The Rise And Fall Of Rocket-Ship Medicine

Baby Boomers were told that Science would fix everything. They need to get over their disappointment.

“Doctors don’t know anything,” the woman said, and a half-dozen heads nodded in automatic agreement. The crowd at the party was mostly about my age – Baby Boomers, though it’s getting harder all the time to picture us as babies. The conversation was about the failed state of modern medicine: botched operations, over-medicated elderly people, evil pharmaceutical companies rigging drug trials. I’m not here to debunk any of that, though I did think the woman’s statement was a little strong. I was pretty sure that if doctors didn’t know enough to pull off the occasional appendectomy, coronary bypass, or hip replacement, she’d have been speaking to a much smaller group. In fact, it’s a little odd just how much this cohort’s attitudes have changed about medicine, and about science in general, since we were kids. Step into the Wayback Machine, Sherman, and let’s check out a couple of doctors from the 1960s.


Famous doctors of the 60s

The man on the left is Jonas Salk, who developed the first widely used vaccine for polio. Younger readers may need help with this: polio is a viral disease which, in the United States alone, killed many thousands of people during a wave of epidemics that crested in the 1950s. Most of the victims were children, and many of those who survived were paralyzed. Thanks to vaccines, polio was nearing extinction in the US by 1962 (today it’s uncommon worldwide), and researchers like Salk were revered as protectors of mankind. See the white lab coat? That was a superhero’s outfit, no less than Superman’s or Batman’s. Salk was a Scientist, and that meant he was unstoppable.

As kids growing up at the time, we were moderately pleased about all this. Being kids and therefore immortal, we wouldn’t have worried much about polio if it were being sprayed from airplanes, but it was nice to have an extra layer of immunity. Our parents told us about other quaint-sounding diseases from their own childhoods, like whooping cough and diphtheria. We didn’t pay much attention. For mysterious reasons, our parents had chosen to be born into a primitive society that didn’t even have television, where the air was swarming with microbes and life was cheap. That was their problem, not ours. By the time our generation got old, there probably wouldn’t be anything left to die of.

Speaking of television, the man up there on the right is Dr Leonard McCoy, of the original Star Trek series. (Everybody knows this, right? I’m not that old.) Dr McCoy was simply Dr Salk projected into the future. He could diagnose anything by waving a little cube at you, and even if your disease was based on some alien biochemistry he’d never seen before, he would come back in a day or two with a cure. Star Trek was set 300 years in the future, so we understood we might not get all the benefits of Star Fleet-based medicine within our lifetimes. Our miracle cures might have to be injected with old-fashioned needles, instead of an air gun that could blast right through your shirtsleeve. But never mind. As long as medicine progressed directly on a line from Dr Salk to Dr McCoy, we’d feel safe enough anywhere along the way.

It’s no coincidence that Dr McCoy lived on a spaceship. In the 1960s, Americans were getting ready to land on the Moon. Space travel and super-medicine were the twin foundations of futuristic thinking. NASA publicity emphasized the superb physical condition of the astronauts, and we saw them on TV being measured, stress tested, hooked up to EKG machines, and flung around in centrifuges by white-coated medical experts. The astronauts were the healthiest people on the planet, and they were the new pioneers blazing a trail for the rest of us. In the future, we were all going to be that healthy.

This would happen partly through diet, because Science was also getting into our food. The Sixties approach to food is a little hard to explain if you weren’t there. Consider William A. Mitchell, who worked for many years at General Foods Corporation as a “food chemist.” If that job title gives you the willies today, you’re not alone. But in the Sixties, scientists were infallible and people were happy to eat anything a Food Chemist might come up with. Mitchell was the brains behind Cool Whip, quick-set Jello, powdered egg whites, and another powdered substance called Tang which, when mixed with water, bore a certain resemblance to orange juice. In February 1962, John Glenn was launched aboard a Mercury spacecraft on the first American orbital space mission, and he took some Tang with him. Not only did sales of Tang go through the roof, but today if you ask four people of my generation where Tang came from, three of them will repeat the myth that it was developed by NASA.

