From those that launched Columbus or encouraged the settlement of the American West, exploration has always been a part of the American experience. This tradition of exploration has been continued onward into the exciting realm of spaceflight. “The technologies that make space exploration possible are not accessible to the average citizen or even a large corporation,” but require the massive resources and organizing powers of the federal government. While space exploration drew some of its values from a rich historical heritage, it took its characteristics and principal motivations from the particulars of the present: the Cold War, the rise of big government, American capitalism, and the heightened role of science and technology in modern life.
Seeing Earth from space, as a small part of the cosmos, has been a historic event. This event and other familiar accomplishments of the space program rightly capture our imagination. They convey the momentous transition from earth dwellers to space explorers. In romanticizing the end results of space exploration, however, we obscure the events and circumstances that led to our first steps into space. We need to understand some of the rich history of space if we are to appreciate the why and how of present and future exploration.
Space exploration may have roots in popular values and aspirations, but it took extraordinary circumstances to bring it into being. Our jarring Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union concerning international political influence provided the basic ingredient — the massive mobilization of scientific and technological resources in government, industry, and academia. Our very desire to make the once unimaginable human forays into space comprehensible has stripped the story of its complexity and connections to the fabric of modern American life. Our political traditions set the formula: the federal government provided policy, organization, and money while our system of private enterprise provided the tools and knowledge. The productive engines of private industry and the expertise of universities built the technologies necessary for space. Space exploration was not only a triumph of lone individuals, but also of bureaucracies, institutions, and a political system. To understand space exploration, you must also understand the powerful institutional, political, and cultural dynamics of the Cold War that made possible all of the accomplishments we most readily associate with the space program, such as landing on the moon, sending scientific probes to all but one planet in our solar system, and achieving nearly routine human flights into orbit via the space shuttle, to be seen in this larger frame of reference. So do the many military and intelligence space projects of which we know so little. Our most well-known triumphs and those shrouded in secrecy were one part of an extensive response to the USSR, which reeled in the overriding importance of national security in American politics.
All of these accomplishments were made possible by the distinctive way in which America got things done during the Cold War— blending federal government interests with those of industry and academia. As for the triumphs that were visible, we presented them as part of a continuing saga of western and American exploration. Try as we might, the heavens could not be separated from the earth.
A remarkable breadth of American experience has contributed to space exploration and our view of it, but with the end of the Cold War, a new and potentially trying period of exploration and work is at hand. To understand the place of human exploration, scientific inquiry, and the role of the military in the years ahead, we must reflect on our brief legacy in space. The story cannot be encompassed only by romantic conceptions or by living in the shadows of the military’s past. The past must be understood as the prologue to spaceflight, and in a clear-eyed understanding of the history of space, we are able to dramatically improve our abilities to make informed choices about the future.
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