Exploring History through Space

Heather Cox Richardson

On Wednesday, March 9, the space shuttle Discovery touched down for the last time. The Endeavor will fly in April, and the Atlantis will launch in June. And then America’s shuttle program will shut down. This marks the end of the era that began with President Kennedy’s September 1962 speech at Rice University, when he announced the national commitment to the space race. In that speech, President Kennedy described the nation’s history, beginning with Pilgrim William Bradford in 1630, as one of people who deliberately moved forward. Men could not be deterred in their quest for knowledge and progress, President Kennedy said, and America must be in the forefront of the exploration of space.

The exploration of space would require new science education, new computers, and new universities. It would create new companies and tens of thousands of new jobs. “Space and related industries are generating new demands in investment and skilled personnel, and this city and this state, and this region, will share greatly in this growth,” Kennedy promised. In the next five years, NASA expected to double its engineers and scientists, to expend $60 million a year, to invest $200 million in plants and laboratories, and to contract for more than $1 billion of goods and services.

This would be expensive, he acknowledged. The current space budget was “$5,400 million a year,” an astronomical sum although, as he noted, “somewhat less than we pay for cigarettes and cigars every year.” That cost would rise until the space race took more than 50 cents a week from every man, woman, and child in the United States, he said. And it would be worth it, for only such bold determination would guarantee that America would be the first to control space.

The U.S. threw itself behind President Kennedy’s vision. NASA’s budget soared into the billions, and Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon less than a decade after Kennedy’s speech at Rice.

Yet the meaning of the Space Race seems to me still in doubt. The 2010 collection of The Best American Science and Nature Writing (edited by Freeman Dyson this year, with Tim Folger’s usual steady hand) features an entire section on space, and offers some ideas about what exploring space means, and has meant, for Americans.

In an article in the collection reprinted from the New York Times, novelist Tom Wolfe portrayed America’s adventures in space as a cultural combat between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., abandoned as soon as the U.S. could declare victory by winning the race to the moon. Wolfe saw the mission of space exploration as a way to build that proverbial bridge to the stars, enabling humans to colonize the universe against the day that Earth becomes uninhabitable. NASA needs philosophers to proselytize, he says, convincing Americans to continue to send astronauts to space to explore.

Theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg has a very different vision of the importance of space exploration. In an article reprinted in the collection from the New York Review of Books, he said he finds the vast sums of money poured into manned space programs galling. The real function of a space program is its ability to illuminate the laws of nature. Astronomy and cosmology are helping to reveal the secrets of particle physics, but politicians refuse to supply the relatively small sums necessary to continue this research because, they claim, voters want their money to go to the manned space flights that are far more exciting than, for example, the Super Collider. He thinks that’s bunk; astronomy and cosmology are even more exciting than astronauts.

What exactly did Americans throw their enthusiasm and funds behind in the 1960s? Was it the excitement of what Wolfe describes as a sort of David and Goliath combat against a dangerous foe? Or was it the realization that we were at the threshold of a new understanding of the universe, suddenly attainable thanks to the extraordinary expertise unleashed by WWII?

Or was it, perhaps, a serendipitous moment, when those eager to learn the larger lessons of astronomy and physics found a president able to harness a cultural impulse that would enable them to fulfill their vision?

Dr. Weinstein is indisputably correct about the extraordinary discoveries in astronomy and particle physics in the past several decades. (Indeed, he’s made some of them himself.) We now have excellent data about the history of the universe stretching back almost 13.7 billion years, to just after the Big Bang. (Watch this video of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field Flythrough.) This data is orders of magnitude better than any data that archaeologists or paleontologists or geologists, to say nothing of historians, will ever have about the history of our own planet.

Yet Wolfe’s point is well taken, too. For historians, the Space Race has to be understood culturally as well as scientifically. If astronauts are seen as soldiers in the struggle
between the U.S and the U.S.S.R. rather than scientists, their actions help us develop a spectrum of military behavior. They can also be studied as popular heroes.

Still, I lean toward the idea that the central story of the Space Race is political. It was a moment when policy makers managed to direct huge popular enthusiasm toward an end with no immediate payoff. While some historians have studied the relationship between the space program and public policy, there is plenty more work to be done. In an era that demands long-term investments in science, education, infrastructure, and so on, we need to know as much as we can about how policy makers have successfully directed public enthusiasm (and funds) for long-term goals.