Saturday, July 12, 2008

Countdown to Nowhere

(This is a follow-up post to yesterday's "Buzz Off" which concerns astronaut Buzz Aldrin's recent statements that shows like Star Trek led to the decline of support for the space program. If you haven't read it, go there first.)

I've gotten a lot of support and "attaboys" from people who read "Buzz Off," but it turns out I didn't win over everyone. Fact is, I thought this over pretty carefully, and there's a lot of stuff I DIDN'T put in the original post, because I didn't think it was necessary given the basic
facts. More would have just been clutter.

But since the facts weren't as obvious as I supposed, let's look at another major
problem with the Buzz Aldrin theory. I don't think the historical time-line supports it.

At first glance, though, you might think the dates line up well. Star Trek was on TV from September 1966 through September 1969. The collapse of the space program's support is really centered around 1970. (The live TV broadcast from Apollo 13 wasn't covered by any of the major networks live, and it flew in April 1970. Apollo 20 was canceled in January of 1970. Two more Apollo missions were canceled in September of 1970.)

So the dates seem close, but I don't think it holds up to scrutiny.

First of all, remember that Star Trek was a failure in its broadcast run. It was nearly canceled in September of 1968 (while Apollo 8 had the world's attention, and Apollo 11, which drove the country (and the world) into a frenzy was nine months away. In fact, the decision to pull the plug on Star Trek had to have been made just about the time Apollo 11 landed, and the program was at the peak of its popularity and public interest.

Star Trek REALLY didn't take off until it was in syndication and college kids started watching it. I don't have a good date for that, but I suspect we're talking 1971 or 1972, when the smoking gun had long-ago gone off.

But the decisions to pull the trigger on that gun had to be made earlier.

Congressional support had to deteriorate sometime well before the cuts started, and the decision not to cut-in live on Apollo 13 probably resulted from viewership numbers on Apollo 12, which flew in November of 1969.

Of course, Apollo 12 blew out its TV camera shortly after landing, and that probably accounts for a lot of any ratings tumble. You can hardly blame that on Star Trek. (Ironically, almost without exception, Star Trek never showed TV cameras being taken along by its explorers.)

In any case, if Star Trek somehow poisoned the U.S. public on the space program, it did it as a low-rated show with a limited audience. And indications are that, during both first-run and in its re-run "boom" period, the audience for Star Trek largely consisted of people under 21. The voting age was still 21 at this time, and wasn't lowered to 18 until July of 1971. So as far as political influence, it's hard to see how it ever could have had any significant impact at that point in time.

The first evidence that Star Trek fans had political clout didn't come until the first Space Shuttle was renamed ENTERPRISE, following a letter-writing campaign to the Ford White-house by fans. I don't have a date for this, but it happened sometime between when President Ford took office in 1974 and the Enterprise roll-out in 1976. Since construction didn't start until June of 1974, and its original name was "Constitution," and Ford took office in August of '74, it would not likely have been any earlier than that. It's very likely that the reduction in the voting age was a factor here.

Regardless of the date, this hardly supports any lack of support or interest in the real space program by Star Trek fans. Quite the contrary.

On the other hand, NASA's internal grumbling and foot-dragging on the matter is a fine example of how they loved to shoot their public image in the foot. Here was a great opportunity to connect their mission with the public, and rather than exploit it to the fullest, they minimized it as much as possible.

I just don't see any evidence here that Star Trek harmed the space program in any way.

Of course, Aldrin wasn't specific that he was talking about Star Trek, but there just aren't many other on-air TV candidates for killing support of the Space Program.

Lost in Space started (and ended) a year earlier than Star Trek, and had a much bigger audience than Star Trek, but there was no beaming there. There were aliens (often very silly aliens) and interstellar travel (though the science was so weak that I don't recall any kind of faster-than-light drive ever being mentioned). But most of the signature hardware, robots, space-walks, jet packs, surface crawlers, and a very LM-like landing vehicle, were all right off the NASA drawing boards at that time. It was more futuristic and advanced, but in its own way, much more realistic than Trek.

