Americans and Fascination with the Unknown

October 9, 2015 § Leave a comment

Even before stepping foot into this class, I knew that I was a die-hard space fiction fan. Regardless of my inability to understand the physics, engineering, or astronomy concepts behind the plots, I remained riveted by stories of space travel and exploration. In fact, whether they were fictional or not, reading about missions into outer space has always filled me with feelings of excitement and left me with the impression of living vicariously through the adventures of others.

Why, if I showed little to no interest in other areas of science (sorry, biology and chemistry majors!), did the idea of outer space specifically interest me? And why, if it interested me so much, did I not feel any desire to explore it on an academic front, rather purely consuming it as entertainment?

Beginning in the 1950s, the United States was engaged in the Space Race: a competition between the US and the USSR for who could, essentially, shoot things away from Earth the before the other. Here there existed a clear confluence of the social sciences (something that I actually understand!) and the physical: spurred purely by competition with the other country, each made grand advancements in space exploration that might not otherwise have existed. In the United States, Americans sat rapt with attention as our best and brightest worked towards achieving our goal of exploring space, which fell under the larger umbrella goal of “beating the Russians.” One hundred and twenty five million people watched the Neil Armstrong land on the moon in 1969. Clearly, space exploration had captured our attention, and at what many would consider the height of achievement in the field, there existed a sense of national pride at our accomplishment.

But, besides the collectivity that resulted from our beef with the Soviet Union, would these Americans not have been equally as excited and impressed at the same accomplishments? Sure, NASA’s discoveries seem to draw less and less news media attention as time goes on, but perhaps that’s because the discovery of a new planet has become the norm in the eyes of many. (For the record, I personally still get incredibly excited when they find something new; I’m postulating on behalf of the larger public.)

I would contend that, even if we explored space solely of our own accord, the American people would still have been fascinated and excited by the developments of the mid-to-late twentieth century. At the time, such technological advancements would have seemed out-of-this-world (pun intended).

Think about it: this was a time before the Internet was widely utilized, before text messaging your friends to say “Sup?” was the norm; microwave ovens were just starting to gain popularity, and there were fewer than five television channels. We hadn’t become collectively inundated by innovations that connected us to each other, nor could we have ever imagined how quickly they would come about. We couldn’t communicate horizontally, across Earth and to each other; it makes sense that we would be thrilled my moving vertically, towards the sky and beyond.

–JR

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