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c h a p t e r f o u r Robotic Spaceflight in Popular Culture Science fiction proved to be a powerful force for generating public interest in actual space travel. Fictional sagas, transmitted through the media of popular culture, anticipated the practical presentation of spaceflight and encouraged the formation of societies devoted to advances in rocketry and spacecraft. Without the work of early science fiction writers, the images promoting space travel would not have seemed as familiar as they did. The history of human spaceflight sat on a solid foundation of fictional tales.1 Science stories for public consumption, often characterized as popular science , followed in the wake of fictional tales. One of the most influential presentations appeared between 1952 and 1954, a few years prior to the launching of the first Earth-orbiting satellites, as editors at Collier’s magazine produced an eightpart series describing the exploration of space. Seven of the eight issues dealt with various aspects of human space travel: training astronauts, building space stations, exploring the Moon, and traveling to Mars. Only one issue presented automated flight. The June 27, 1953, cover of Collier’s displayed a remotely controlled , conically shaped spacecraft that Wernher von Braun and Cornelius Ryan, the series editor, characterized as a “robot” and a “baby space station.”2 The emphasis given to human over robotic flight in Collier’s reflected the relative standing of these two perspectives within the culture at large. Fictional stories about robots appeared prior to 1953, but they were neither as numerous nor as well developed as stories about human travel. Moreover, the robot stories tended to reinforce the popular image of space as the province of human beings. Like works of fiction touting human spaceflight, robot tales embraced the heroic tradition of terrestrial exploration in which humans clearly played the dominant role. The resulting traditions created a popular image of robotic flight that was weak where the real robotic effort was strong. In spite of the existence of welltold stories, the robotic tradition did not engender popular understanding that began to approach the persuasiveness of the human flight vision. Yet in many ways the image of robotic flight was prophetic. In presenting mechanical creations that rebel against their creators, storytellers anticipated strange new worlds in which post-biological space travelers might prevail. the popular image of robotics Inside that June 27, 1953, issue of Collier’s, an illustration displayed the internal workings of the robotic satellite that von Braun and Ryan proposed to fly. The satellite contained three monkeys launched on a sixty-day voyage to test the effects of weightlessness and other space hazards on living organisms. Before venturing into space, humans needed to understand the effects that cosmic conditions might impose on the first people to fly into space. As the authors announced , “The monkeys on the satellite will tell us.”3 In short, robotic flight existed to prepare for human flight. NASA officials implemented this vision six and a half years later. Before launching the first Mercury 7 astronauts into space, engineers conducted three suborbital tests of their single-seat spacecraft using two monkeys and a chimpanzee, named Ham, as stand-ins for the humans that followed. The “baby space station” typified an attitude common among advocates of human spaceflight. Machines and possibly animals would explore space, but only as adjuncts to human beings. Animals would prepare the way for human flight, while machines would do the same and possibly serve as companions. The vision of machines exploring space in the absence of human control received as little attention as the notion that somehow monkeys might explore the Moon. Culture consists of the assumptions that people make about the world in which they live. It is frequently transmitted through stories that people tell. The most memorable stories about robots—the ones attracting large and continuing audiences—encouraged the widespread assumption that humans would lead the exploration of space, with machines—to the extent that they participated at all—serving as accomplices to their human masters. The image of “robots and humans together” became the official policy of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.4 robotic spaceflight in popular culture 97 Robot stories had begun to appear. Gnome Press published Isaac Asimov’s famous collection I, Robot in 1950, two years prior to the initiation of the Collier’s magazine series. The book contained a set of science fiction stories...


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