The cynical narrative around the private Space Race feels unique to this moment of growing discontent about wealthy technologists and inequality, but it perfectly mirrors cynical (often forgotten) reactions to the early pursuit of air and space travel, we did a round up:
✈️ AIR TRAVEL
George W. Melville - Engineer-In-Chief of the United States Navy - wrote a scathing article about the pursuit of manned flight, he began with a Shakespeare quote that implied the goal was a childish “vain fantasy” that “is as thin of substance as the air”:
On the very first page he declared the entire notion a wasteful and delusional endeavor: “There probably can be found no better example of the speculative tendency carrying man to the verge of the chimerical than in his attempts to imitate the birds, or no field where so much inventive seed has been sown with so little return as in the attempts of man to fly successfully through the air.”
The New York Times predicted manned flight would take between 1 and 10million years to achieve, in an article titled ‘Flying Machines Which Do Not Fly’, the piece ended: "To the ordinary man, it would seem as if effort might be employed more profitably”.
Only 9-weeks later the Wright Brothers achieved manned flight. Hear the entire New York Times article read aloud in the Pessimists Aloud podcast:
Once the Wright Brothers proved flight was possible, some assumed it was just a pointless rich play thing. Famed astronomer William H. Pickering said: “the expense would be prohibitive to any but the capitalist who could use his own yacht.”
🚀 SPACE TRAVEL
We conquered the skies, then space beckoned…
President Eisenhower announces the first US satellite program, when asked about the project a British Astronomer replied: “Space travel is utter bilge” saying it would be a“frightful waste of public money.”
When Kennedy announced his moonshot, there was some enthusiasm but soon a movement grew against the idea. Barry Goldwater said it was a big waste (at a $100-a-plate dinner) and that the US was ‘moon-struck’ saying "While our eyes are fixed upon it, we could lose the earth or be buried in it.”
Many Americans and even astronomers opposed the plan for various reasons. Even former President Eisenhower (who created NASA) said: “Anybody who would spend $40 billion in a race to the moon for national prestige is nuts…” The term ‘moondoggle’ was coined and it stuck.
By the time the day of the moon landing had arrived, public approval was higher - the entire world was excited, but not everyone. The Guardian quoted a teachers Union organizer who said he had decided to go to bed early on the night of July 20th 1969 because it was “A trivial prestige exercise which ignored the social conditions existing in the world.”
These are important reminders that pathological cynics will always find a way to complain, before air and space travel was possible they said it was impossible, when they were proven wrong they said it was an egotistical waste of money with no real utility.