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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

“…the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age”, by Walter A. McDougall

584 pages, Basic Books, ISBN-13: 978-1597401654

Although there were notable forerunners, spaceflight historiography came of age with the 1985 publication of …the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age by Walter A. McDougall. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a host of other well-deserved awards, this work provides a fascinating glimpse of the considerations taken within both the Eisenhower Administration and the Khrushchev regime regarding the orbital realm. Unlike other author’s paeans to Kennedy for his ultimately successful manned lunar program, Professor McDougall renders a more sympathetic assessment of Eisenhower’s reluctance to commit federal resources to open-ended and prestige-focused stunts. The hesitance in launching the first orbital satellite, although politically disastrous, was prudently based on concerns that foreign countries might object to orbital overflights by potential reconnaissance vehicles. With the Soviet Union launching the first satellite Sputnik, such criticism would be rendered moot, although this triumph enabled Khrushchev to persuasively promote Soviet hegemony and stoke American fears of missile delivery for nuclear explosives. McDougall further argues that the mandate to complete Apollo on Kennedy’s schedule prompted the space program to become identified almost exclusively with high-profile, expensive, human spaceflight projects as the Apollo project became a race against the Soviet Union for recognition as the world leader in science and technology and, by extension, in other fields, as well.

Most Americans have forgotten that Eisenhower advocated an “open skies” policy as regards to space exploration as a way to reduce the potential of overreacting to a perceived threat due to insufficient or faulty mobilization information (as well as reduce military expenditures). Khrushchev, in contrast, was trying to obscure both the true, militaristic intentions of the Soviet Union, and the capabilities of Soviet military power projection in order to preserve Russian options in diplomatic and domestic intimidation. The United States wanted more open information so as to avoid a future Pearl Harbor and the Russians wanted to maintain their eastern-European gains without obligation to show their economic weakness and armed force limitations. Although sharing the information with the citizenry was an ultimate preference (now available thanks to LandSat, SPOT and other orbiting cameras), Eisenhower directed the first reconnaissance satellites as the Discovery series to look behind the Iron Curtain.

Thus, McDougall juxtaposes the American effort of Apollo with the Soviet space program and the dreams of such designers as Sergei Pavlovich Korolev to land a Soviet cosmonaut on the Moon. The author recognizes Apollo as a significant engineering achievement but concludes that it was also enormously costly both in terms of resources and the direction to be taken in state support of science and technology. In the end, NASA had to stress engineering over science, competition over cooperation, civilian over military management, and international prestige over practical applications. Kennedy, in his turn, responded to Khrushchev’s overtures by upping the stakes, federalizing research towards attention-grabbing endeavors with an eye towards employing technological problem-solving ultimately to social engineering against poverty and racism. Neither Kennedy nor Johnson appeared to realize that engineering solutions and welfare statism address not only different problem categories, but their agents differ: engineers tend to focus on the measurable and quantitative, whereas social workers (unless flaking for larger budgets) appeal to a more ethereal empathy with their charges. Professor McDougall shows the underlying hubris behind these policies, and how this was integrated into the manned (and unmanned) programs for NASA. Not all agree with McDougall’s arguments, but since the publication of …the Heavens and the Earth historians have been striving to equal its scintillating analysis, stellar writing, and scope of discussion.

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