Report to the President by the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident
The Aerospace Plane: Technological Feasibility and Policy Implications Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The central message of Walter McDougall’s long, long history of the space age concerns the danger of seeing space exploration primarily as a symbol for something else. Yes, space will always be symbolic in the grandest sense: in attempting to understand it, we demonstrate man’s “questing spirit,” our demand to know the unknown, our curiosity about our place in the infinite universe, and other impulses that may sound ironic but are the real reasons we continue to fire rockets into the sky.
But when the US began space exploration in the 1950s, McDougall says, it was in thrall to a narrower and less worthy symbolism. The “space race” was just one more way to battle the Russians in the momentous struggle for international “prestige.” The Soviet Union had scored a shocking early victory by launching Sputnik in 1957. From that moment until Neil Armstrong’s first footstep on the moon twelve years later, American policy was less concerned with space itself than with the space race against the Russians.
For this approach America paid several penalties, McDougall writes. It permitted itself to be worked up into a wartime crisis mentality, ratcheting the central government’s control of scientific research to a level unprecedented even during the Second World War. And it guaranteed that once the race to the moon was over and the Russians had clearly lost, space would stop being as interesting, like last year’s pennant race. (This was also the theme of the only book about space even longer and denser than McDougall’s: James Michener’s elephantine Space, published in 1982, which lamented America’s eagerness to duck out of the space race once it started racing only against itself.) It was as if the court of Aragon and Castille, having “beaten” the Portuguese with Columbus’s landing in the West Indies, declared the “America race” over and its interest in exploration at an end.
The analogy is not perfect—the conquistadores had few purely scientific concerns in mind as they looted and proselytized their way from Florida to Patagonia, and there were more obvious riches to be had in Peru than on the moon—but the importance of their New World colonies to Spain and Portugal is a reminder that exploration can have tangible consequences. The exploration of space has, so far, had nothing like the practical effect of the opening of the Americas. How it will look a thousand years from now, or even a hundred, it is impossible to say. But even now, space provides a powerful, illuminating example, not just a “symbol,” of why America has faltered in the more down-to-earth forms of technical and economic competition.
For forty years, the US has tried to compete simultaneously with the Soviet Union and with Japan—“Japan” being today’s shorthand for other technically advanced market economies. For the last fifteen years, America has found this double race increasingly onerous, and in the last five years it has all but collapsed from the effort, as the defense budget and the trade deficit have chased…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.