Space Race Ads, Society, and a Book Alert

17 07 2010

Illustration of a manned nuclear exploration spacecraft and landing capsule in Mars orbit. Credit: Douglas/TIme Magazine, 1963

This one hits close to home for me.  I’ve been collecting space advertisements from the 1950s and 1960s for some time now, and I even have a few gems under glass hanging on my office walls.  Why?  Because they’re meant to inspire.  Truly inspire.  And not just through the now-dated imagery of flashy ships and alien worlds – just the text is intended to fire up the mind and spirit.  Let me give you an example, (sans-illustration for effect):

TOUCHDOWN ON THE MOON (1953)

  • “When the first space ship touches down on the moon, who will be its passengers?  Not the grownups of today, but our grandchildren or great-grandchildren.  In their imaginations may lie the final answer to man’s dream of conquering outer space.  Books for the young that stimulate the imagination are a specialty of Rand McNally …  textbooks and books of nature, science and adventure.  Who knows but that some youngster may find in a Rand McNally book the inspiration that will lead another step closer to travel in space?  And perhaps when that first space ship touches down on the moon, the pilot will check his bearings by Rand McNally maps.”

That’s it.  No pushing of products, no sales pitch for a new line of books or maps.  This is an entire ad funded by Rand McNally that is simply intended to inspire a reader about the amazing possibilities that await, and to let them know that Rand McNally is planning to be a part of it.

The effect is greatly magnified by the dominating illustration of a lunar lander that, for being a concept sketch, looks remarkably like what the real lunar lander would wind up looking like sixteen years later.

Apparently, the entire world was like this for a couple of decades.  Full of vision.  Sprinkler companies took out ads declaring with pride their involvement in nuclear rocket tests by providing fire suppressions systems.  O-ring companies for cars took out ads entitled, “WHEN WE MAN THE IRON MINES OF MARS,” proposing that when off-world resourcing takes off, they’ll work to be a part of it.  We were going to own the future and make it ours.

I don’t think we really realize today just how much of an effect our social marketing has on our outlook on life as a society.  At least, I can say that I didn’t realize it until I started finding and reading these advertisements.  Almost immediately, I found myself suddenly more optimistic about my own dreams of spaceflight.  And then it hit me – these things really do affect what we think about and how we view the world.

Take another example, again (I know, some may groan,) just the text:

HE OPENED THE DOOR TO SPACE…

“It was small compared with the giants men send up today.  And for all the racket it didn’t go much higher than the barn roof.

This didn’t matter to Robert Goddard.  The big thing was that it flew.

They’re all over the front pages now.  Rockets with names like Atlas and Explorer and Vanguard probe the heavens and stretch for the moon, chipping away at space… because a young physics professor from Worcester, Mass., taught them how.

But in those days only boys were supposed to take rockets seriously.  They discovered them in the books of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.  Bob Goddard did.  And he carefully noted in the margins whenever these friends violated scientific fact.

At college his first experiements filled the labs with smoke.  Later, with savings from his modest salary, he shopped hardware stores for “rocket parts.”  And in his workshop a dream began to have shape.

On a cold March morning in 1926, out on his Aunt Effie’s farm in Auburn, the dream took flight.  With the first successful launching of a liquid-fueled rocket, Bob Goddard turned science fiction into fact.

And he made us remember something, this stubborn Yankee professor … that America is a land where free men have made a habit of doing the impossible.  In such a climate no boy’s dreams are ever really out of reach.

John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company.”

That’s it!  See?  No pitch!  No promotion!  Just an ad, (a big ad, beautifully illustrated with a painting of Goddard shielding his eyes from the light of that first test on the farm,) making us all remember that we as Americans stare danger in the face and eat impossibility for breakfast.  Incredible!

In the web of day-to-day exposures, especially in the 21st century with digital media coming at us from all directions, our outlook is heavily influenced by what we unintentionally see or read.  Are we an instant gratification culture, or do we think about the future?  Or do we think at all, or just react?  Much may be told about our society at any given time through the eyes of our advertisements.

Not that it would ever happen, but I think modern corporations should take a nod from their fathers’ ad men.  They should take the time, (and, yes, money,) to help us see the world as it might be.  -Help us to remember our strengths and see how we might all participate in creating a better, more exciting future.  We did it before, and then we went to the moon.  I don’t think that’s coincidence.

So, if you’re interested, but you don’t want to go through the time and trouble of finding some of these ads for yourself, don’t worry.  This brings me to my second point – a new book has just been released from historian Megan Prelinger, entitled “Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race 1957-1962.”  In it, she visually documents through page after page of reproduced ads how the companies that would be the first to take us to space recruited the men and women who would be the ones to figure out how to actually do it.

A must-have for any serious, aspiring astronaut as well as the more casual space enthusiast.

-Or maybe for advertising executives that want to change the world for the better.  Again.

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