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Rocket Opera Pays Homage to Women of the Space Race

From Margaret Hamilton to Sally Ride, David Cox pays homage to the women heroes of the American and Soviet space programs in the final installment of his Rocket Opera trilogy.
Margaret Hamilton during her time as the lead Apollo software engineer. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The story of the 20th century space race is massive in scope and rife with tragedy—the two main ingredients in the making of a kickass opera, which is exactly what spurred San Francisco-based artist David Cox to adapt the space race into an operatic trilogy.

Cox teaches digital media at San Francisco State and for decades he has been involved with film, video game development, and emerging forms of digital media like virtual reality. In 2014, he staged the first part of his Rocket Opera at San Francisco's Other Cinema which focused on the ill-fated Soviet moon mission. The second installment of the trilogy, "Lunar Modules" was performed last year and detailed the American moon mission as seen from the other side of the iron curtain.


His final installment of the trilogy premieres at Other Cinema this Saturday and focuses on the women heroes of the American and Soviet space race. I caught up with Cox to discuss the development of his opera and the social and technological legacy of the Cold War moon missions. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Motherboard: You're an educator with a background in film and video game production. What let you to create an opera about the space race?

David Cox: Anyone who is over the age of 50 grew up with the space race and the Cold War. That was such a powerful thing to grow up with, this colossal exercise in engineering and propaganda. When they staged moon shots everything stopped to watch these massive rockets take off. The Apollo missions were really the last ones that took humans to another celestial body and they were thrilling. Plus in retrospect they were the beginning of microelectronics and the small portable computer industry.

What people don't know is that the Russians had their own version of the moonshot as well, but it was completely buried. That was my initial inspiration for the Rocket Opera: telling the tragedy of the Russian failure to get the moon.

A portrait of the artist (David Cox) as a young man. Image courtesy of David Cox/Flickr

These operas aren't just about the people involved in the space race, but the technologies as well, right?

I am fascinated with the psychological effects that these big ambitious programs have on the people on the front lines. They're under so much pressure. I was also interested in the tension between the formal technocratic world and the counterculture because there was a fair bit of counter culture influence in the space race. Margaret Hamilton, who was one of the top coders who coded the DSKY navigation computer, saved the lives of the three men who landed on the moon. She was an interesting character and one of the few women involved in the whole thing, so we have a song dedicated to her.


You also have a song dedicated to Hamilton's creation, the DSKY computer.

If you look at the history of that particular piece of tech, the pentagon was willing to sink limitless capital into getting a computer small enough to fit within a 1 foot by 1 foot cube. It had 72 kb of memory, about the same as an NES game. If the system failed on the computer connection to ground control, it had to guarantee that the ship can find its way to the moon. The crew had to rely on this thing 100 percent.

Margaret Hamilton's code was designed to do multitasking at a time when multitasking was not how computers were normally put together. Computers back then were given one job and one job only. The notion of a machine that could perform lots of tasks at the same time was a huge leap forward. It was evidence of a new way of thinking, combining the counter cultural idea of doing lots of things at once with this top down, hierarchical command economy. You had hippies in there making sure these otherwise very boring men did their jobs and did them to the letter. There are so many reasons why this computer is so important, so I just had to write a song about it.

Do any other technologies get musical treatment?

The other technology is the Soviet N1 rocket, which is just a beautiful rocket. The N1 was the Russian equivalent of the Saturn V, but they spent something like 5 billion dollars on the N1 rocket whereas the Saturn V program spent like 25 billion. It was clunky and low tech by Apollo standards, but it did what it was supposed to. It did fly and probably would've made it to the moon if they'd kept going with it. But the powers that be stopped the whole program because once the Americans got to the moon there was no point in pushing the technology.


Rachel Levin as Valentina Tereshkova. Image courtesy of David Cox

Your final part of the rocket trilogy focuses on the first two women in space. Why did a Russian woman beat an American woman to orbit?

Officially on paper women were equally to men in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. As far as the Russians were concerned, a woman could do as much as a man any day and were often put in positions of great power and authority. Soviets had already put the first man in space, so they were looking for another propaganda angle. [Sergei] Korolev, who was the chief Soviet rocket engineer, was reluctant to put a woman into space at first, but Nikita Kruschev put it forward. They wanted it to be a peasant because that would make it even more communist. So they chose Valentina Tereshkova, who'd done pretty well on the parachute tests. She had been a member of the party, ideologically sound. The aim was to just stick it to the Americans and say well, women in America are just expected to stay in the kitchen and take valium, but here in Russia our women are pioneering the heavens. It worked, but the American press always found a way to spin it and the first woman in space never got much attention in the US.

Even so, Sally Ride didn't go orbital until the 1980s, long after Americans stopped sending people to the moon. Why the long delay?

Sally Ride was not an astronaut, she was a scientist. She was chosen from 400 applicants at Stanford to apply to NASA for the space shuttle. She didn't think she would get in at first, because she assumed that women weren't meant to apply. It just so happened the first year she applied was the first year that NASA allowed women to join. So she got in and became a great champion of science for women. As it happens, one of the members of our band, Zac Fischer, knew her and worked with her on developing education programs for girls. She was awesome and we wanted to pay homage to her.

Rehearsing for 'Lunar Modules.' Image courtesy of David Cox/Flickr

The third part of the Rocket Trilogy is also looking toward the future of space. What's your vision of that future?

I'm reluctant to champion giant rescue missions for the 1 percent. I don't particularly have an issue with planetary exploration, but what I do have an issue with is the idea of planetary colonization as a way to avoid the inevitable environmental disasters of planet Earth. You basically condemn earth to tragedy rather than focus on the resources that are here you just ditch the place and go to another planet. I think that's defeatist and a waste of resources. I like the idea of focusing more on space as a kind of giant national park. I don't think we should commercialize it, we should just leave it alone.