Museum Of Musings

Heritage, history, books, and a plethora of opinions.

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Luna 2 and a mid-century space obsession

Luna 2, 1959.

On this day 59 years ago, the Soviet Union successfully landed (i.e. crashed and didn’t miss) the Luna 2, a sputnik-esque probe, on the moon for the first time in history and subsequently launched decades of sci-fi madness. I’ve always been fascinated by the visual depictions of life in space generated by the Cold War era space race. I love that it permeated everyday mid-century life through adverts, film, literature, and design. Who didn’t want a spherical telly with unnecessary antenna? I’ve reignited this interest in recent times. I believe we’re seeing a bit of a revival of mid-century design, its nostalgic and exciting, but it is also reflecting modern advancements in space tourism. After all, Elon Musk did launch Falcon Heavy to the sound of 1960’s David Bowie.

The global tension in which the Luna 2 was propelled into space stemmed from capitalism versus communism, to put it simplistically. America and the USSR had already fought over their nuclear weapons capability, and now the Cold War was fuelling the race against time to fund, design, and send man-made objects (and eventually man) to the moon. Yet, the two countries had very visually different ideas of what man on the moon would look like.

1950’s design aesthetic became sleeker and more technology focused

1950’s America. The country’s GDP was growing healthily, rising to the best it had been in several decades. Many Americans were enjoying the benefits of larger incomes, spending their cash on cars, kitchens, gadgets, and re-decorating. The government need not have looked further than the new advertising agencies to help them convince the population of the national benefits of space exploration. Much like Don Draper does in AMC’s Mad Men, 1950’s and 60’s ad-men were harnessing the fervour surrounding new technologies and using it to sell products to fantasising Americans.

Once you integrate a revolutionary idea in consumerism, it becomes a little less daunting and rather more thrilling. American society was somewhat more preoccupied with the designing of space-worthy items than the existential impact, as can be seen in contemporary advertising campaigns. Basic design ideas were reinvented and the minute details of what life would be like in space such as the sensations (note the floating biscuits above) and the look of everyday items captivated the imaginations of the American public. Arguably, this is what we still really think about on an everyday basis, even today… how would I use the toilet on Mars?

1961. V. Volikov. Long live Soviet science. Long live the Soviet man–the first astronaut!

Meanwhile, in the USSR, the Soviet government took a different approach to the space race. Science was integral to the regime and they made advances beyond those of other superpowers, the success of Luna 2 was just the first of several. Their scientists, engineers, and eventually their astronauts were a source of intense national pride. Nevertheless, extra money was poured into creating and distributing punchy visual propaganda, selling the idea that space was the perfect place for communism; It was untouched by all other ideologies (such as capitalism) and, more importantly, it was Godless. Donald W. Cox, in his book The Space Race, adds that probes such as the Luna 2 “added inspiration for the earthbound followers of the communist way of life helping to take their mind off shortages of consumer goods.”

Soviet era posters often emphasised the human presence in space, with little made of machinery or material extras. The artwork is sometimes comically simplistic, almost always featuring slogans in bold print, and were often painted with vivid primary colours. They presented a dead simple, easy to get message – we don’t need to sell this idea too hard, it’s revolutionary. The idea was that you could too join the cosmonauts in deep space once day.

Glory to the Fatherland of Heroes!

When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans on the moon in 1969, the obsession with space travel didn’t end there. Today, we can lay on our memory foam mattresses and enjoy watching test flights for space tourism on our satellite telly with the same amazement. We have both countries to thank for those space-race-legacy inventions.

“Imagination is our window into the future. At NASA/JPL we strive to be bold in advancing the edge of possibility so that someday, with the help of new generations of innovators and explorers, these visions of the future can become a reality. As you look through these images of imaginative travel destinations, remember that you can be an architect of the future.”

NASA recently commissioned these very nostalgic space tourism posters:

Ezra Keats and one special snow day

Does this illustration ring a bell? It’s from a children’s book called ‘The Snowy Day’. Written in 1962 by Ezra Keats, a Brooklyn-born illustrator, this simple tale is still read by children today. I remember myself reading it in the 90s.

Keats’ illustrations are iconic and though you may not remember the title, you certainly remember the unique collage-like and ‘blocky’ style. But if its not familiar to you, the story focuses on a little boy named Peter enjoying a particularly snowy day. What makes this mid-century children’s book so special is that Peter is African American, visible against a white background in a society that was struggling with racial hatred. More importantly, Peter was the first black child protagonist in an American fully-coloured children’s book.

But Keats didn’t write this book​ purposely  to be an radical message of racial tolerance, Keats was just dismayed at the lack of African American children in books. During his acceptance speech for the prestigious Caldecott Medal, Keats cited a series of Time magazine photographs of a young black boy as his inspiration for Peter. He told the Caldecott audience that this unknown child planted the seed for Peter’s character, one whom Keats would consistently refer back to. The thematic mix of childhood innocence, colour blindness, and the wish for a progressive American made Keats’ book extremely popular.

However, Keats encountered the criticism that his book didn’t utilise Peter’s character to address racial hatred in a radical way. Yet, I think that the timelessness of the story lies with the fact that it doesn’t directly concern the contemporary issues of racial tensions, it centres around one little boy who happens to be black. In the book, Peter is undeniably and unapologetically the star without one mention of his colour, and therefore Keats never makes Peter’s race something worth debating – he is there because he has a right to be.

In 2016 Amazon produced a TV film version of The Snowy Day, mimicking Keats’ unique artwork. The film stands as a testimony for Keats’ timeless work but also as a testimony to the unchanging need for equal racial representation in children’s literature and film.

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