The British series UFO (which featured a modest and fairly believable lunar base) didn't reach U.S. syndication until 1971 and 72. The follow-up Space 1999 with a much bigger Moon base (and some screamingly bad science) didn't show up until 1975.

Other than that, I can't think of anything (other than some Saturday morning cartoons) that qualifies. Feel free to correct me if I've missed something significant.

Meanwhile, all the stuff that Aldrin frets about, teleportation, faster-than-light travel, and so on, had been popular staples of print and comic science fiction since at least the 1930s. Somehow, the U.S. space program got off the ground anyhow (mostly by people who had at
some point read plenty of the stuff.

And we can't ignore movies. Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers were rocketing off to alien worlds in theaters as early as 1936 (and on radio starting in 1932). Heck, even Duck Dodgers used a teleporter in his first 1953 cartoon appearance!

None of the offending concepts or devices was invented by Star Trek, or any TV show. It predates broadcast television entirely.

Really, looking at the evidence, if the time-line supports anything at all, it's the idea that cutbacks in the Apollo program (and news coverage of same) may have contributed to the renewed popularity of Star Trek in syndication in the early 70s.

If the real space program wasn't going to give us the stars (or even the Moon again, or Mars) anytime soon, we'd watch Star Trek and dream until it did.

That just makes more sense than the idea that B led to A.

But there's a subtext in the time-line the supports more significant factors.

At least some of the press (and the public's) interest in covering the Apollo program has to be traced to the camera failure on Apollo 12. Apollo 13 might have turned that around, but it never made it to the moon, and was covered for entirely different reasons.

Support for Apollo in congress was weakening by early 1970, when Apollo 20 was canceled. The next two cancellations happened after the near loss of Apollo 13. By then, the risks were obvious, and there's no political stock to be gained in backing a losing horse. Better to end the program a winner.

It was also obvious by then that the press was more interested in covering failures in space than successes. Lose, lose. Not much here you can blame on Star Trek.

Combine this with the growing cynicism about government, and the huge cost of the Vietnam war (which lead directly to the cancellation of the Air Force's manned space program before it even started), and there just wasn't anything to be gained politically by backing NASA. Again, not Star Trek's fault.

The facts aren't there. The logic isn't there. Star Trek didn't do it. No science-fiction TV show did. If anything, Star Trek has been a positive influence on people's interest in space.

So, anybody want to start a write-in campaign to name the first, manned, Orion crew-capsule to reach orbit (no test models this time!), Enterprise?

More writings about the Moon:

Closely related to this topic, I have a couple of previous posts about the Moon and the Apollo program that you should check out:

Buy Me The Moon
Why the Apollo program didn't cost nearly as much as most people think it did, and how we might trade certain -- luxuries -- for a Moon base or a Mars program.

1200 Days On Mars
People say there's no reason to return to the Moon. "Been there, done that, got the tee-shirt." Well, we haven't been there, haven't done that, and we don't even know where the tee-shirts are sold. How we've barely touched the Moon, and how it compares to our current unmanned explorations of Mars.

1 comment:

  1. You might not remember this, but a few decades ago, I believe John Young made a VERY similar comment, this time directing it right at Star Trek. He said that the reason for the decline in interest in the Space Program is that we've been in space now and 'haven't met any Klingons yet'.

    The point is, that most folks are missing (including Buzz in these comments..) is that the initial and health interest in space travel had VERY LITTLE to do with any space exploration or scientific achievement, and MORE to do with just beating the Soviets in the Space Race. We would not have gotten to the Moon in the time frame we did without that. Watch (or read) 'Moonshot'~ Deke Slayton and Alan Shepard nail it on the head.

    The science advancement was wonderful, but it wasn't the 'propellent' for getting us out there. Any one who thinks we could have gotten there via international cooperation back in that era.. wasn't there.