were devoted to nothing else.” Ley proposed a conference at the planetarium that would redress the balance. (93) As it had done in the 1930s, the planetarium would provide a forum for a new generation of space travel visionaries.

Significantly, the organizers of the First Annual Symposium on Space Travel picked Columbus Day, 1951, for their first meeting, “partly for symbolic reasons.” They had to restrict the size of that first gathering because of limited space, but the committee made sure they had a representative cross section of the constituencies the space futurists wanted to reach. The meeting led to in­terest by two of most powerful forces influencing public opinion in the 1950s: the upscale general interest magazine and motion pictures. Ley notes, “Those invited were representative of universities, other scientific institutions, of the armed forces stationed in New York, of city and state governments, and of pub­lications.” (94) Among those publications was Collier’s, a mass-market magazine whose audience was the crucial middle-class, college-educated reader, also sought by Life, Look, and the Saturday Evening Post. (95)

Collier’s interest in the proposals of von Braun, Ley, and company at the Hayden Planetarium resulted in the publication of a series of articles on the science and technology of space travel under the optimistic heading, “Man Will Conquer Space Soon.” (96) These articles were published in an expanded form as Across the Space Frontier (1952), a hardbound book that served as a popular primer for an entire generation of space enthusiasts. The symposium and the books that followed it constituted the first postwar attempt to introduce the idea of space travel to the public as a serious possibility. It was also the first major exposure the American public had to the central figures of first- generation astrofuturism. Across the Space Frontier contained articles by Heinz Haber, a pioneer of space medicine as well as one of its initial popularizers; Fred Whipple, a Harvard astronomer who became a well known popularizer of his subject; Joseph Kaplan, one of the designers of the B-29; Wemher von Braun, discussing the design and use of space stations and spaceships; Willy Ley, with a more detailed explanation of the space station and its uses; and the pioneering space illustrators, Chesley Bonestell, Fred Freeman, and Rolf Klep. These men were introduced to the public as part of a community who took the space alternative seriously and had concrete, realizable proposals.

The impact of this volume was reinforced by the publication of a second book the following year called Conquest of the Moon. Its authors, von Braun, Whipple, and Ley, attempt a coherent, singular vision emphasizing that their speculations were not to be taken merely as science fiction, but as a technologi­cal reality based on factual science. “The ships the explorers will use for the long journey through space will bear little resemblance to those depicted by the science-fictionists,” they wrote. “In fact their appearance is even more fantas­tic. But there is this difference: they work.” (97) After collaborating on Across the Space Frontier and Conquest of the Moon, the von Braun/Ley team worked with Bonestell on The Exploration of Mars. In that text, they present a plan for reaching the red planet, a goal of American space visionaries since the fantastic speculations of Percival Lowell in the early years of the twentieth century.

By the mid-1950s, with the help of these books, American astrofuturism had reached a consensus on the likely nature of the space future, particularly as a technological and a cultural challenge. Organized around the idea of a “conquest of space,” the astrofuturists understood that going beyond the earth’s atmosphere, making the journey to the Moon, and planning the exploration of Mars were on par with the conquest of the New World. Many of them, includ­ing Willy Ley and Arthur C. Clarke, were interested in the history of the age of exploration—the five-century-long history of the European exploration and conquest of the terrestrial globe—and regularly invoked the names and achieve­ments of Columbus, Cook, Lewis, and Clark to explain the significance and nature of the astrofuturist project. Thus the basis for advocating expansion into space grew from a popular history read from the point of view of explorers, missionaries, and colonizers. At the dawn of the space age, the astrofuturist consensus formed around progressive science and technology, territorial ex­pansion, and a tacit acknowledgement of a social order that placed Europe and white America at the pinnacle of racial and national hierarchies.

The imperial ambitions and benevolent impulses, which motivated Euro­pean conquest of the New World and the United States’s expansion to its west and beyond, found new expression in the astrofuturist imagination. Hence utopian ideals of renewing a wealthy, benign, and egalitarian society on the space frontier cohabit with racist and nationalist impulses. Rather than present­ing alternatives (as later futurists would demand), the space future of the 1950s and 1960s was to be a realm in which the contemporary status quo would find infinite room for expansion. The classic agenda for manned spaceflight was also an articulation of technological goals that the astrofuturists thought essen­tial to the conquest of space. The agenda focused around the scenario that Ley did so much to popularize and that was identified as the intellectual property of the German rocket team. That basic scenario described the creation of a techno­logical infrastructure composed of a rocket plane, a station in orbit around the Earth, rocket-powered vehicles to the planets, a voyage to the Moon and the es­tablishment of a base there, an expedition to Mars, and the creation of a base and colony on that planet’s surface. After these goals had been accomplished, the ultimate mission of the classic agenda was the conquest of the solar system and a hope for technological capability (most often thought of as nuclear) that would allow humanity to expand outward into extra-solar space.


