Destined for the Stars: Faith, the Future, and America’s Final Frontier by Catherine L. Newell
Quest Volume: 28 #2 (2021)
A history of the Space Age spanning the years 1944 to 1955? On the surface, this seems a ridiculous notion, given the first satellite did not orbit until two years later. And as we all know, American interest in space exploration emerged as a reaction to the sudden display of Soviet superiority in a heretofore-unrecognized Cold War battlefield. Yet it is precisely this received wisdom that Catherine Newell, assistant professor of religion and science at the University of Miami, challenges in her book. In her persuasive argument, the foundation of American public acceptance of space travel originated in the 19th century with Manifest Destiny, the conviction that American expansion to the Pacific was divinely ordained. With the closing of the Western frontier, space would ultimately emerge as its replacement. It is worth noting that the phrase “final frontier” was given to us by Star Trek, a show which was originally conceived of as a space equivalent of the 1957-1965 Western TV show Wagon Train. Nor was this a coincidence, as the post-World War II years saw an explosion of both interest in space travel and nostalgia for Westerns, genres which Newell demonstrates were not as at odds as might be first assumed.
This confluence is personified by the central figure of Newell’s book, the artist Chesley Bonestell. Born in San Francisco (endpoint of the Gold Rush) in 1888 (two years before the formal closing of the Western frontier), Bonestell had an early career as an architectural renderer and matte painter for Orson Welles movies. However, the amateur astronomer Bonestell’s career would change forever when, in 1944, LIFE magazine published a series of his paintings depicting, in realistic detail, Saturn as seen from the surface of its various moons. Newell demonstrates how Bonestell’s paintings were a resurrection of the Hudson River School, a style of art that had been popular in the 19th century, reflecting both the grandeur and of the American West and its provenance as a divine gift to the settlers spreading across it. The Hudson River School had faded with the closing of the Western frontier, but Bonestell translated both its artistic techniques and themes to a new frontier of space.
The LIFE articles immediately made Bonestell in demand as the leading artist of realistic space scenes, and quickly led to collaborations with German émigré Willy Ley. Newell charts how Ley’s role with the pre-Nazi German rocket society and his status as a science popularizer allowed him to immediately become the American expert on rockets in 1944, following the first attacks on Allied cities by the V-2s built by his friends who had not fled the Nazis. Ley’s early work on the V-2 had been followed by a book on the comparison of the Genesis creation account and the modern science of geology, which Newell argues made him a perfect fit for the religious tone of the emergent space evangelism. Newell describes this tone as the expression of interwar religious scholar Paul Tillich’s “theology of culture,” whose thesis was that religious was not institutional but rather an expression of the deepest beliefs of a culture in hopes of manifesting them. In Newell’s argument, the exploration of space became just such an American religious foundation after World War II, largely due to the works of Bonestell and Ley, which would reach their apogee with their 1949 collaboration in the nonfiction book, The Conquest of Space.
From The Conquest of Space would come additional collaborations with an escalating number American cultural drivers. Bonestell returned to Hollywood, working on a number of space films with producer George Pal, beginning with the very well received 1950 Destination Moon and ending with the less-well-received 1955 adaptation of The Conquest of Space. Meanwhile, on Columbus Day 1951, Ley organized a symposium on space travel for the staff of a number of journals. Among the attendees was Cornelius Ryan of Collier’s magazine, who at a follow-up conference in San Antonio decided to commit to a feature on space travel after a fateful dinner with Bonestell and another attendee, Ley’s old friend Wernher von Braun. By that time, six years had passed since von Braun and his team had been brought over from Germany to work in El Paso and White Sands. Newell recounts von Braun’s delight at living in the mythical American “Wild West,” and how it was at a local church where von Braun was converted to evangelical Christianity shortly after arrival. For von Braun, therefore, his pre-existing missionary zeal for space exploration was married with true evangelism and the spirit of the American West, influencing his subsequent work on space travel, both technologically as well as culturally–beginning with the Collier’s work.
The resulting article series, published from 1952-1954, was the first collaboration between Bonestell, Ley, and von Braun (among others) and would be adapted into the books Across the Space Frontier, Conquest of the Moon, and The Exploration of Mars between 1952-1956. These published works, and Bonestell’s lavish-yet-scientifically-grounded illustrations, would reach a wider audience than even The Conquest of Space, laying in the idea that American expeditions to the “space frontier” were not only feasible, but inevitable. This notion would be solidified by the efforts of the man whose name was synonymous with entertainment: Walt Disney.
With the coming opening of Disneyland, Disney was in search of a theme for Tomorrowland, the futuristic pairing of Frontierland. When one of his artists showed him the Collier’s articles, Disney hired Bonestell, Ley, and von Braun. 1955 would see not only the opening of a Tomorrowland centered around the Rocket to the Moon exhibit, but the debut of the TV specials Man in Space and Man on the Moon, all produced for Disney with the assistance of the triad. As Newell points out, nearly two thirds of Americans watched the 1955 specials. By that year, 38 percent of Americans believed voyagers would travel by rocket to the Moon, a 23 percent increase from 1949. This was a massive core of belief in the American mission to expand into space stemming from the mixing of frontier and missionary cultures with realistic depictions of rockets and planets, and it predated both Sputnik and Eisenhower’s 1956 commitment to launch Explorer.
This is merely a general summary of the most salient parts of Newell’s work. There are, for example, chapters dedicated to a biography of Bonestell and an overview of the Hudson River School, and individual chapters will contain asides on matters ranging from Ley’s interest in cryptozoology to the differences between Buck Rogers and the science fiction of Robert Heinlein. Newell’s prose is clean, conveying great detail and wide-ranging discursions without muddying the core narrative or stumbling into literary cul-de-sacs; while she is a professor and this is published by a university press, a casual amateur will be able to take away as much from its novel argument as will a seasoned historian of either space exploration or postwar America. Further, the recent release of the 1955 Man in Space special on the Disney+ streaming platform makes for a perfect pairing with this book. In our era of renewed discussion over returning to the Moon, I would not hesitate to recommend this book to anyone interested in how the earliest steppingstones toward that final frontier were laid out.
About the Book
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Title: Destined for the Stars: Faith, the Future, and America’s Final Frontier
Author: Catherine L. Newell
Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press
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