For the 25 September 1983 issue of the Observer Magazine, Clive James began a series on modern monuments – those buildings that had taken on a ‘peculiar and enduring significance’ even though they weren’t designed as monuments. His first choice was the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
He began by looking at it from the perspective of the local wildlife. ‘There was nothing but scrub grass, she-oaks, flowering cactus and palmettos, inhabited by wild hogs, bald eagles, storks, ibises, fire ants, blue herons, water moccasins, rattlers and alligators’. All reconciled, he wrote, to the ‘occasional outburst of the most godawful noise, as of a billion dollars burning in a silver tube’. James spoke, of course, of the launchpad of rockets and Space Shuttles.
He argued that the Space Center had become domesticated. ‘It goes up with no more delay than the average InterCity 125 from Paddington to Bristol, and about the same sense of adventure.’ In fact, he thought that it had turned into ‘part of the Vacation Kingdom that lies an hour’s drive to the west’ (ie Disney World), where ‘vacationeers come spilling down the turnpike’.
The Vehicle Assembly Building was the monument in question. ‘American space technology is tinfoil post-Bauhaus, Mies van der Rohe minimalist, with no room for an ounce of fat anywhere.’
One look at a sign reading ‘Do not enter rough area infested with poisonous snakes’ and James was back on the bus, making him realise he didn’t have the right stuff, where ‘the whole object is to deprive events of their excitement by reducing them to routine’.
‘One day the romance will come back… We just got used to the idea of people going up through the air and out of this world.’ But the space age was over and also, as the Challenger disaster of 1986 showed, every trip was not the foregone conclusion he thought.