American Culture

Triumph and tragedy: LIFE and the Space Race

Part five in a series.

LIFE’s portrayal of the space race represented, in most respects, a logical extension of its war coverage. Many of the space program’s early goals were military in nature, and as in World War II, technology was once again both demon and messiah, depending on whether it was theirs or ours.

. . .Sputnik proved that there were great military, as well as scientific, advances in the U.S.S.R. Getting their heavy satellite up meant that Russia had developed a more powerful rocket than any the U.S. had yet fired and substantial Soviet claims of success with an intercontinental missile. Putting Sputnik into a precise orbit meant Russia had solved important problems of guidance necessary to aim its missiles at U.S. targets. The satellite could also be the forerunner of a system of observation posts which would watch the U.S. unhindered and with deadly accuracy (10/21/57, 24).

Space promised many nonmilitary boons, insisted the experts (10/21/57). Satellites could answer questions about conditions in space that affected flight; about weather patterns, that could tremendously benefit agriculture; and about other planets, the sun, and the stars. Scientists also envisioned space-based communications, and to their credit, the space program’s research mission has provided beneficial and applicable information on all these concerns.

Still, most of the compelling reasons to get into space were related to national defense, and as such space perhaps became a measuring stick for assessing where we stood in the Cold War. The race to get the first man into orbit was especially symbolic. When Yuri Gagarin accomplished this feat 47 years ago this week, it was a landmark event not only in human history, but also in the public relations war between the Soviet Union and the United States.

Much was at stake geopolitically, as developing nations around the globe debated with which axis to align themselves. A Soviet victory in the race into space was viewed by many as a sign of Soviet superiority in Science and Technology, a crucial factor for developing nations whose future well-being and viability often rested on the ability of technologies to improve the quality of their conditions.

Ultimately, then, the benefits accrued via the space program were many and varied, but were perhaps less defined than the sort of scientific goals attached to, say, cancer research. Some space program goals – astronomy’s interest in distant stars, for example – fell within the realm of pure research, and as knowledge for its own sake, its utilitarian benefits for society were difficult to describe in immediate terms.

We also get the sense that many specific research goals, however well defined, eventually faded into the background of public consciousness: For many Americans, the goal became simply to win the race into orbit because it signaled our superiority, scientifically and culturally, over our enemy, the evil Soviet Union.

LIFE’s letters to the editor tended to support this idea. While not necessarily representative of the views of all Americans, the letter from one M.G. Butterworth concerning Gagarin’s historic flight summed up the sentiments of many: “In my opinion a Russian slave in orbit isn’t as wonderful as a free American walking in the street” (5/12/61, 8).

Nonetheless, LIFE assiduously chronicled both American and Soviet achievements and failures (although Russia’s refusal to acknowledge failures made reporting on them virtually impossible). LIFE photographed the heroes and their families; published detailed drawings and diagrams illustrating various elements of space missions and programs; eulogized the fallen, like Astronauts Grissom, White, and Chaffee, who were incinerated in an accident aboard the Apollo 204 spacecraft on January 27, 1967; and aggressively criticized the government when it fell behind the Russians – which, in LIFE’s estimation, seemed to be most of the time. It celebrated the Apollo 11 mission with a special issue devoted to the moon’s gravitational effect on both the human environment and imagination. Even when beset by contradictory, vague, and/or confusing technological developments, LIFE remained diligent in its coverage of these events.

A “Monstrous Mistake”: LIFE’s Coverage of the Apollo Disaster

LIFE adroitly reflected the mixed messages of the dawning nuclear age and the Space Race, but on January 27, 1967, the highly successful American space program presented the nation with an unmitigated tragedy, as astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee were incinerated in an accident aboard the Apollo 204 spacecraft.

LIFE devoted space to the tragedy three times in the following weeks and months, the first being in the next week’s issue (February 3), which featured a fairly predictable memoriam for three fallen national heroes. In the February 10 cover story, expansive coverage is given to the astronauts’ funerals, and in many respects the “state hero” format of the coverage is reminiscent of the magazine’s coverage of the John F. Kennedy funeral. This photo-essay is capped by a two-page Newsfronts of the World feature entitled “The Search Begins in the Scorched Capsule.” Finally, in the April 21 issue, a two-page Special Report (featuring only one small photograph) recounts the disaster as told by the eyewitnesses in the wake of the government’s investigatory hearings.

LIFE’s coverage of this technological disaster reveals a dire respect for, and perhaps an almost subliminal terror of, the power of progress. But it also reveals a profound and by now predictable need to drag these fears out into the light where they might be safely and confidently explained by Science.

February 3: Ghost in the Machine

The across-the-fold layout introducing the pictorial obituary is accompanied by a single paragraph of text, two pieces of which foreshadow the more harrowing and detailed testimony we will see in future issues.