The classic agenda of first-generation astrofuturists had a measurable im­pact on the lives of many American scientists, writers, and social activists. Second-generation futurists as different in background and political outlook as Carl Sagan, Ben Bova, and Jerry Poumelle have pointed toward the space literature and science fiction of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s as the catalyst for their interest in science and their involvement in the space program. Long after he became a leading figure in science fiction and space popularization, Arthur C. Clarke credited Lasser’s Conquest of Space for giving him his start. (98) Carl Sagan echoes Clarke by crediting the science fiction of the 1930s for his career as a planetary scientist and spaceflight advocate: “Such ideas, when encountered young, can influence adult behavior. Many scientists deeply in­volved in the exploration of the solar system (myself among them) were first turned in that direction by science fiction. they who will live in the future” (171). For him, as for many other astrofuturists, science fiction helps provide those who listen with alternatives, blueprints for the ever- advancing future. Sagan also presents what may be considered the often un­stated rationale for astrofuturism when he says, “It is my firm view that no society on earth today is well adapted to the earth of one or two hundred years from now (if we are wise enough or lucky enough to survive that long). We desperately need an exploration of alternative futures, both experimental and conceptual” (171).

And the fact that some of the science fiction was not of the highest quality is irrelevant. Ten-year-olds do not read the scientific literature.” (99) Sagan’s explanation for the historical and continuing popularity of science fiction among young people is that “it is

What we have seen up to this point is most of what went into the creation of the astrofuturism in the years immediately before and after the Second World War. Many of the amateur rocket enthusiasts of the 1920s and 1930s went on to become the astrofuturists of the late 1940s and 1950s. The differences be­tween the eras are akin to the difference between dream and reality. Before the war, the dream of interplanetary travel had belonged to satiric and utopian lit­erature and was just moving into the realm of the West’s growing mass culture. After the war and the advent of a very real and devastating rocket technology, the dream of space travel began to move out of its small portions of high and popular culture onto the political agenda of nations. No longer simply the prov­ince of literary scholars, adolescent boys, backyard engineers, and mass-market publishers, vast amounts of human, economic, and political capital were di­verted into the technology that would make the space future possible.

By the end of the 1950s, astrofuturists had come far from their predeces­sors, the amateur enthusiasts who talked to one another through newsletters, pulp fiction, and fan conventions. They had become professional explainers to large audiences, writing and publishing popular science books, speculative es­says, and science fiction, and working on television and Hollywood movies as well. All the major astrofuturists after the Second World War—Wemher von Braun, Willy Ley, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, and Krafft Ehricke— share both a background in science and/or engineering and a willingness to work in many different fields of public communication to introduce their ideas to as broad an audience as possible. If nothing else, this first postwar generation of modem space futurists succeeded in making their science-fictional future real to the youngsters who were influenced by their work. Through their popu­lar science and science-fiction, von Braun and Ley re-created the conversion and enlightenment experience that characterized their own youthful reading of Verne, Wells, Lasswitz, and Oberth. They created a unique blend of techno- scientific extrapolation and fantastic adventure for “rocket-minded” youths conscious of the possibilities the conquest of space could offer. They helped create a social and political consensus that mirrored the official culture of mid-twentieth-century America and that found cultural legitimacy in the “man in space” movement of the 1950s.

Hence, astrofuturism is more than a technological enterprise or a parts catalog of means and ends. It represents an attempt to describe futures that are attractive projections of contemporary social and political desires. While futur­ism is a broad-based phenomenon appearing in everything from military analysis to regional planning and real estate speculation, its clearest cultural expression is in science fiction. It is through science fiction, as a popular literature and as a social phenomenon, that the first-generation astrofuturist consensus made itself felt in American culture. Despite or even perhaps because of its marginal status within the mainstream of official culture, science fiction gave the early space­flight enthusiasts a common ground where they could create narrative models of how spaceflight could be accomplished, its influence on everyday life, and its significance for the course of American civilization.


