I recently finished reading Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, which tries to answer one question: What makes astronauts willing to risk their lives on dangerous spaceflight missions?

Wolfe specifically looks at Project Mercury, the first American space program created to put a man in orbit. The content is old - Project Mercury ran from 1958-1963, and The Right Stuff was published in 1979 - but Wolfe keeps things interesting by structuring it as a dramatic story about the astronauts and their misadventures as test pilots. Along the way, he touches on the (fairly optimistic) attitude of ordinary Americans living through the post-WW2 era. I, like most people, have seen lots of movies, TV shows, class lectures, and Wikipedia articles talking about the space race and Eisenhower-Kennedy years, but none of them fill in the feeling of the 1950s and 60s quite as well as this book did.

I’m not going to summarize the main point of this book (why astronauts risk their lives) here, as it won’t do the book (or the subsequent movie!) justice. (You should totally read the book, by the way, as it’s got lots of interesting trivia: did you know many pilots didn’t apply to be astronauts because they were worried astronauting wasn’t prestigious enough, since spacecraft are more computerized than planes?).

What I do want to talk about is a part of the book that surprised me most, one that actually doesn’t have to do with the astronauts at all. Rather, it has to do with the American public: specifically, how enthusiastic and optimistic everyone seems to be the whole time. Throughout the book, the political and spiritual support from average Americans, senators, engineers, and anyone else seemingly knows no bounds; not only that, but each individual has a sort of emotional investment that come across as downright silly. Take the press conference announcing the original Mercury Seven astronauts:

With that, applause erupted, applause of the most fervent sort, amazing applause. Reporters rose to their feet, applauding as if they had come for no other reason. Smiles of weepy and grateful sympathy washed across their faces. They gulped, they cheered, as if this were one of the most inspiring moments of their lives. They [the astronauts] were so famous, so revered, so lavishly fussed and worried over at all times that they were without peers in this new branch of the military. Everywhere they went in their travels people stopped what they were doing and gave them a certain look of awe and sympathy.

Or after Alan Shepard completes his first suborbital flight:

Then they [the crowds of New York City] followed in his wake as Al sat up on the back of an open limousine waving to the crowds along Constitution Avenue. Tens of thousands of people had turned out to watch the motorcade, even though it had been arranged with barely twenty-four hours’ notice. They were screaming to Al, reaching out, crying, awash with awe and gratitude. … Al’s hometown, Deny, New Hampshire, which was not much more than a village, gave Al a parade, and it drew the biggest crowd the state had ever seen. Army, Navy, Marine, Air Force, and National Guard troops from all over New England marched down Main Street, and acrobatic teams of jet fighters flew overhead.

Or when John Glenn successfully completes a few laps around the earth:

John did not merely get a parade through Washington and a trip to the White House and the medal from the President. Oh, he got those things, all right. But he also addressed a special joint session of Congress—the Senate and the House met together to hear John, the way they had for presidents, prime ministers, kings. … That was where the tears started! The tears—they couldn’t hold them back. They were dabbing their eyes and cheering through the fluttering ends of their handkerchiefs. Their faces glistened. Some fought back the tears and a couple let go. They applauded, cheered, snuffled, wheezed… A couple of them said, “Amen!”

It’s possible the book is exaggerating, but if so only a bit; other sources tell of similar levels of passion.

The reason this is so surprising to me is because it seems unrealistic - I can’t imagine this happening in the US today. The idea of everyone getting so emotional about space feels cheesy, if not a bit delusional. It comes across as naive. Perhaps I’m overly skeptical (a definite possibility), but it seems silly to think that the vast majority of Americans today could become excited about anything good, not just space travel. In the 21ish years I’ve been around, no event comes to a similar level - 9/11 may have matched the emotional magnitude, but our reaction was negative, centered around fear and loss rather than technological optimism. It’s possible I’m wrong, but my intuition is that the majority of people I know would say the same thing.

This raises an interesting question. Why do I feel like this is the case? Now that the world of today is more interconnected than that of the 1950s, shouldn’t it be more likely, not less, that everyone becomes emotionally invested in the same prominent goals?

I suspect that there are a few possible reasons, and while I won’t dissect them fully, I’ll propose them here.

