The history of `futurism,' and the future of space

Imagining Tomorrow: History, Technology, and the American Future, edited by Joseph J. Corn. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. 237 pp. $17.50. Illustrated. The vision of the future as a technological paradise, according to Joseph Corn of Stanford University, has clearly been a central theme in American culture. In the same way that Karl Marx saw religion as an opiate of the masses in an earlier Europe, he sees ``technological futurism'' having that function in America over the past 100 years.

The 10 original essays in this fascinating and instructive anthology are devoted to these expectations. Chapters on X-Rays, nuclear power, and the electric light all illustrate the naive vision of painless, total revolution.

On the other hand, the importance of radio and computers was largely unforeseen in their early years. Other chapters describe the utopian promise of technology at the Chicago and New York World Fairs in the 1930s, utopian literature from 1880 through 1930, the ``home of tomorrow'' concept, the promise of plastics (now amply realized), and the now-defunct image of uniform, streamlined cities.

The focus of this volume is largely on the early 20th century, and virtually no attention is given to the past 20 years, especially the high-tech '80s. Nevertheless, it is invaluable for assessing contemporary visions -- for example, below. Pioneering the Space Frontier: The Report of the National Commission on Space, New York: Bantam Books. 211 pp. $14.95 paper. Illustrated.

The commission was charged to recommend a civilian space program to advance the broader goals of American society in the next century. Assuming an affluent society where America can afford to lead the world on the space frontier, the commission also evokes our pioneering heritage and the desirability of an ``outward-oriented America'' sustaining its preeminence in science and technology.

Three ``thrusts'' are proposed: advancing understanding of our solar system and the universe, exploring and settling the solar system, and stimulating space enterprises for the benefit of people on earth. To accomplish these goals economically, two additional thrusts are recommended: advancing a broad spectrum of technologies, and creating new systems and institutions to provide low-cost access to the space frontier.

These include a ``Highway to Space'' of continuous capability to put humans and cargo into orbit, and spaceports on the moon and Mars to serve as a ``Bridge Between Worlds.''

The report does not address the major question of whether there may be greater benefit in space exploration with other countries, rather than an America First policy.

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