Representing a mode of technosocial thinking within Western culture, the roots of American astrofuturism extend beyond national boundaries. No matter where they came from, the futurists of the first generation shared a common background in the romantic imagination of nineteenth-century technoscience and exploration. Therefore, when the German rocket team arrived in the United States and began their postwar process of Americanization, they found that they already shared a common language with the native science-fiction com­munity. That commonality was to prove invaluable in years to come because it allowed them to be a part of the infrastructure of periodicals, organizations, and personal relationships that serves as the lifeblood of science fiction.

Through science fiction, the German space enthusiasts were able to find a language with which to communicate their ruling passion to like-minded Americans. In the days before the rise of the 1960s space program, one of the few ways that spaceflight enthusiasts could get their ideas into circulation was through this popular genre and the youth culture it served. In the 1940s and 1950s it was the only space in American culture where their ideas could find an audience that fully embraced their aspirations. It is through science fiction, as a popular literature and as popular science, that astrofuturism came to matu­rity in the American context. In the next chapter, I turn to Robert A. Heinlein, whose science fiction took the genre to a new level of maturity and defined space travel as an American destiny emerging inevitably out of the national experience.

NOTES

1. Michael Flynn, Firestar (New York: TOR Books, 1996).
2.  The Peenemünde engineers had originally named the rocket the A-4 or Ag­gregate 4. Their numbering system continued that which they had used during the days when they were just an amateur rocket society working at a leased field on the out­skirts of Berlin. The Nazi propaganda machine renamed the rocket V-2 for obvious rea­sons (Richard S. Lewis, Appointment On the Moon [New York: Ballantine Books, 1969], 12).
3.  Erik Bergaust, Wemher von Braun (Washington, D.C.: National Space Insti­tute, 1976), 147.
4.  This is a landmark moment in the development of American space capabilities. However, before the end of the Third Reich, General Walter Dornberger had claimed the creation of the spaceship for his own rocket team at Peenemünde (Michael J. Neufeld, The Rocket and the Reich: Peenemünde and the Coming of the Ballistic Missile Era [New York: Free Press, 1995], 165). After World War n, rocketry in America is as much a story of technological transfer or appropriation as it is of homegrown invention.
5.   Tom Bower, The Paperclip Conspiracy: The Hunt for the Nazi Scientists (Boston: Little, Brown, 1987), 125. For more on the von Braun team’s involvement in the crimes of the Third Reich, see Linda Hunt, Secret Agenda: The United States Gov­ernment, Nazi Scientists, and Project Paperclip, 1945 to 1990 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991) and Neufeld.
6.  Joseph J. Trento and Susan B. Trento, Prescription for Disaster: From the Glory of Apollo to the Betrayal of the Shuttle (New York: Crown Publishers, 1987), 7.
7.  Dale Carter, The Final Frontier: The Rise and Fall of the American Rocket State (New York: Verso, 1988), 7.
8.  Walter A. McDougall,... the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (New York: Basic Books, 1985), 229.
9.  Arthur C. Clarke, “Space Flight and the Spirit of Man,” Voices from the Sky: Previews of the Coming Space Age (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 4.
10.   See, for example, Carl Sagan’s The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective (New York: Dell Publishing, 1973) and Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science (New York: Ballantine Books, 1980).
11.  Bergaust, 20.
12.  Fredric Jameson, “Progress Versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?” Science-Fiction Studies 9 (1982): 150-51.
13.  For a pioneering academic treatment that argues for science fiction’s utility as an anticipatory genre, see J. O. Bailey, Pilgrims Through Time and Space: Trends and Patterns in Utopian Fiction (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975 [1947]).
14.  Ernst Stuhlinger and Frederick I. Ordway IH, Wemher von Braun: Crusader for Space—A Biographical Memoir (Malabar, Fla.: Krieger Publishing Company, 1994), 250.
