Aviation, Spaceflight, and the Culture of American Technological Development in the Twentieth Century

AHA Session 57
Friday, January 7, 2011: 9:30 AM-11:30 AM
Suffolk Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Daniel Headrick, Roosevelt University at Chicago
"Gentleman of Adventure": Ernest J. Gann, Aviation, and American Culture
M. Houston Johnson V, University of Tennessee
Celebrating John Glenn: Material Evidence of a Cultural Phenomenon
Margaret A. Weitekamp, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution
The Short Life and Violent Death of the Space Shuttle Dream, 1972–86
Matthew Hersch, University of Southern California
Jenifer Van Vleck, Yale University

Session Abstract

Technology represents a defining aspect of America’s history during the 20th century. From America’s adoption of the automobile in its early years to the rise of the Internet at its close, Americans have found their lives increasingly tied to technological innovations. Those innovations formed the basis for America’s rise to world prominence, and came to embody both the hopes and fears of the populace. This panel focuses on two of the most significant technologies of the past century—aviation and spaceflight.

After the Wright brothers’ first flight in 1903, aviation came to serve as the exemplar of American development for the first half of the century. From early aerial daredevils like Lincoln Beachey to the National Air Races of the 20s and 30s, Charles Lindbergh’s historic trans-Atlantic flight, and Chuck Yeager’s successful effort to break the sound barrier, aviation captured American imaginations like few other technologies had before. Historian Joseph Corn has gone so far as to argue that Americans enjoyed at unique relationship with aviation, embracing a “winged gospel” that encompassed spiritual hopes for a utopian future. Similarly, spaceflight captivated Americans in the second half of the century, from America’s halting efforts to counter Sputnik to Neil Armstrong’s famous first steps on the moon. Spaceflight galvanized Americans during the Cold War, and the lure of space exploration has continued to inform America’s consciousness ever since. 

Houston Johnson, Margaret Weitekamp, and Matthew Hersh present unique perspectives on how those technologies have affected American’s lives. Johnson uses the writings of pilot and author Ernest J. Gann to chart the development of American aviation in the years before World War II. Gann’s words, he argues, demonstrate how aviation profoundly shaped America’s political, cultural and social development in the 20th century. Weitekamp uses examples of material culture to articulate how Americans embraced, owned, and commodified enthusiasm for spaceflight. Focusing on representations of John Glenn’s 1962 orbital flight, Weitekamp utilizes deep readings of material objects to promote our understanding of the cultural history of spaceflight. Hersh focuses his paper on NASA’s shuttle program, arguing that the shuttle represents America’s most controversial human spaceflight project. His paper documents the widespread enthusiasm the project initially generated and contrasts that excitement with subsequent disillusion stemming from unrealized expectations and horror in the wake of the Challenger explosion.

These three papers speak to the myriad ways technology affects Americans. From material culture, to literature, media, and shared cultural concepts, both aviation and spaceflight had exerted an enduring influence on the United States. These topics also demonstrate the continuing relevance of these technologies. Contemporary focus on the troubled airline industry, and excitement about the possibility of commercial spaceflight highlight how these themes continue to affect out lives today. Through the examination of these subjects, these scholars hope to inform our understanding of America’s historical relationship with technology while simultaneously pointing in new directions for further investigation.

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