Think about them, how they were always willing to force themselves past the point of danger and deep fatigue to perfect their understanding of the machines they flew. It is the coldest sort of irony that they must have known instantly the exact nature of the monstrous mistake that killed them (2/3/67, 18).

In the first sentence, “the machines they flew” are depicted as alien – the heroes had to transcend the normal bounds of endurance in order to comprehend the forces with which they were involved. The requisite level of superhuman determination indicates the immense power of the machines, as evidenced by the degree of danger involved in flying them. In the second sentence, the choice of words is intriguing – “monstrous” obviously conjures “monster,” and juxtaposed as it is with the powerful alien flying machines, the reader might readily sense in the technology which slew the astronauts a malevolence, even a sentience – it is as though Frankenstein’s monster himself were loose aboard the Apollo craft.

For a brief moment, LIFE has indulged, if only metaphorically, our culture’s deep fears about the awesome power of Science.

February 10: The Scientific Impulse

The photos in “The Search Begins…” offer stark testimony to the brute rage of the inferno which killed Grissom, White, and Chaffee. As we view the interior of the capsule, we understand that no one could possibly have survived such a fire. The accompanying text calls “[w]hat remained of the $35 million Apollo spacecraft…a ravaged shell…” and notes, in ominous terms, the destructive capacity of the highly pressurized oxygen environment (2/10/67, 30). The investigators had not yet determined the cause of the fire, but attention was focused on NASA’s employment of a pure oxygen environment instead of the less volatile oxygen-nitrogen mix used by the Soviets.

The severity of the disaster is signaled several ways: first, the text notes that a special 15-man board of inquiry has been assigned the task of investigating the disaster – an overt appeal to technical/scientific expertise necessary in the quest for objective truth; second, the invocation of the Soviet space program could not be read as anything but a brutal reproach against American designers; third, the text makes clear that the U.S. doesn’t use the safer mixed-gas environment for reasons of cost and convenience, a further reproach that implies the astronauts died, in part, due to NASA’s cheapness and sloth; and finally, the photo bottom right on page 31 shows the capsule’s exterior, with the American flag scorched by fire damage. In case the reader manages to miss the message, the editors reinforce it by noting in the text that the disaster had marred “the flag-emblazoned capsule” (31).

April 27: The Book is Closed

The Apollo 204 Review Board “was never able to pin down the precise origin of the fire.” It concluded that the craft contained “critical flaws, that there had been incompetent handling of test procedure, and that at several points the electrical system invited fire” (4/21/67, 113). It should be noted that other popular and well-respected publications at the time were raising questions about the future of the space program: should we abandon the moon project?; is the space program worth the cost?

LIFE avoided any critical analysis of the space program’s role in the American Project. We should remember the significance the space race held in Cold War America and the priority assigned to it by the country’s fallen former President, John Kennedy, a man whose legacy had by now attained the stature of cultural myth.

The April 21 Special Report makes painfully clear the extent of the errors, mechanical and human, which led to the deaths of the astronauts. It depicts, as best it can, the full scope of the tragedy, and it characterizes the heroism of the technicians who tried desperately to rescue the trapped astronauts. Blame is assigned, and praise heaped out by the bucketful. In the end, the reader is left with a stirring tale of human tragedy, and now, nearly three months later, all trace of that initial superstitious fear has been expunged.

In LIFE’s coverage of the Apollo disaster there seems to be a clear trajectory from darkness to light, from fear to hope, from confusion to certainty. In the magazine’s initial acknowledgment of the tragedy it seeks, as always, to construct heroes. But in the process, it momentarily permits a deep, yet persistent, cultural fear to bubble to the surface. The Frankenstein Complex remains – no matter how much we revere Science, no matter what faith we put in its powers of discovery, of healing, of salvation, we cannot seem to shake a lingering suspicion that we, like Victor Frankenstein, have created something which now exceeds our control. This fear often festers just beneath the surface of our consciousness, but in times of crisis the doubt in the dark recess of our collective awareness leaps up and shouts “I told you so.”

We are quick, though, to shove such superstitious nonsense back into the closet whence it sprang, because the modern ideology of science, first elucidated by Bacon and his peers, demands that we analyze, rationalize, and explain. The only acceptable method of knowing is intellectual, and in such a world we can ill afford the intrusions of intuition. By February 10, the shock has faded a bit and LIFE can begin to sort out the events of January 27. Experts are convened, and we are able to commence with the project of taming, if not our creations, then our fears about our creations.

Finally, the evidence all in, LIFE offers one more tale of heroism in its April 21 issue. In focusing on the personalities in the story, the discussion moves away from the collective (un)conscious and toward the triumph of the various astronauts, technicians, scientists and rescue workers. Thus, latent anxiety has been exposed to the light of Science, and the end result is the empowerment of the individual – which, in the grand design of the Enlightenment Project, is the ultimate goal of knowledge.

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LIFE and Technology series

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