15.   Sagan’s rhetoric here invokes J. Robert Oppenheimer’s remark that many physicists worked on the World War II atomic bomb project because the problem was “technically sweet.” The remark was made in the context of Oppenheimer’s regret re­garding his own participation. The Manhattan Project inaugurated a strong contingent within the American scientific community that questions the militaristic use of science. Its members have created the Pugwash conferences in which scientists discuss the moral and political implications of nuclear weapons; The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, a major antinuclear watchdog publication; and at least one science-fiction novel, Jack McDevitt’s The Hercules Text (New York: Ace Books, 1986), in which a scientist re­fuses to pursue the implications of his research because of the cataclysmic dangers posed by its possible application in war. See also Oppenheimer’s collection of essays, Atom and Void: Essays on Science and Community (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univer­sity Press, 1989).
16.  For more on the Americanization of the rocket team, see Michel Bas-Zorhas, The Hunt for German Scientists (New York: Hawthorne Books, 1967), 143-44 and RaySpangenburg and Diane K. Moser, Wemher von Braun: Space Visionary and Rocket Engineer (New York: Facts On File, 1995).
17.  According to William Sims Bainbridge’s investigation into the class back­grounds of the spaceflight advocates, von Braun was one of only two men who came from the upper class. His biographer, Erik Bergaust, notes that although von Braun’s fa­ther, Freiherr Magnus von Braun, was a baron of the Prussian Junker aristocracy, this was not common knowledge. Within the American context, such status is generally kept out of public discourse. See William Sims Bainbridge, The Spaceflight Revolution: A Sociological Study (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1976), 37. The British, however, had no such egalitarian pretensions. In the immediate postwar era, the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society published a biographical sketch by Willy Ley that makes clear von Braun’s connection with German aristocracy. Ley notes that the prewar von Braun was contemptuous of both the Weimar Republic and of the Nazis. These atti­tudes were typical of his class and formed a plank in “the political platform of the Deutsche Adels Gesellschaft (Society of German Nobility),” the party of Magnus von Braun, who served the Weimar Republic as Minister of Agriculture and Education (Willy Ley, “Correspondence: Count von Braun,” Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 6 [June 1947], 155). David F. Noble argues that von Braun’s assimilation into the American mainstream was aided by the assumption of a fundamentalist Christian faith, which also accounts for von Braun’s success in making the spaceflight dream con­sonant with the Bible Belt sensibility of the southern state in which he lived and worked (David F. Noble, The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of In­vention [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997], 126-29).
18.  Frederick I. Ordway III and Mitchell Sharpe, The Rocket Team (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1979), 408-9. Adolf K. Thiel, a member of the German rocket team, was one of the fourteen Germans that Allied security classified as “potential or ac­tual threats to the US” because of long-term membership in the Nazi Party and/or mem­bership in the SS or SA. Von Braun was also included on that list (Bower, 237).
19.  Stuhlinger and Ordway, 94.
20.  See, for example, the scholarship of Dale Carter and Michael J. Neufeld and Tom Lehrer’s incisive 1965 satire, “Wemher von Braun,” Too Many Songs by Tom Lehrer (New York: Pantheon Books, 1981), 124-25.
21.  Stuhlinger and Ordway, 251.
22.  Spangenburg and Moser, viii.
23.   Mike Wright, “The Disney-Von Braun Collaboration and Its Influence on Space Exploration,” Inner Space/Outer Space: Humanities, Technology and the Post­modern World, ed. Daniel Schenker, Craig Hanks, and Susan Kray (Huntsville, Ala.: Southern Humanities Press, 1993), 153.
24.  Michael J. Neufeld, “Weimar Culture and Futuristic Technology: the Rocketry and Spaceflight Fad in Germany, 1923-1933,” Technology and Culture 31, no. 4 (Octo­ber 1990): 725-52.
25.  Paul Boyer, By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985).
26.  Steven Watts, The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), 312.
27.  For an incisive account of the Chicago (1933) and New York (1939) fairs, see Robert W. Rydell’s valuable World of Fairs: The Century of Progress Expositions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).
28.   Marc Eliot, Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince, a Biography (Secaucus, N.J.: Carol Publishing Group, 1993), 224-25.
29.  Watts, 304.
30.  Wright, 156.
31.    Randy Liebermann, “The Collier’s and Disney Space Series,” Blueprint for Space: Science Fiction to Science Fact, ed. Frederick I. Ordway III and Randy Liebermann (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992), 145. See also Wright, 156.