Science Food was going to advance on two fronts: convenience and nutrition. This is hard to imagine today, when we’re constantly being encouraged to diversify our diets, but in the Sixties we were going in the opposite direction, cramming additives into individual food items to make them “complete.” In 1964 Carnation introduced a product called – seriously – Instant Breakfast, which was a powder that you dissolved in milk. I’m pretty sure Carnation never actually claimed Instant Breakfast was a direct replacement for a plate of bacon, eggs, fruit, and toast, but we were ready to believe it anyway. At a time when microwave ovens were rare, this is how we thought techno-food was going to play out: there would be powders and gels and bars of stuff that contained everything you needed for a balanced diet. Eventually you’d be able to get Thanksgiving dinner in a pill. That would be necessary on those long interplanetary flights, because if there was one scene you could not possibly imagine taking place on board a fancy space cruiser, it was your mom in the kitchen standing over a bunch of pots and pans.

If there was concern about what damage all this might do to the culinary arts, it wasn’t noticeable among the population I surveyed at the time, which consisted of six- to ten-year-old boys. But parents were under the spell too, seduced by the thought that they could stoke their kids full of beneficial stuff just by opening up a packet. Late in the decade Pilsbury (which really was working with NASA) came up with its own nutrition bars, which lest anyone miss the point were named Space Food Sticks. There was no need to make wild claims about the nutritional value of Space Food Sticks – we just knew. We’d read about them already in science fiction novels. We knew that Science was busy tracking down every nutrient necessary for human life, because you could watch its progress on the side of your cereal box: it was around this time that foods began to list their exact content of vitamins A, B, C, D, etc. Not too interesting today, but kids in the Sixties knew exactly what it meant: when they got to Vitamin Z it would be all over, and a diet of junk food would make you basically indestructible.

Space travel, the end of all disease, perfect health and nutrition. Let’s take a breath here, fifty years later, before we reflect on the outcome of all that optimism.

* * *

Now it’s not as if the future has turned out to be a complete flop for technology fans. If you’d gone to sleep in 1966 and only woke up this morning, you’d probably still be standing in the kitchen an hour later, mesmerized by the digital controls on your coffeemaker. A smart phone would astound you, the Internet would disorient you completely. A Transformers movie in 3D would probably kill you outright. All this might, or might not, be enough to compensate for what you would feel on learning that we haven’t colonized any planets yet, that we landed on the Moon in 1969 and then stopped landing on the Moon three years later, and that the only space station up there right now – arguably the most expensive object ever built by human beings – can hold a grand total of seven people.

Finding the 21st century thus Earth-bound, you might not be surprised to hear that Space Food never really took off either. The signs were already there in 1965, when the crew of Gemini 3, tired of eating astronaut goop, famously smuggled a corned-beef sandwich aboard their capsule. (They had to put it away when crumbs started to float into the spacecraft’s electronics.) Three years later Stanley Kubrick played the theme for laughs in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Technological food creations then faded from the public consciousness before re-emerging as “processed” foods, the root of all nutritional evil.

In 2013 former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second human being to walk on the Moon, told Spike TV that “Tang sucks.”

2001: bon appétit

2001: bon appétit

Space Food failed on nutritional as well as esthetic grounds. Apparently there’s more to healthy eating than just completing the Vitamin Alphabet. Every five years the US government releases a report called Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which is eagerly read by – I’m guessing here – ten or twelve people. The 2010 edition contains the following sentence:

A basic premise of the Dietary Guidelines is that nutrient needs should be met primarily through consuming foods.

This might raise your hopes that there’s a secret humorist yokking it up at the USDA, but really that sentence is your necessary epitaph for test-tube nutrition, placed there for the benefit of  Boomers who thought that by now we’d be on a designer diet of what the report calls “fortified foods and dietary supplements” – i.e. astronaut goop. Our visitor from the Sixties is just going to have to accept that beets and broccoli are still on the table, and also that far from expecting food to make us healthy we now live in constant terror of the stuff, laden as it is with preservatives, modified genes, and the unspecified “toxins” that keep old hippies awake at night.

In the face of this disappointment, it’s clear that we’re going to need our doctors to keep us alive. Which brings us back to the original topic. Because sooner our later our visitor from 1966 is going to start asking the tough questions: What about medicine? Are there any diseases we haven’t cured yet? Is surgery still necessary, and is it still done with – you know, knives? How about cancer, surely that’s been eliminated by now?