  1. Space is just more cool. Almost everyone thinks that going to the moon was pretty goddamn awesome, and maybe there haven’t been any developments that aren’t as obviously pretty goddamn awesome for everyone to unite around. Very few things can come close to being able to say “we put a person on that floating rock in the sky two-hundred-and-fifty miles away”. But this doesn’t satisfactorily answer the question for me: many institutions, both public and private, are tackling Mars efforts, but they don’t seem to excite the same way. Maybe Moon landings are more exciting than Mars landings since the Moon happened first, or maybe space travel is out of fashion, but there’s still quick progress being made on driverless cars, gene therapy, and food production, among other things - all of which are just as impactful as space, but don’t get the same level of national attention and optimism.

  2. There are more things going on / we’re more skeptical. People today may just be less moved by stories of new technologies or astronauts putting their lives on the line. Perhaps that’s because we get these sorts of stories all the time through the news, Facebook, or even in our classrooms, now that we’re better connected and more educated than we used to be. And since we get so many stories, it’s hard for everyone to be excited about the same ones.

  3. War. It’s very possible that the excitement around the space race in the 60s has very little to do with optimism about new technology, and much more to do with our competitiveness around self-defense and defeating our opponent. Nothing unites people like a common enemy, and maybe our not-so-friendly contest with the Soviets put a greater degree of importance - both symbolic and practical - on getting into space first. The Right Stuff does talk about how the initial astronauts were seen as “single-combat warriors” doing symbolic combat with the Soviets in the sky, and the American public may have united around them as soldiers working in the interest of national defense. This would explain why we haven’t seen similarly unifying events since then: the USA hasn’t faced any existential conflicts since the Cold War.

  4. Fragmentation. When there are less than five news channels in 1950, and they’re all airing the same information about the space program, and all doing it with relentless positivity, and there are literally no other news channels saying anything negative about the program… it makes sense that the majority of the public would care about the same things. After all, the 50s and 60s were an especially conformant and conservative period of American society. But now that new mediums like the internet and targeted cable television allow for more decentralized social circles many of which could have dissenting interests and opinions… it’s not surprising that people might disagree on whether new efforts are as exciting. The effects of this show up in my places; increasing political polarization is the most prominent example. Gary Marx and Paul Graham (among many others) talk about this in more detail.

It’s likely these reasons all overlap - maybe a lack of existential threats (e.g. war) leads to more fragmentation which leads to more skepticism around new things. There are probably other reasons too.

OK, but why do we care? Why does it matter that everyone’s invested in the same developments? It may even be a good thing that people have a more diverse set of interests and opinions now. After all, lack of diversity of thought is not a good thing.

I’d wager that in one specific case - building new technology, like we did for space - it does matter, if only for the following reason: Doing novel technological things, like space travel, is really, really hard. Hard things require a good degree of public support and emotional investment to pull off, because this gives benefits particularly well suited for technological progress.

For example, massive public interest in a program helps dramatically with that program’s recruiting: it’s much easier to get the brightest engineers and the most daring pilots for a cause when the vast majority of people think that cause is important. And that has multiplicative effects: more students will go to school to study those skills if they’re known to be well regarded and in-demand, which leads to more interest, which leads to more progress, in a positive cycle. Broader interest and support also allows for taking risks and accepting the mistakes that come with them: for example, the Apollo 1 accident, which killed three astronauts, probably would’ve ended NASA (and nearly did) if not for the massive public support the program had at the time. An unfragmented public also allows for longer-term goals: if only 20% of Americans had cared about NASA in the 60s, it’s more likely that the program would’ve dramatically shifted focus away from the moon landings after Johnson succeeded Kennedy or Nixon took office. (Incidentally, as space travel has taken up less mindshare of the public, there’s been a coincidental decrease in long-term goals as each new president changes NASA’s focus, and the budget has been steadily decreasing. I don’t think this is a coincidence.)

Of course, things like private industry and individual endeavours do exist, and it’s still possible to undertake difficult projects even most people don’t care too much about them. Companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are good examples when it comes to space. But even then, it’s still taken a great deal of time just to match the achievements of the 1960s, even though it’s been nearly 50 years since then. These organizations also don’t exist in a vacuum; they still depend on effects that come from public interest: for example, if less college students study engineering because it’s fallen out of fashion, finding sufficient talent becomes more burdensome, or if space isn’t a hot field, attracting venture capital needed to fund these companies becomes more involved.

Problems now, such as mitigating climate change or reforming our political system, may be much harder, and might need even more coordination and public support than the space race of 50 years ago. If that’s true, fragmentation - the inability of everyone to become uniformly interested and emotionally invested in the same thing - may mean they won’t be tackled with the same effectiveness. Perhaps the unity of the post-WW2 period was an exception, and we’ve returned to the default, normal state of things, but maybe that’s not all good. Maybe communal excitement is more important than we think.