32.  Liebermann, 146. Wright recounts that Ward Kimball, Disney’s producer for the Man in Space series, wanted to make this connection as a promotional strategy. Von Braun, fearful of publicity that would derail the political commitment to spaceflight, in­tervened (Wright, 155-56).
33.  Tom D. Crouch, Aiming for the Stars: The Dreamers and Doers of the Space Age (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999), 121.
34.   Spangenburg and Moser, 35. Concern for the safety of a valuable engineer, however, prompted officials to block his youthful aspirations in this direction (Neu- feld, Rocket and Reich, 58).
35.  For more on the racism that accompanied the United States’s war with Japan, see John W. Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986).
36.  See the documentary “A Civil Rights Journey,” which includes film footage of the time recorded by Huntsville African American physician Sonnie Hereford (Calhoun Community College, “Calhoun News Release,” [database online] cited 20 September 2001 <www.calhoun.cc.al.us/Prelations/releases2001/civilrightsjoumey.htm>).
37.  Sputnik I, launched on 4 October 1957, was “the shot heard ’round the world.” The Russians quickly followed this success with Sputnik II, launched 3 Novem­ber 1957.
38.  Lewis, 58.
39.  “Space: Reach for the Stars,” Time, 17 February 1958, 22.
40.  T. Keith Glennan, The Birth of NASA: The Diary ofT. Keith Glennan (Wash­ington, D.C.: NASA History Office, 1993), 167.
41.  Ibid.
42.   Ordway and Sharpe, 408-9. Referring to his bibliography on von Braun’s work, Mitchell Sharpe notes, “You will quickly see that most of the items are articles and books for the popular press. Von Braun knew where his customers lay: the men in the street and the men in Congress (those who held the NASA purse-strings).” Mitchell R. Sharpe, letter to author, 5 November 1988, Huntsville, Ala.
43.  Bergaust, 18.
44.  Ibid., 311.
45.  “Science fact” is used within the science-fiction community to distinguish ac­tual knowledge from literary speculation.
46.  Sagan, Broca’s Brain, 162-64.
47.  Stuhlinger and Ordway, 250-51.
48.   Walter McDougall notes that, “Science fiction books and magazines re­bounded from the wartime slump (with its paper shortage) to reach a circulation by 1949-53 double the prewar peak and seven times the wartime trough. In 1951 Life magazine estimated the science fiction readers in the United States at over 2 million” (100).
49.  Ordway and Sharpe, 408.
50.  Bergaust, 155-56.
51.  Ibid., 156.
52.  Wemher von Braun, The Mars Project (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1962 [1953]), 2.
53.  Glennan, 23.
54.  Wemher von Braun, “Prelude to Space,” Across the Space Frontier, ed. Cor­nelius Ryan (New York: Viking Press, 1952), 50-56.
55.  This, of course, is also long before the creation of NASA, with its ostensibly civilian-directed space program, which stabilized the institutional matrix around which a rhetoric of peaceful intent might form. In later years, the peaceful benefits of space exploration would get a more elaborate articulation in the work of von Braun and other astrofuturists, partially as a response to criticisms from the left. At the same time, von Braun would become more explicit about the importance of the high frontier to the security of the free world (Wemher von Braun, Space Frontier [Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett Publications, 1969], 183).
56.  Von Braun, Across the Space Frontier, 52-53.
57.  Ibid., 56.
58.  H. Bruce Franklin, War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagina­tion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).
59.  Stuhlinger and Ordway, 115. Italics in original.
60.  Beryl Williams and Samuel Epstein, Rocket Pioneers: On the Road to Space (New York: Julian Messner, 1958), 160. The authors note that Ley was at the “the core of the Society’s research program,” along with Klaus Riedel, Rudolph Nebel, and von Braun.
61.  The meeting occurred in 1930 (Bergaust, 40, Spangenberg and Moser, 18). Oberth, “the Father of Modem Rocketry,” is credited with sparking post-World War I interest in rocketry and space flight among Germans (Williams and Epstein, 144; for Oberth’s influence on Ley, 117). He also opened a correspondence with Robert H. God­dard prior to the publication of Die Rakete zu den Planetenraumen. A brief exchange of information was followed by Goddard’s nervous campaign to establish priority for his innovations in liquid-fueled rocketry (RHG, 485-86, 497-98).
62.  According to his biography in Contemporary Authors, Ley had at least a read­ing knowledge of eight languages including his own: French, Dutch, Latin, Italian, Ger­man, English, Russian, and classical Greek (Contemporary Authors, Vol. 9-12: 523).
