Seattle World's Fair - Space Is The Place

Jul 23, 2012

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair -– an event shaped by the Soviet Union’s launch of sputnik, President Eisenhower’s creation of NASA and President Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon.

In a collaboration with Jack Straw Productions and KUOW, reporter Harriet Baskas has the story of the remarkable event that brought us the Space Needle.

Anyone doubting that the Seattle World’s Fair was indeed a “space age spectacular” had only to look at the giant space needle towering over the fair.

"It just kind of looked like a rocket and a flying saucer all combined," says Knute Berger, who wrote a book about the history of the Space Needle. But in 1962 he was like lots of other eight-year- old boys: obsessed with space and excited about seeing the future at the World’s Fair.

"You know we all expected to go to the moon you know, be spacemen and all that kind of stuff," he says. "We just knew this was all about stepping out into the solar system."

Exhibitors were asked to focus on science and space. No problem for NASA. The new government agency brought astronaut John Glenn to the fair –and the space capsule that took him around the earth three times. Washington State built the World of Tomorrow. To get there, visitors rode a clear, round elevator called the bubbleator.

At the controls: John Gessner, in a silvery spacesuit urging 100 passengers at a time to "step to the rear of the sphere."

Visitors would exit the Bubblelator into a giant hall filled with a honeycomb of cubes, futuristic displays and video projections offering alternate views of the future: carefree and automated or threatened by nuclear war.

"It was dark and the lights came on in these cubes," Gessner says. "It was all cubed shaped. And they wound around through this whole exhibit for 21 minutes and they came down a ramp at the end after President Kennedy talked to them from a video screen."

Some exhibits seemed influenced more by science fiction than by science.

"The Forest Products Pavilion -- goofy silly futuristic idea that this woman would be kidnapped by aliens," offers Paula Becker.

"It’s a film, she’s riding her spaceship and she runs out of ‘space gas’ or something," Alan Stein explains.

Stein and Becker are staff historians for They’re also the authors of “The Future Remembered” -- a book about Seattle’s world’s fair and its legacy.

"Basically the aliens look inside of her head -- which they’ve given a goofy name -- and they see what she’s thinking and she’s thinking about forest products," says Becker.

"Wood," Stein adds. "The importance of wood in our lives."

If aliens had looked inside 13-year-old Bonnie Dunbar’s head in 1962 they would have seen a Yakima Valley farm girl dreaming about going into space -- and to Seattle for the fair.

"I was excited to go because I was told there would be space, I’d get to see the future," Dunbar says. "That was the most exciting part to me."

Dunbar had one day at the fair. And nothing was going to get between her and the future.

"I was not feeling well," Dunbar recalls. "I wasn’t telling my mother and we got on to the moving sidewalk and I think I remember some optical illusions room, so I threw up in my mother’s purse. And then I felt great and we finished the rest of the day."

After visiting the science pavilion, riding to the top of the Space Needle and seeing John Glenn’s space capsule, Dunbar knew for sure what she’d be when she grew up: an astronaut.

"You know, I wanted to fly in space and I knew NASA was someplace I wanted to work," she says. "This was about going into the future."

Dunbar may have been ready to blast off, but in 1962 “astronaut” was not yet a real career option for girls.

Paula Becker says while the World’s Fair was taking place in Seattle, Washington, in Washington, D.C., "Congress is holding hearings on whether women should be included in the space program in the U.S. During the fair they actually determined, partially based on the testimony of male astronauts, that no women should be included in the space program."

John Glenn was among the astronauts initially against female astronauts. But eventually, Dunbar says opposition to women’s equality in the space program fell away.

"Hindsight is 2020.," she says. "Cultures change over time. It evolved. The important thing is where we are now."

In 1981 Bonnie Dunbar became an astronaut. She went on to spend 50 days in space over five flights. And now works full time encouraging others to study science and technology. Proof, she says, that Seattle’s space-age World’s Fair was not just a flight of fancy.

“It was educating and inspiring and I was part of that audience," she says. "If that was what they intended to do, it worked on me.”

Copyright 2012 KUOW, and produced in collaboration with Jack Straw Productions