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Canadian Review of American Studies/Revue canadienne d'etudes americaines Volume27, Number 2, 1997, pp 103-131 103 Engineers' Dreams: Wernher von Braun, Willy Ley, and Astrofuturism in the 19 5Os De Witt Douglas Kilgore All Men dream; but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. (T. E. Lawrence [1926] 1991, 24) In the years following the end of the Second World War, the locus of American dreams of adventure and conquest shifted from the great Western frontier to the final frontier of space. The large-scale systems of industrial production and the new technologies of rocketry and nuclear power developed during the war had finally removed space travel from the realms of science fiction into that of practical engineering. As a result, images of a future in space became increasingly visible in American culture, culminating in the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the late 1950s. Paradoxically, much of the credit for popularizing the idea of an American future in space belong to two German emigres, Wernher von Braun and Willy Ley. Between them, these two men dominated American popular science and science fiction. Their influential body of work 104 Canadian Review of Amencan Studies Revue ca.nadienne d'etudes amei-icames is the foundation of what I call "astrofuturism," a technological vision which reorganized old narratives of conquest and utopia around new technologies. Astrofuturism is an explicitly didactic and inspirational literature. Its task is to provide a general knowledge of the science and technology of space travel and to promote future progress with narratives of new worlds to conquer. While the audience for the work of astrofuturists has often been narrow, their visions and technical expertise have had a tremendous impact on the contemporary world. Telecommunications satellites, remote sensing, intercontinental ballistic missiles, the Strategic Defense Initiative, technological and managerial spin-offs from the Apollo space program, pervasive images in the popular culture, as well as a good part of the science literacy of the lay public, all have roots in the minds and on the drawing boards of astrofuturists. In this essay, I describe how the astrofuturist community got its start, the genesis and nature of its ideas, and how it communicated its enthusiasm for spaceflight to the general public. I shall argue that their enthusiasm has shaped the American conception of the future, and that it feeds into our culture's faith that science and technology can be used to solve all earthly problems. Focusing my analysis on Wernher von Braun and Willy Ley, the racketeers who brought the German tradition of spaceflight enthusiasm to the United States, I will describe the historical and literary context which formed American astrofuturism. As part of the pioneering generation of astrofuturists, active from the 1940s through the early 1970s, they helped lay the technical and ideological groundwork for spaceflight. During the 1950s, Von Braun and Ley articulated a social and political consensus among spaceflight advocates that mirrored the official culture of mid-twentieth century America, and that found institutional expression in the Apollo program. The idea of flying to other worlds can be found in utopian romance as far back as the fanciful lunar voyages of Lucian of Sarnosota. Its modern, "rational" expression, however, took shape in the nineteenth century through the "voyages extraordinaire" of Jules Verne and the "scientific romances" of H. G. Wells. It grew from the boy's adventure tale, the adolescent dreams of empire that were the popular mirror of European power in the nineteenth century. Astrofuturism emerged as a mature vision at the end of the Second De Wttt Douglas KJlgore / 105 World War, when a number of technological innovations came together with the scientific/engineering imagination to make travel beyond the earth's atmosphere possible. The central innovation was the liquid-fuelled rocketry developed by German scientists and engineers at Peenemunde during the final years of the Third Reich. In the closing days of the war, rocket engineers and their technologies...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 103-131
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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