Maybe you’d better sit down. Here, play with this phone.

* * *

It didn’t help that they took away our chemistry sets. In the mid-60s, it was perfectly normal for a ten-year-old kid to possess a small arsenal of reactive compounds, some of them moderately dangerous, together with an assortment of test tubes and beakers and maybe an alcohol lamp. Your chemistry set came with a book of carefully scripted “experiments” that you were supposed to perform, but we knew it wasn’t really an experiment if anyone knew the outcome in advance. And anyway why limit yourself to the substances in the kit, when the average American garage had so many random liquids and powders lying around? About 1972 the newly-created Consumer Product Safety Commission had a look at the chemistry sets being sold in toy stores and, I assume, peed itself. New sets were devised that virtually removed the possibility of poisoning or blowing yourself up. Kids lost interest in chemistry overnight.

There were bigger things going on. In 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had raised the alarm about pesticides entering the environment. The country took a few years to deliberate on this – that is, to revile Rachel Carson and call her a Communist – but as the decade wore out a generation of kids had learned the word “pollution,” and we were believers. Our mania for Science turned to ambivalence as we began to associate it with chemical waste, with military technology, with the techniques of mass production and a world full of cheap stuff made out of newly invented plastics. The late great music critic Ian MacDonald argued that the counterculture of the 1960s was a conservative movement, trying to defend humanist and spiritual values against the rise of “techno-decadence.” Can we even imagine this today? A world where it’s the kids telling their parents that too much technology is bad for them?

But so it was. There were cool new consumer goods – color TV, a development approximately as sensational as the iPod, had arrived about 1965 – but we watched our parents’ generation showing these off as badges of success, and we learned to view them as uncool status symbols. The ultimate technological achievement was the first moon landing in 1969, and anyone who watched it can tell you exactly where they were that night. But try finding someone who remembers the second landing, or the third. By then some people were complaining that the space program was a waste of money; others were busy exploring a different kind of space inside their own heads. We even started looking with suspicion at our cereal boxes. Monosodium glutamate didn’t sound like a vitamin.

Not every branch of science was suspect. We’ve never stopped liking physicists, maybe because we figure that after inventing nuclear weapons they had sort of shot their wad. Astronomers are always popular: who doesn’t want to know what’s up there? And it was biologists who figured out we had an environmental problem in the first place. Medicine’s reputation seemed safe as well. True, the thalidomide disaster was still a recent memory: the morning-sickness drug had caused severe birth defects in thousands of babies. But that had happened mostly in Europe. Frances Oldham Kelsey, the FDA pharmacologist who stood up to the drug’s manufacturer in the United States, became another symbol of American know-how. So far so good. In 1967 the first human heart transplant was performed. If doctors could do that, they could do anything, right?

Then again, that heart transplant was performed in South Africa (huh?) and its recipient lived only 18 days – it would be years before the operation became more or less routine. And never mind that: there was an elephant in the room. The superstar doctor who was going to cure cancer stubbornly refused to show up. This was really odd. Diseases were supposed to make a show of resistance and then surrender to modern research. Lex Luthor had already cured cancer in the expected way in 1961 [Superman, Vol. 1 #149], so we knew how it was done – someone very, very smart would spend a sleepless night fiddling around with test tubes and beakers and maybe an alcohol lamp and voila. The Nixon administration declared a new “War on Cancer” in the early 70s. But not much seemed to happen. In fact, we were told now that cancer was actually many different diseases that would require many different cures – now we were going backward! Then, new diseases started arriving out of nowhere, including the terrifying one that turned up in the news about 1982. That one was just the sort of thing that Dr McCoy would have dealt with during a commercial break, but a year went by, and then ten years, and there was still no cure for AIDS. There were more headlines to come, about drug-resistant bacteria, about potential bird-flu epidemics, about the mad cow disease that might be in your hamburger. You might wonder if all this would have some effect on our faith in the medical establishment.

