Published in Los Angeles Times Feb. 14, 2019.
Jules Verne’s space dreams began with a gun. A big one. In his 1865 sci-fi novel “From the Earth to the Moon,” Verne spins a yarn about the Baltimore Gun Club, a weapons society that built a massive cannon — the Columbiad space gun — which would launch three people, including a French poet, in a lunar-ward projectile. When America first landed its men on the moon a little over a century later, the idea was essentially the same, scratch the poet. Three men, an oversized bullet, a little math and a lot of rocket fuel was the recipe to make history forever. In Taschen’s titanic tome, “The NASA Archives: 60 Years in Space,” Verne’s tale serves as a gateway to a galaxy of lavish images, essays and actual mission transcripts that trace our trips to the moon and beyond.
From NASA’s early days slinging monkeys through the stratosphere to the Mars rover’s recent red planet selfie, the book catalogs with beautiful detail the rapid pace of scientific and engineering advances during the 20th-century space race. “It’s hard to imagine that a period shorter than a single human lifespan bridges the gulf between the first powered airplane, hand-built out of wood and fabric by a pair of Dayton, Ohio, bicycle shop owners, and the first Moon-bound spaceships, jointly constructed by some 400,000 people working across an entire nation,” writes essayist Roger D. Launius.
Whereas Russia’s space race found its roots in mysticism — Russia’s godfather of rocketry, the cosmist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, lived in a log cabin and dreamed of eternal life among the stars — American astronauts were often shown as military men, death-defying test pilots, cowboys of the sky extending manifest destiny to the moon.
“Magnificent sight out here.” — Neil Armstrong
The first half of “NASA Archives” reflects that vision of postwar America, flyboys with buzz cuts and aviator sunglasses, eggheads in headsets flipping switches at mission control. Much like the Damien Chazelle film “First Man,” we witness the unsung heroics of number crunchers and the daredevils who pushed their mind and bodies to the limit. A choice snippet from Chuck Yeager’s October 1947 transcript, just moments before he was about to break the sound barrier in the Bell X-1 jet, says it all: “Hell, yes, let’s get it over with.” Another moment recounts Neil Armstrong’s and Buzz Aldrin’s thoughts as they took their July 20, 1969 lunar stroll. Armstrong: “Magnificent sight out here.” Aldrin: “Magnificent desolation.” Maybe the poet reached the moon after all.
An impossible dream
There’s a romanticism in the full-bleed images of Aldrin’s space-walk self portrait backdropped by the azure arc of Earth’s oceans, or the crew of Apollo 1 testing their space suits in a Texas swimming pool. There’s Margaret Hamilton, whose team at MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory created the software for Apollo’s onboard computers, standing next to paper printouts of her code stacked as tall as she is. “Because software was a mystery, a black box, upper management gave us total freedom and trust,” she says, “there was no choice but to be pioneers.”
Looking back on the purity of that pioneering spirit — never mind the ongoing pressures of the Cold War or, if you’re into tinfoil hats, the hidden-in-plain-sight cover that space tech afforded nuclear arms proliferation — there’s a nostalgia for that unified time, whether you lived it or not.
“There was no choice but to be pioneers.” —Margaret Hamilton
With ingenuity, and a blank government check, anything was possible. Says astronaut Alan Bean: “We were so focused on one thing: making this impossible dream come true.”
The book is evocative beyond its extraordinary images. For some, it’s a journey into their own memory; the recollections of our own impossible dreams. As I turned the enormous pages, a Kodachrome slideshow of fuzzy images flipped in my mind.
There’s the smell of a hot-glue gun as my mother affixes an American flag onto the arm of a silver spacesuit. It’s a Calico Corners pattern. I slip into it, I close my eyes as she puts my helmet on. I curl my toes into the carpet; I’m a vertical baked potato, ready for liftoff. It’s my earliest memory.
NASA's Anechoic Chambers are among the quietest places anywhere on earth. Walls absorb almost all stray echoes, whether sound or radio. This 1972 model of a shuttle, being tested for radio characteristics, has thruster pods on the wingtips.
Now I’m sitting cross-legged on the floor as our teachers struggle for the words to tell us the Challenger has just exploded. A teacher was on board, they say, her name was Christa McAuliffe. Her photo was later put on our library wall.
I blink again.
I’m a teenager. The local news announces a mysterious line of lights hovering on the Phoenix horizon. I walk outside and there they are, a floating V above the silhouette of our mountains. For a minute, I entertain the prospect of abduction, my last great chance for space, taking me away from our desert landscape speckled with saguaros and Circle Ks. The military said it was simply weather balloons, which was a standard coverup, according to “X-Files.” I close the book, and I’m back in the present. NASA just tweeted that the Mars rover Opportunity is dead: "We loved that rover."
A last snapshot
Today our shared experiences happen on small screens and social media, but “NASA Archives” shows how space stoked our collective memory. Now there’s no mystery to space. We have gone to Mars, it looks like Arizona.
And somewhere along the way, space has become kind of embarrassing.
Our greatest discoveries have become meme-able jokes. The 2016 visit to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko revealed that the bulbous rock resembled a butt, an intergalactic occurrence that not even George Clinton could have predicted. When the mysterious object Oumuamua made a cameo in our galaxy, it looked like a tightly rolled space spliff. And then we get our first up-close images of Pluto: it has an enormous heart-shaped form on it; a planet-sized emoji punctuating the end of our solar system.
The awe-inspiring moments evoked from space’s heyday have become social media punchlines.
But in the pages of “NASA Archives” there’s a return to wonder, and perhaps even a call to once again ponder the great beyond. As Tsiolkovsky once wrote: “Earth is the cradle of the mind, but humanity cannot remain in its cradle forever.”
Piers Bizony, Andrew Chaikin and Roger Launius
Taschen, 468 pp., $150