Space and the Popular Imagination

Buck Rogers, 25th Century AD. 1933. Courtesy of William Cresswell.

American enthusiasm for interstellar exploration was built on decades of popular culture that imagined life on other planets. Fictionalized space heroes gave rise to an eager public anticipation of NASA’s declaration to land on the Moon. During this time, space-themed entertainment was incredibly popular, like the Flash Gordon ride at the 1939 World's Fair that allowed excited riders to experience a rocketship simulation. In 1928, the amazing Buck Rogers made his first appearance in Amazing Stories comic books as a swashbuckling adventurer of space. Readers fell in love with his stories and Buck soon expanded to the funny pages, radio, and movies. Merchandise and space toys quickly followed—toy guns, tin rockets, and breakfast cereal prize membership pins were all part of the Buck Rogers franchise.

The popularity of Flash and Buck led to an increase in radio show space adventures with Superman in 1940. Televisions shows, like Space Patrol and Commando Cody, started producing their own merchandise and many other space themed toys debuted, capitalizing on the space trend. The public’s positive reaction to these pop culture landmarks may well have influenced the political embrace of space and America’s readiness to see Kennedy’s dream of a man on the Moon fulfilled.