Space Race Permeated Pop Culture

The space race that began with Sputnik not only influenced education but American pop culture as a whole. David Schwartz, the chief curator of the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, says the phenomenon was pushed by an unlikely person — Walt Disney.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

The space race changed more than education. It launched a cosmic wave of pop culture that eventually brought us TV families on distant planets.

(Soundbite of "The Jetsons" theme)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Meet George Jetson.

SEABROOK: And of course, thank goodness, the silver lame spacesuit.

David Schwartz, chief curator of the Museum of the Moving Image in New York says one man in particular helped launch that space craze. No, not a president of the United States or the head of NASA but Walt Disney.

Mr. DAVID SCHWARTZ (Chief Curator, Museum of the Moving Image): What Disney did that was really important was he teamed up with the scientist Wernher von Braun, who was really the most prominent scientist of the United States and was trying to promote the idea of space travel. Disney had something to promote himself, he was trying to build Disneyland theme park in California. And so in 1955, they teamed up and created a TV show called "Man in Space."

SEABROOK: So this is actually a couple of years before Sputnik was launched.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: That's right. In early 1955, "Man in Space" aired. And then, that summer, in July '55, the U.S. government announced that we would be starting a satellite program. Of course, the Soviets beat us into space with Sputnik. But Disney felt that he really spur the U.S. government on to making that announcement.

SEABROOK: You know what's always fascinated me is how Disney and then successive generations have had their own look for the future. And that look always seems to get dated, whether it's danger, Will Robinson, you know, like the funny-looking robot in "Lost in Space" or whether it's, you know, Buck Rogers of the '70s.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: That's right. I mean, the original Buck Rogers was really just like the Lone Ranger, you know, set in outer space. What happened was outer space became this frontier that was really just an extension of the west and this whole idea of American expansion.

SEABROOK: Hmm. Cowboys on the moon.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: That's right. And that really changed in the '60s with Kennedy's vision of man in the moon. The whole idea of space travel was represented something modern. You went sort of quickly from "The Flintstones" to "The Jetsons." You had the TV show "Lost in Space," which actually preceded "Star Trek" by a few years. "Lost in Space" went on air in '65. And that was kind of a combination of an old-fashioned domestic sitcom with this kind of futuristic vision of outer space.

And then you had movies like "The Reluctant Astronaut" with Don Knotts becoming a very unlikely astronaut coming out of 1967.

SEABROOK: We have that. And the cover is hysterical - Don Knotts looking of a space helmet sort of with that droopy dog face.

(Soundbite of scene from movie "The Reluctant Astronaut")

Mr. DON KNOTTS (Actor): (As Roy Fleming) Control. Control. I have a red on meteorite warning. Meteorite warning. Meteorite.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: What were the storylines here? I mean, it starts out western, where does it go?

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Well, I think Stanley Kubrick took it somewhere interesting with "2001: A Space Odyssey," which was really the most ambitious space travel movie to come out of the 1960s. And Kubrick himself was really in a space race with NASA. He worked on this film for years. And it was very important to him to get his movie into the theaters before we actually landed on the moon.

SEABROOK: Really?

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Yeah. He - the movie came out in '68. We - of course, we didn't land on the moon until '69. And the movie itself represented this new kind of cosmic vision. It was a very technologically advanced movie. The most famous edit in that film is when the apes throw bone up into the air and then there's a cut - and that is a spaceship floating beautifully through space to the Blue Danube music.

SEABROOK: And then of course, there's that iconic scene where Dave, the astronaut, is locked out by the computer that's controlling the spaceship.

(Soundbite of scene from movie "2001: A Space Odyssey")

Mr. KEIR DULLEA (Actor): (As Dr. Dave Bowman) Do you read me HAL?

Mr. DOUGLAS RAIN (Actor): (As HAL 9000) Affirmative, Dave. I read you.

Mr. DULLEA: (As Dr. Dave Bowman) Open the pod bay doors, HAL.

Mr. RAIN: (As HAL 9000) I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.

SEABROOK: And now, what is the future all about now? It's not really about space, the final frontier anymore.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Well, that's a great question. I think this is kind of a sad time, in a way, for the space program and how people view America's role in the world and what outer space is all about. Because space travel in the '60s did really represented a projection of this vision of America, and we don't see that anymore. When President Bush announced an initiative to land a man on Mars by 2050 during the election campaign in 2004, he was ridiculed for that.

SEABROOK: Yeah.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: And so I think, now, we're kind of left with nostalgia, you know? So instead of a vision of the future, we are now sort of looking back at this heroic period of the space mission.

SEABROOK: David Schwartz is the chief curator of the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. He joined us from the studios of the Radio Foundation.

Thank you so much.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Thanks a lot.

SEABROOK: And that's ALL ASTROLOGICAL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

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