skip navigation
Support KUOW
Bubbleator at the Seattle World's Fair in 1962. One hundred passengers at time rode the circular elevator to the World of Tomorrow in the Washington State Coliseum. (Photo: George Carkonen/The Seattle Times)

Bubbleator at the Seattle World's Fair in 1962. One hundred passengers at time rode the circular elevator to the World of Tomorrow in the Washington State Coliseum. (Photo: George Carkonen/The Seattle Times)


Space Is The Place

Harriet Baskas

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 this second part of our series on the fair, produced in collaboration with Jack Straw Productions and KUOW, Harriet Baskas explores science and space at Seattle's Space Age World's Fair.


Archive audio: "It's all here before your eye in dazzling, splendid, colorful array. Century 21: America's first space age spectacular. The Seattle World's Fair 1962"

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

Knute Berger: "It just kind of looked like a rocket and a flying saucer all combined."

Knute Berger wrote a book about the history of the Space Needle. But in 1962 he was like lots of other 8–year–old boys: obsessed with space and excited about seeing the future at the World's Fair.

Berger: "You know we all expected to go to the moon, be spacemen and all that kind of stuff. 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 —

Gessner: " — Please 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.

Gessner: "It was dark and the lights came on in these cubes. 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.

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

Alan Stein: "It's a film. She's riding her spaceship and she runs out of 'space gas' or something."

Alan Stein and Paula 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.

Becker: "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."

Stein: "Wood. 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.

Dunbar: "I was excited to go because I was told there would be space; I'd get to see the future. 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.

Dunbar: "I was not feeling well. 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 what for sure what she'd be when she grew up: an astronaut.

Dunbar: "You know, I wanted to fly in space and I knew NASA was someplace I wanted to work. 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, DC —

Paula Becker: " — Congress is holding hearings on whether women should be included in the space program in the US. 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.

Dunbar: "Hindsight is 20–20. 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.

Dunbar: "It was educating and inspiring and I was part of that audience. If that was what they intended to do, it worked on me."

I'm Harriet Baskas.

© Copyright 2012, KUOW

Related Links

KUOW does not endorse or control the content viewed on these links as they appear now or in the future.