63.  Williams and Epstein, 121-23 and Frank H. Winter, Prelude to the Space Age: The Rocket Societies, 1924-1940 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983), 22. The initial success of the German spaceflight movement in the late 1920s is accounted for by the compensatory narratives it offered of German technological supe­riority after the national defeat in the late war (Neufeld, Rocket and Reich, 8). Peter S. Fisher extends consideration of the racist and nationalist strands of Weimar era tech- nischer Zukunftsroman (technological future novel) in Fantasy and Politics: Visions of the Future in the Weimar Republic (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), 104-56.
64.  R. H. Goddard to Edmund Wilson, The New Yorker, 10 June 1944, Worcester, The Papers of Robert H. and Ester C. Goddard, Box 13, Special Collections, Robert H. Goddard Library, Clark University, Worcester, Mass. Goddard wrote this letter in re­sponse to a review that Wilson had written in The New Yorker on Ley’s Rockets: The Future of Travel Beyond the Stratosphere (New York: Viking, 1944).
65.  R. H. Goddard to G. Edward Pendray, 4 September 1944, Worcester, RHG II.
66.  Ley attempts to prove this in Rockets, Missiles, and Space Travel (the 1957 re­vision of Rockets), by pointing out the limited appeal (though importance) of Goddard’s 1920 monograph “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes” in scientific circles, its small circulation in a Europe recovering from the disruption of World War I, and God­dard’s refusal to participate in the information network of the early rocket community (Willy Ley, Rockets, Missiles, and Space Travel [New York: Viking Press, 1957], 108, 133). He also notes Goddard’s tardiness in publishing his findings (145). We should not, of course, entirely discount the possibility that Ley was willing to promote the VfR’s precedence in rocketry in the interests of German nationalism.
67.   Neufeld, Rocket and Reich, 5, 8. Crouch notes that public enthusiasm for spaceflight in Germany during the late 1920s was popularly recognized as a “raketen- rummer (rocket craze) (Crouch, 51).
68.  Neufeld, Rocket and Reich, 24.
69.  Contemporary Authors, Vol. 9-10, s.v. Ley, Willy (Robert Willey).
70.  Neufeld, Rocket and Reich, 26.
71.  Ibid., 27.
72.  Ordway and Sharpe, 104-5.
73.  That company included Albert Einstein, Paul Tillich, Kurt Weill, and many of the scientists who became involved in the Manhattan Project (Klaus Wurst and Heinz Moos, Three Hundred Years of German Immigrants in North American: 1683-1983 [Baltimore, Md.: Heinz Moos Publishing, 1983], 178; Gerald Abraham, The Oxford Concise History of Music [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979], 823; and Laura Fermi, Illustrious Immigrants: The Intellectual Migration from Europe 1930-41 [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971]).
74.   Frank Winter provides a detailed account of the forces that drove the German rocket enthusiasts apart in the early 1930s. By 1932, the VfR suffered from a series of internal conflicts that occurred between Rudolph Nebel, the de facto president of the so­ciety, and the group’s board of directors. Nebel was a P. T. Bamum type whose promo­tional schemes involved promising technological miracles he could not deliver, often leaving prospective investors disappointed. One of his bolder schemes prompted the board to take him to court. The action exacerbated a leadership crisis that the society had been struggling with for some time. Ley, the vice president, had moved out of participating in the society’s experimental program and into the more rewarding work of popular science (spaceflight) lecturing. The society’s president, Winkler, was absent working on a secret project with an industrialist. And von Braun, who was to become one of rocketry’s most successful managers, was lured away by the German Army. In other words, it was not simply economics and the intervention of the government and politics that drove the VfR apart, as Ley and other historians of the period would have us believe, but the internal divisions that are inevitable in a small, amateur group (Win­ter, 44-50). Michael Neufeld records that Nebel was also involved in disputes with Army Ordinance over how rocketry should be developed by the Weimar Republic. There is little doubt that these conflicts hardened the Reichwehr’s commitment to keep all rocket work to itself (Neufeld, Rocket and Reich, 26-28).
75.  Ordway and Sharpe, 103.
76.  Williams and Epstein, 169.
77.   Astounding Science Fiction (ASF) continues as Analog Science Fiction/ Science Fact, which remains a popular forum for astrofuturist fact and fiction.
