In the 1930s and 40s, people in government and mainstream scientific circles knew almost nothing about space. The only people even thinking about space were academics and tinkerers who were seen as eccentrics and crackpots. Space travel was the stuff of radio shows and movie serials.
“Presenting the amazing interplanetary adventures of Flash Gordon! Buck Rogers in the 25th Century! Kellogg’s Pep, the buildup wheat cereal, invites you to rocket into the future with Tom Corbett! Space Cadet!”
Space historian William Burrows of New York University says he loved those old shows. He says they were a perfect reflection of their time, and in many ways, they were ahead of their time. Burrows says at the end of World War Two, reality caught up with science fiction, and the idea of space travel moved into mainstream science.
“What is important to remember is these things were the blueprints for what came later, and there have been other examples in history. Certainly in war, in science, Around the World in 80 Days, From the Earth to the Moon, Jules Verne. You know, it’s the fiction stuff that’s the blueprint for what comes to pass.”
What came to pass were the V-2 rockets the Germans rained on England in World War Two, but as revolutionary as V-2s were, using rockets to go into space was slow to catch on. After the war, German scientists started developing missiles for the U.S. military. The decades old National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics – NACA – had no interest in space. Retired Johnson Space Center and Mission Control Director Chris Kraft worked at NACA in the pre-NASA years.
“NACA was doing nothing but airplanes. As a matter of fact, space was a verboten word in the NACA library because we had no interest in space.”
In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first space satellite and caught America by surprise because the U.S. had no space program. Burrows says President Eisenhower was determined to catch up, and had no trouble persuading Congress to roll all American space R&D into a new civilian super agency.
“Sputnik was a dire lesson, and it got rockets front and center in peoples’ minds. And more importantly, in the long run, people started paying attention. Space was accepted. Space travel was suddently accepted. The Russians had done it and if they can do it by god we can do it, and NASA was going to be the instrument for doing that. Peacefully.”
President Eisenhower signed the bill dissolving NACA and creating NASA in July of 1958, and the American space program as we know it came into existence officially on October 1st.
Jim Bell, KUHF, Houston Public Radio News.