Finding Markers of Hope and Wonder: Happy 50th Space Needle!

We are gearing up for a festive weekend here in Seattle as the Space Needle officially turns the big 5-0 this Saturday! Now because the importance of the 1962 World Exposition to Seattle is often overlooked, I thought it might be meaningful to take a step back and to reflect on what the Space Needle represents to me, and to also give it a generational perspective. Perhaps I’m just getting old and nostalgic…

Now I’m not old enough to remember the 1962 World’s Fair inaugurating Seattle’s most beloved icon, but the unique physical infrastructure left behind as a result of the Expo (the Space Needle, Monorail, Pacific Science Center, and the International Fountain) still evoke vivid childhood memories of magical distant worlds, space travel, and the future—an everyday Tomorrowland where the imaged is reality.

My family’s road trips to Seattle from rural Eastern Washington in the 70s and 80s were always filled with awe and wonder. I’d catch my breath each time I caught a glimpse of the elegant saucer-like structure from the car window as we drove through the downtown skyline via a massive winding I-5 corridor. There weren’t any Interstate Highways in Pullman, nor were there saucer towers or monorails. This was it! I was in the big city and this was what the future looked like! On subsequent trips to Seattle as a college student at the University of Washington, I would still be entranced, gazing out my window taking in the amazing skyline of the city each time I drove through downtown. Even in my generation, Seattle still represented the future.

Many of us “tail-end Gen-Xers” who grew up in the 80s still remember the Cold War. The USSR was already our sworn enemy in movies, books, in the Olympics, and most importantly in the Race to Space—a race dating back to the late 1950s and 60s. Against the backdrop of the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the Space Craze also captivated the imagination of many Americans. Even President Reagan unveiled his “Star Wars” nuclear defense project with US satellites and ballistic missiles pitted against Soviet nukes in an end game that upset the uneasy stalemate of Mutually Assured Destruction.

I can still recall the early 80s, where each successful NASA Shuttle launch gave a small American moral victory over the Evil Red Empire. And despite NASA’s devotion to pure science, these very public and televised events had the unwitting side effect of helping to fuel the American craze over all things space-related. Every kid dreamed of being an astronaut someday. The lucky ones lined up to attend Space Camp in the summer, and millions fell in love with sci-fi movies like E.T., the Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. Storm Trooper action figures and freeze-dried “astronaut food” had never been more popular.

But it was also the tragedy of the Space Shuttle Challenger that brought many of us back to Earth. I remember the day vividly as I sat in my 5th grade classroom on that January morning in 1986. Just after we heard the terrible news, our teacher, Mr. Jensen, stopped his lesson and let us all listen to the story unfolding on his radio. He quietly told us that we’d remember this day for the rest of our lives. This would be the historic event that marked our generation. And he was right. After school, we all went home and watched the CNN footage on the evening news.

The Challenger explosion was a signpost for my generation, much like JFK’s assassination or the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001. We all remember exactly where we were when it happened. For me, the Challenger explosion was also a generational marker of tragedy that set many of us Gen-Xers apart, shaking us awake into a cold new reality—a reality where the United States could be viewed as a vulnerable superpower. Not only did we live under the threat of nuclear annihilation, we suddenly also realized that the US was not invincible.

25 years later, NASA’s last Space Shuttle mission launched the Shuttle Atlantis to the International Space Station in July 2011. I listened to the launch replay on NPR that evening in my car. I got a little misty-eyed because I knew I was witnessing the end of the American Space Age, and that it probably would be the last time I would hear the words “three, two, one, zero… and lift-off.” The future of American space exploration will have to wait for more federal funding as the US Space Shuttle program has ended for the foreseeable future.

I guess I have a hard time losing touch with that child-like part of me that delights in the raw emotion each time I see a successful Shuttle launch. I feel our collective human potential riding with the Shuttle as it groans—struggling mightily to rise above the pull and resistance of Earth’s gravitational forces—emitting plumes of exhaust and fire. But slowly, bit-by-bit, the Shuttle makes progress, first lifting off the ground and then flying higher into the blue sky until it is soaring into the stratosphere, beyond my line of sight.

Nothing can describe the sense of hope, wonderment, and exhilaration that fills my soul. “Wow” is the only thing I can utter. (Make sure you have the sound on!)

And I am certain that it was this same child-like sense of optimism and excitement that brought so many visitors to Seattle in 1962. It was the dawn of the Space Age and the future was on everyone’s minds. Century 21 (before it became known as a real estate franchise) was the theme of the Seattle World’s Fair and many of the exhibits showcased modern breakthrough technologies, giving us a glimpse into what life might look like in the 21st Century. And unlike other World’s Fairs of the same era, Century 21 ended up turning a profit.

April 21, 1962, opening day of the World’s Fair, was a big deal. Big enough of a deal that President Kennedy, on Easter Break in Palm Beach, Florida, telephoned in to officially open the Fair. The Fair brought many visitors to Seattle, including the King who was in Seattle shooting his latest movie, It Happened at the World’s Fair, on site. Talk about falling in love at the top of the Space Needle! Who wouldn’t with Elvis serenading you at the top of the world?

The emphasis on science and new technology at the Seattle Fair is also evident in the various displays and expositions. While we take them mostly for granted today, many of the new technologies showcased in this 1962 Bell Labs short film are now everyday phone standards like the direct dial, pager service and call waiting.

Now the 2 kids in the Bell Labs film were obviously really REALLY excited throughout their day at the Fair, and I can totally identify with that. I’ve only been to one World Exposition, probably the last Expo that most of you remember: Expo ‘86 in Vancouver BC. Expo ’86 was the last world’s fair to be held in North America, and despite running a deficit of more than CAD300 million, it was considered to be a tremendous success in transforming Vancouver BC into the cosmopolitan city it is today, much like how the ’62 World’s Fair transformed Seattle.

I remember running around with my brother and my cousin as we’d try to hit as many pavilions as we could to fill up our “Expo Passport” with pavilion stamps. I also remember thinking the Swiss pavilion was the coolest thing ever because it looked like a giant Swatch watch (remember the Swatch fad?) But I also recall a deep sense of excitement and wonderment as I explored the grounds and the different pavilions representative of different countries and cultures.

Which brings me back to the whole point of this post: Seeking out markers of Hope and Wonder. While we live in challenging times, we all need signs of encouragement, whether it’s in a physical structure or a skyline that inspires. It could be a view of the mountains or of the ocean. And once we find our own personal markers, we often forget to stop and take a moment to be reminded of what is possible instead of dwelling on what we cannot achieve. I know this is a reminder to myself.

So now, every time I drive down I-5—and especially when I’m stuck in traffic—I’ll be on the lookout for that familiar saucer-like structure to my right. Even though I wasn’t around when it was first built, I think I’ve established some good rapport with the Space Needle. The 21st Century has arrived, but the Space Needle still manages to fill me with a child-like sense of Hope and Wonder. Happy 50th Birthday!