How America imagines its astronauts.
The Mercury Seven, 1960.
One of the things that makes the job title astronaut different from other jobs is that it existed in the collective imagination for centuries before it was ever actually anyone’s occupation. In the second century CE, Lucian of Samosata imagined travelers going to the moon and fighting a war with its inhabitants. In Jules Verne’s immensely influential 1865 novel, From the Earth to the Moon, the word astronaut is never used, but three men seal themselves into a metal capsule in order to fly to the moon. Many of the details Verne came up with were so outlandish as to invite ridicule if they had not become reality a hundred years later in the Apollo program, including a launch from Florida and a safe splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. Verne’s three space travelers behave in some ways we now associate with astronauts—they solve problems that arise on their mission, analyze new information they observe outside their windows, and do calculations to figure out their location and speed. On the other hand, they indulge in nonastronaut-like behaviors such as getting drunk, becoming histrionic about unexpected problems, and expressing doubt about the meaning of their journey, about whether they should be doing this at all.
One of the first uses of the word astronaut to refer to a human traveling in space was in Neil R. Jones’s short story “The Death’s Head Meteor,” in 1930.
The young astronaut entered the space flyer, closed the door, and was alone in the air-tight compartment just large enough to accommodate him. On the instrument board before him were dials, levers, gauges, buttons and queer apparatus which controlled and operated the various features of the craft. He turned on his oxygen supply and his air rejuvenator so that the air could be used more than once, after which he shoved his starting lever forward. The craft raced suddenly off the roof and into the cloudless sky above the vast city of the twenty-sixth century.
Jones was probably as surprised as anyone to learn how soon his new word became an actual job title, only twenty-nine years later. In between, during World War II, the first actual rockets emerged. This was the beginning of a new era in which the astronaut became a consistent character to tell stories about, if still speculative. Though the rockets weren’t ready to safely contain humans, their streamlined hulls brought with them a clearer image of the astronaut fantasy. Part fighter pilot, part frontiersman, the helmeted spaceman climbed into sleek machines and left Earth in the black-and-white television shows of the fifties. In 1954, Walt Disney created Man in Space, a series intended to promote his new Disneyland, which was set to open the following year. In the opening shot of the series, Walt himself speaks into the camera. “One of man’s oldest dreams has been the desire for space travel,” he tells us with an avuncular twinkle. “Until recently this seemed to be an impossibility.” Read More