Why Is the Space Needle Shaped Like That?

The design of Seattle’s iconic Space Needle is more political than you probably know.
Seattle's Space Needle.
Seattle's Space Needle. / George Rose/GettyImages

In 1962, the United States was deep into the Space Race with the Soviet Union. It was seven more years until Neil Armstrong’s first step onto the moon, and Americans were nervous about the USSR successfully launching the Sputnik satellite into orbit around Earth. But in Seattle, the mood was anticipatory—and awaiting the Century 21 World’s Fair and the unveiling of the new Space Needle.

The 1962 World’s Fair—an exposition of modern technology and wonders and general entertainment—was themed “Man in the 21st Century,” focusing on science and the future. This theme was not decided on arbitrarily. Rather, the U.S. government assured Seattle that they could get federal funding—ultimately, $9 million, or the equivalent of $19.5 million today—if they focused the event on technological innovation (and American success at it). The world’s fair was a way for the country to restore a sense of national optimism, and the Space Needle was to become the crowning jewel of this demonstration of American power and innovation. 

The expo’s organizers wanted the architecture of the fairgrounds to convey a modern, futuristic ideal. They knew they needed a large central attraction, and when Edward Carlson, the expo’s chairman and hotelier, visited Stuttgart, Germany, he was inspired. He found himself drawn to a local broadcast tower with a restaurant near the top. After this visit, he sketched the first iteration of what he described as a “space needle.”

Carlson’s doodle doesn’t look too much like the Space Needle we know today. In fact, the Space Needle underwent numerous changes throughout the design process, especially regarding the shape of the tower’s base. The eventual three-legged design with an indented ‘waist’ was proposed by architect Victor Steinbrueck, based on an abstract statue called “The Feminine One.” Never under question, however, was the disc-like shape at the top. John Graham, Jr., the chief architect on the project, wanted the top of the Space Needle to evoke imagery of a spacecraft. The term flying saucer had come into use in 1947 based on the witness reports of pilot Kenneth A. Arnold near Mt. Rainier—a volcano that can be seen clearly from many picturesque viewpoints in Seattle, making the design hit close to home for local residents.

With the design completed, construction began. The Space Needle was built in a record-breaking 400 days, earning it the popular nickname “The 400 Day Wonder.” Even the paint colors were on theme; it was painted Astronaut White, Orbital Olive, Re-entry Red, and Galaxy Gold. It housed a rotating restaurant, which was featured in Elvis Presley’s It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963). Visitors could enjoy 360-degree views of the city from the Eye of the Needle restaurant or the general observation deck, and a flaming natural gas torch burned at the top. 

Since its opening, the Needle has undergone several changes. For one, it has been repainted several times for different occasions. Its default hue, for now, is a classic Astronaut White. Renovations have been done multiple times, most notably in 2000 and 2017. The 2017 “Century Project” overhauled the entire inside of the Needle, creating two floor-to-ceiling glass observation decks, including an outdoor portion on the second level and the world’s only glass rotating floor on the first level.

The tower has since come to represent Seattle in many ways. In 1999, the city named the Space Needle a historic landmark. It has been featured in numerous TV shows and movies, including Frasier, Grey’s Anatomy, and Sleepless in Seattle, as an iconic part of the Seattle skyline. Its distinctive shape stands out against the skyscrapers and reminds us of the hopes, dreams, and concerns of America on its journey to space. 

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