Mar 1 2012: Thirty-Four Illustrations From The Space Shuttle At Work by Howard Allaway (NASA, 1979)

I’ve been told, but never been able to confirm, that the design of airports is utterly monotonous and boring, and much the same everywhere in the world you might go, for a very particular reason: the knowledge among those commissioning these complexes that the very last thing someone about to board an aircraft really needs is excitement or dramatic visual stimulation. Put bluntly, you’re about to climb aboard a bus that is going to be shot six miles into the air at a speed of more than 600 miles per hour then dropped from that height onto a very short road somewhere hundreds or thousands of miles away. You don’t need a reminder of how extraordinary (and, however routine, potentially dangerous) that process actually is. I suppose the idea comes to mind again in relation to this 1979 NASA published brochure outlining the benefits and operating principles of the Space Shuttle, and specifically the way that it all seems so prosaic and lacking in excitement when compared to the earlier Soviet and Apollo missions of the 1960s and 70s. After all, it’s clear in the PR job done by Howard Allaway that NASA themselves were slightly torn between wanting to emphasise this potentially epochal new phase in space exploration – the long held dream of journeys into Earth orbit as a routine exercise, open to all – and their political need to stress the cheapness and mundanity of that very routine. The end result is an odd mix, and perhaps it’s no real surprise that while Apollo became synonymous with the era of Kennedy, Johnson and early Nixon, the Space Shuttle – although developed earlier – ended up symbolising the America about to be created by Ronald Reagan almost as soon as this brochure was off the NASA press. That symbolism had a certain logic. The Shuttle’s main purpose was to deliver payloads into space, meaning it was theoretically possible to run as a commercial operation, delivering satellites into orbit for media and communications corporations, or developing the military potential of orbital weapons (Reagan’s cherished ‘Star Wars’ defence system). This combination of militarisation and commerce was, of course, the essence of Reagan’s pitch, though after the mid-air explosion of Challenger in 1986, just after take-off, even that version of a future in Earth orbit became a political dead end: the shuttle programme continued for a long time afterwards, but the final active craft was retired a year or two ago, and no serious plans for further manned space exploration are in the immediate pipeline, despite talk of a Mars mission at some point in the future, and Richard Branson’s dreams of private space tourism. Perhaps in the end, the very routine nature of the take-offs and landings killed the public’s interest, while the withdrawal of the Soviets from their early technical inventiveness after the end of the Sixties removed the superpower competition that had previously driven the ‘Space Race’. In some respects, the Shuttle’s rise and slow decline reflects the sea-change from utopian to dystopian that overtook collective human imagination during the 1970s: the fact that what this thing could do was utterly remarkable didn’t help to recapture the excitement felt when Laika, Yuri Gagarin and the early Apollo astronauts were doing what was, in fact, far less between them than the Shuttle missions managed, at their peak, on a regular basis. I suppose there’s a moral in that story somewhere but what it is seems sightly elusive.

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