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The sociocultural status of space exploration has been contested for many years and remains uncertain. Although astronomy and related sciences have benefited greatly from the world’s space programs, space exploration was motivated not by scientific curiosity but by the romanticism of a social movement and by competition between prestige-conscious nations. By the end of the nineteenth century, astronomy possessed a rough picture of the solar system, including the knowledge that objects like the Moon and Mars were worlds somewhat comparable to the earth, but realistic means for space travel had not yet been imagined. Then, autonomous intellectuals independently developed the correct theories for multistage liquid-fuel rockets.
Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935) was an impoverished schoolteacher in Russia who devoted many years of socially isolated work to developing fruitful ideas about spaceflight. American Robert H. Goddard (1882-1945) independently developed many of the same ideas, and possessing greater resources was actually able to build a working liquid-fuel rocket in 1926. Romanian-German Hermann Oberth (1894-1989) learned of the work of his colleagues just as he was about to publish his treatise, The Rocket into Planetary Space, in 1923. On the basis of the work of these pioneers, spaceflight societies were founded in Germany (1927), the United States (1930), Russia (1931), and Great Britain (1933). The German, U.S., and Russian groups independently duplicated Goddard’s working liquid-fuel rocket, although Goddard refused to cooperate with the others in the vain hope that he could develop unaided the technology to send an unmanned rocket to the moon. United only by publications and occasional visits, these groups formed an international social movement dedicated to space travel for transcendent motives that were neither economic nor political.
As the financial troubles of the Great Depression deepened, the space-travel movement struggled to survive. Especially in Germany, and later in the United States and Russia, the movement entered into a marriage of convenience with the military. The Treaty of Versailles ending World War I (1914-1918) had limited German artillery and aircraft but did not mention rockets. Members of the movement, notably Oberth’s young protege Wernher von Braun (1912-1977), presented liquid-fuel rockets to the German army as effective weapons, although development of conventional solid-fuel rockets would have been a better choice for military purposes. Near the end of World War II (1939-1945), von Braun’s team completed development of the 300-mile-range V-2 rocket, demonstrating the potential of liquid-fuel technology for spaceflight. Starting with the launch of Sputnik I in 1957, the Soviet Union and the United States competed for international prestige through aggressive space programs, until the landing of the Apollo 11 lunar module on the moon in 1969.
On the basis of a huge library of technical and scholarly publications, the facts of the history of space exploration to date are clear, but the social-scientific interpretation is hotly debated. The view around 1960 was that international propaganda competition was the main driver, as has been summarized by Vernon van Dyke (1964). Amitai Etzioni (1965) argued that the American space program was a useless extravagance through which the military-industrial complex looted the national treasury. Then, John Logsdon (1970) argued that President John F. Kennedy’s (1917-1963) decision to go to the moon was a means for reviving the political spirit of his New Frontier program after defeats in 1961 with the aborted Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and in a meeting with the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971). William Bainbridge (1976) took the argument one step further, suggesting that in Germany and the Soviet Union, as well as in the United States, leaders of the transcendental spaceflight movement had cleverly manipulated beleaguered political leaders to invest in space as a symbolic solution to their inferiority in competition with other leaders. Michael Neufeld (1996) has argued against this thesis in the case of Germany, asserting that technically competent military engineers possessed a correct estimation of the military potential of the technology. Walter McDougall (1985) argued against this view in the case of the Soviet Union, stating that Marxist ideology naturally supported visionary technological projects. Most recently, Logsdon (2006) has argued that the American space program has been trapped in a vicious circle, as members of the movement convince political leaders to undertake technically demanding projects, but the public is not willing to invest enough to make them successful.
Public opinion has long been generally favorable toward the space program but has never been a driving force in motivating development of the technology. In October 1947, a Gallup poll asked 1,500 Americans, “How long do you think it will be before man will be able to fly to the moon?” Only 21 percent guessed a particular year, 38 percent said “never,” and the remainder had nothing to say on the topic. Throughout the Apollo program, a majority tended to feel the project was not worth the cost. Americans’ enthusiasm for the actual moon landing faded fast after 1969, possibly accelerated by a general loss of confidence in science and technology that prevailed until the mid-1970s. Since then, majorities have tended to feel that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was doing a good job, but they give space exploration a low priority for funding. The responses of 1,400 Americans to the General Social Survey in 2004 were typical. Only 14.3 percent wanted funding increased, 43.4 percent wanted it kept at current levels, 36.8 percent wanted funding reduced, and the remaining 5.5 percent had no opinion.