In May of 2014, JAMA Internal Medicine published the results of a survey which found that 49% of Americans agree with at least one medical conspiracy theory: for example that the FDA is suppressing “natural” cures for cancer, or that genetically modified foods are a plot to reduce the world population. Conspiracy theories are nothing new – there were already people in the 60s who thought the entire space program was faked. But the cranks we had then were hobbyists. It’s an industry now. If you’re actually new to this, check out the Natural News website, or Kevin Trudeau’s book Natural Cures “They” Don’t Want You To Know About. (If you’ve ever made a passing grade in any science course, have a drink in your hand.) As you do this, keep in mind that in the pharmaceutical industry, multi-billion dollar settlements with regulators have been almost an annual ritual for the last fifteen years. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

Against this confusing backdrop, we Boomers carry on, caught in a weirdly conflicted relationship with Science. We still genuflect as we were taught long ago: before you tell your dinner companions that flax seed cures measles, it’s good etiquette to say you heard there was a study somewhere that proves it. We’re suspicious as hell of Big Pharma (annual income 100s of billions) but childishly trusting of the “nutritional supplement” industry (annual income 10s of billions). We want our medicine to be the alternative kind, but only as long as the stakes aren’t too high. And we still want our scientist-heroes. If you have a point of view that you’d like to validate, there’s nothing like claiming on Facebook that Stephen Hawking or Albert Einstein agrees with you (the internet is now so polluted with fake Einstein quotes that collectors have a name for them: “Neinsteins”). Jonas Salk’s famous refusal to patent the polio vaccine has since been deconstructed. But we miss him anyway.

The space program seems to have fizzled out, unless you count private firms working on opportunities for billionaire tourists to throw up at high altitude. But space food never quite disappeared – like disco music, it lives on, hiding in plain sight. Space Food Sticks evolved into a hundred different brands of “energy bars.” Tang, believe it or not, is still around under its original name, though I’m guessing few kids now associate it with space travel. Carnation no longer sells Instant Breakfast, but they make a powdered drink mix called Breakfast Essentials that looks just like it. In true 1960s style, the package announces that Breakfast Essentials contains “21 vitamins and minerals.” Frankly that number sounds a little pathetic today, when they have a whole wall of bottled nutrients ready for you down at the health food store. The meal-in-a-pill idea didn’t go extinct, it evolved into the meal in a thousand pills. Interestingly, the same people you see loading up on “supplements” are often the same people you see down at the farmer’s market.

Maybe the best expression of our love/hate attitude toward Science is the survival of the vocabulary. As school kids during the days of post-Sputnik anxiety, we were taught about magnetism and electro-magnetism, waves and frequencies, energy and radiation, ions, electrons and photons and quanta. Most of us forgot it all within a few years, but the words themselves stuck in our heads as symbols of everything modern and positive. Today alternative medicine, for all its emphasis on the natural and the pre-industrial, is loaded with these terms, and the loading is often done by people who chant the old words like a sort of ancient mysticism – Richard Feynman’s inspired term was “cargo-cult science.” Witness the current tortured invocation of quantum physics in support of pop spirituality, the New Age fascination with “frequencies,” the constantly expanding catalog of water magnetizers and bioenergy synchronizers and whatnot. Read enough of this stuff, and you might decide I’ve given you a completely mistaken idea of the 1960s. We were never in love with science. We were in love with science fiction.

Anyway, here we are today, the Space Food kids. We may have been a little careless with the drugs and alcohol, but we’re pretty sure we can make up for that if we put the right herbs in our tea, or if we dial up the right frequency on our ozone quantabulator. But what if we can’t? To tell the truth, some of us aren’t looking so good. We jumped off the skyscraper in the middle of the last century believing that the safety nets were going up any day, but looking down now all we see is bare asphalt. That’s why you’ll find us, over in the grandparents’ corner at your dinner party, trading stories about our health, exactly the way we always swore we never would. “Doctors don’t know anything,” the woman says, and a half-dozen heads nod in automatic agreement. It sounds like cynicism, but that’s not what it is. It’s wishful thinking.

We were promised vacations on the moon and colonies on Mars. We were promised easy solutions. We just want what’s rightfully ours. Vacations on the moon, colonies on Mars, and immortality. We’ll settle for just the immortality. Are we beginning to bore you? Well don’t worry, we’ll run out of complaints eventually. And then we’ll shift to our other favorite topic, the exaggerated sense of entitlement that young people feel today.

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