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Harper's Magazine
Friday, August 6th, 2010
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Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race 1957-1962

by Megan Prelinger


A review by Benjamin Moser

In 1961, in a speech unimaginable for a Republican (or most Democrats) today, the departing president, Dwight Eisenhower, the preeminent military man of his generation, denounced the "military-industrial complex." The term was so striking that it became a cliche, but the solutions he offered were altogether ignored. Maybe his timing was off; Eisenhower's speech came just as the military-industrial complex had hit on its greatest public–relations tool: the space program.

In Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race 1957-1962 (Blast Books, $29.95), Megan Prelinger has compiled a funny and alarming visual record of the early years of the space race, between the launch of Sputnik, which led to a crisis of American confidence, and NASA's announcement, in 1962, of the form that the Apollo program's moon missions would take.

The advertisements Prelinger has collected illustrate one of the great ironies of this venture: corporations were bringing wacky pulp-fiction fantasies to life, and in the era of the Organization Man, many of these ads betrayed their origins. "Having seen the footprints on the Moon," Prelinger notes drily of a 1961 image from a magazine called Missiles and Rockets, "we know that they differ from this image -- astronauts did not wear wingtips to the Moon."

The postwar-suburbia theme is carried over into ads featuring two celestial sojourners shaking hands ("We've reserved SPACE for the Big Meeting") and breathless appeals to aspirational travelers ("What will Lunar vacations cost? When rocket development is written off and we have nuclear power, a traveler may go for about the present price of a tiger hunt or African safari!"). A recruitment ad for General Dynamics showing orbs impaled on a long metal stick describes them as an "artist's conception of [a] fusion-photon intergalactic space vehicle," but as Prelinger points out, the "four-sphere skewer" more closely resembles "olives for a martini."

For all the ads' hokeyness, they offered some stunning graphic art, and Prelinger captures the era's can-do feeling and the exotic glamour that technologies like satellites and microwaves once enjoyed. But one feels that this marriage of salaryman conformity with the far-out dreams of the time was already strained. We can sense the rebellion coming in the later 1960s, which, for all its wars and assassinations, would be idealized by later generations as a golden age.

Benjamin Moser is a contributing editor of Harper's magazine and the author of Why This World.

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