The Space Race’s Didactic Playscape



Most Americans of my generation may not recognize this play structure. Most Americans of my parents’ generation–who lived through the space race and its television manifestation of grainy firsts–first dogs in space, then humans, followed by circumnavigations of the Earth, and space walks, and space dockings, (each freighted with political import, done it felt, mere seconds before our Soviet nemeses) know this as the rough shape of the Mercurycapsule.  By the way, the Soviets were playing on things like this which might explain why they peaked at Laika.

It’s altogether appropriate that the capsule is situated next to that other icon vehicle of “pioneering” Americans, the stagecoach.  For American victory culture in the early 1960s, there was a natural connection of the two vehicles.  (The more geriatric connection of the two concepts came with 2000’s Space Cowboys.)  And the myths and values that supposedly inhabited one were to infuse the other–pluck, daring, perserverence, the pioneer drive, a kind of manifest destiny of the planets.  The capsule was also an extension of the new math-infused classroom of the 1950s and 60s: an attempt to close the achievement gap through play.  The proximate location of these two vehicles suggests that this was a consciously structured environment–a place where kids could live the thrill of the space race and get a dose of civics by osmosis.



Clearly this playscape was, by its spatial associations, an opportunity to mine a narrow vein of history in the service of American power projection.  The instructive, or didactive nature of play, has been one of chief reasons for existing within American pedagogy.  It has been so since the foundation of organizations like the Playground Association of America with their avowed interst in “attract(ing) children into a fun environment so as to teach them lessons in manners, morals, and sportsmanship.”  It’s sad, though, that while structured play has lost its preachy quality, there isn’t the emphasis on interesting, constructive design in play equipment.  Of course this stuff is expensive but if we concede that kids do learn a thing or two when playing, what are we teaching kids with stuff like this?

5 thoughts on “The Space Race’s Didactic Playscape

  1. I’d like to talk to you about the Reading Viaduct project today. Could you call me at your earliest convenience this afternoon? Thanks Brian McCrone, staff writer, Metro newspaper 215-717-2670

  2. Not to be picky (OK, yeah, I’ll be picky), but that’s a Mercury capsule, not a Gemini capsule. Too small for Gemini (10 ft in diameter), just the right dimensions for Mercury (6.2 ft in diameter). (Mercury, with a single astronaut, came first in 1961, with Alan Shepard, John Glenn,; Gemini followed, beginning in 1965, with two-man crews. TMI, I know.)

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