78.  Jon Gustafson, “Ley, Willy,” Science Fiction Encyclopedia, ed. Peter Nicholls (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979), 354.
79.  A partial list of those books includes: Chesley Bonestell and Willy Ley, The Conquest of Space (1950); Cornelius Ryan, ed., Across the Space Frontier (1952); Arthur C. Clarke, The Exploration of Space (1951); R. A. Smith and Arthur C. Clarke, The Exploration of the Moon (1954); Willy Ley and Wemher von Braun, The Explo­ration of Mars (1956); and Wemher von Braun, First Men to the Moon (1960).
80. Ley was undoubtedly aware of the precedent Lasser set with the title in the early 1930s. The traffic between the VfR and the AIS allowed for the sharing of fiction and tech­nical information. Indeed, R. F. Starzl, a science-fiction writer and early AIS member, mailed the first issue of Science Wonder Stories to Willy Ley, “thus converting him in­stantly to science fiction.” These exchanges were essential to the imagined community that formed around the wonderful dream. Ley’s new Conquest can be read as an homage to the Lasser’s initial statement. See Eric Leif Davin, Pioneers of Wonder: Conversations with the Founders of Science Fiction (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1999), 33.
81.  Quoted in Frederick C. Durant III and Ron Miller, Worlds Beyond: The Art of Chesley Bonestell, (Norfolk/Virginia Beach, Va.: Donning/Starblaze, 1983), 8.
82.  Lester Del Rey, The World of Science Fiction: 1926-1976, The History of a Subculture (New York: Ballantine Books, 1979), 189.
83.   The John C. Winston Company published a series of hardbound science- fiction juveniles in the 1950s under the editorial direction of Lester Del Rey. Del Rey’s work on the series owed a lot to literary and experimental initiatives of von Braun, Ley, and company.
84.  O. B. Hardison, Jr., Disappearing Through the Skylight: Culture and Tech­nology in the Twentieth Century (New York: Viking, 1989), 139. See also Thomas Hine, Populuxe (New York: Knopf, 1986), 83-90.
85.  Michael A. G. Michaud, Reaching for the High Frontier: The American Pro- Space Movement, 1972-84 (New York: Praeger, 1986), 8.
86.  Chesley Bonestell and Willy Ley, The Conquest of Space (New York: Viking Press, 1950), 55.
87.  Ibid., 56. On Leeuwenhoek’s invention of the microscope, see Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York: Ballantine Books, 1980), 117.
88.  Bonestell and Ley, 55. Levania is Kepler’s name for the Moon. Ley expanded on his systemization of the history of astronomy in his Watchers of the Skies: An Infor­mal History of Astronomy from Babylon to the Space Age (New York: Viking Press, 1969 [1963]).
89.  Bonestell and Ley, 95.
90.  Willy Ley, Engineers’ Dreams (New York: Viking Press, 1954).
91.  While the pulp-fiction and boys’ literature of the early twentieth century was dominated by westerns and urban detective stories, stories in which heroic engineering and engineers played a role were also popular. The best of these is the Doc Savage se­ries originally published from 1933 to 1949. Doc Savage is a superhuman scientist who travels the world righting wrongs in the company of “the five greatest brains ever as­sembled in one group” (Kenneth Robeson, World’s Fair Goblin [New York: Bantam Books, 1969 (1939)], back cover). One of those brains is an appropriately heroic civil engineer.
92.  Further examples can be found in the work of J. D. Bernal, Jacques Ellul, and Freeman Dyson (J. D. Bernal, The World, the Flesh, and the Devil: An Inquiry Into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969 (1929)]; Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society [New York: Vintage Books, 1964]; and Freeman Dyson, Disturbing the Universe [New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1981]). We shall see further examples of this obsession with large-scale engineer­ing in astrofuturist proposals in the chapters that follow.
93.  Ley, Rockets, Missiles, and Space Travel, 331.
94.  Ibid.
95.  Kenneth McArdle, ed., A Cavalcade of Collier’s (New York: A. S. Barnes, 1959), xii.
96.  Ryan, iv.
97.  Ibid.
98.  Jeremy Bernstein, “Profiles: Out of the Ego Chamber,” The New Yorker 45, no. 25, 9 August 1969, 46. A correspondence between Lasser and Clarke followed the publication of the profile and lasted until the former’s death. Clarke was happy to show off his copy of Lasser’s pioneering book to interested visitors (Arthur C. Clarke, letter to David Lasser, 2 December 1986, Colombo, Sri Lanka, DLP).
99.  Sagan, Broca’s Brain, 172.


In: Astrofuturism: Science, Race and Visions of Utopia in Space. Philadelphia, 2003, pp. 49-81. 

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