Around 1970 there was considerable discussion of the potential terrestrial benefits of space, especially the second-order consequences from technology transfer, often called spin-offs. These were popularly conceptualized as distinct inventions made in the space program that found valuable uses in society. Many people count Tang powdered fruit drink, Teflon coatings on frying pans, and Velcro fasteners among these, but all existed before the space program. Real spin-offs actually are rare, but their stories fit popular misconceptions about how technological progress occurs, so they are legends that gain strength in the retelling. Far more important are the intended applications of space technology, the most prominent of which are communications satellites, navigation satellites (Global Positioning System), meteorology satellites, and military reconnaissance satellites. Difficult to measure, but probably of equal value, is the general stimulus to scientific and technological development achieved by the space program through increasing the technical expertise in the population, widely disseminating abstract technical ideas that may contribute to innovations far from their original sources, and inspiring young people to study science.
When Bainbridge (1991) asked two thousand students at Harvard University in 1986 to identify the possible goals for the space program, they came up with a list of 125 goals that could be clustered into groups that served different values. Some goals were technical and economic, including the benefits of satellites listed above, spin-offs, possible manufacturing in the vacuum and weightlessness of space, new knowledge for sciences like physics and astronomy, and preservation of the earth’s environment. A different set of goals stressed emotional and idealistic values, such as spiritual fulfillment, personal inspiration, artistic and aesthetic transcendence, satisfaction of curiosity, and the building of world harmony. A small group of items concerned national pride, defense, and military capabilities in space. Finally, a number of far-out but reasonably popular goals envisioned colonization of the solar system and the discovery of extraterrestrial life.
The early decades of the twenty-first century appear to be a transition period, in which predictions would be especially hazardous. China has launched men into orbit, thereby demonstrating the quality of its technology, especially to the propaganda disadvantage of Japan, which has pursued a half-hearted and largely unsuccessful space program. Both Russia and the European Union have well-established space launch capabilities but lack ambitious goals. After failing twice to develop a successor to the space shuttle in the National Aerospace Plane and the X-33, and running more than fifteen years overdue in completing the space station, the U.S. space program clearly required fundamental redirection. The initial phase of reorganization, announced in 2004, severely cut back scientific research and technological development in favor of very long-term plans for adventurous but poorly motivated human voyages to the Moon and Mars.
As any science fiction fan would be happy to explain to any social scientist willing to listen, the long-term social implications of space exploration could possibly be profound. Despite daunting technical and economic hurdles, the colonization of Mars and of several large satellites in the solar system could lead to a time when more humans lived off the Earth than on it. Some think we will transform ourselves radically to become better adapted to those alien environments and better prepared for interstellar travel. If so, space travel could bring about a new adaptive radiation event comparable to that which produced the human species five million years ago in East Africa, what the science fiction writer Alfred Bester (1913-1987) called “arrival of the fittest” in his novel, The Stars My Destination (1956). If the social scientist scoffed at such ideas, the science fiction fan might comment there must have been chimpanzees five million years ago who scoffed as well.
- Bainbridge, William Sims. 1976. The Spaceflight Revolution: A Sociological Study. New York: Wiley.
- Bainbridge, William Sims. 1991. Goals in Space: American Values and the Future of Technology. Albany: State University of New York Press.
- Bauer, Raymond. 1969. Second-Order Consequences: A Methodological Essay on the Impact of Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Etzioni, Amitai. 1964. The Moon-Doggle: Domestic and International Implications of the Space Race. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
- Ginzberg, Eli, James W. Kuhn, Jerome Schnee, and Boris Yavitz, eds. 1976. Economic Impact of Large Public Programs: The NASA Experience. Salt Lake City, UT: Olympus.
- Launius, Roger D. 2003. Public Opinion Polls and Perceptions of U.S. Human Spaceflight. Space Policy 19: 163–175.
- Logsdon, John M. 1970. The Decision to Go to the Moon: Project Apollo and the National Interest. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Logsdon, John M. 2006. “A Failure of National Leadership”: Why No Replacement for the Space Shuttle. In Critical Issues in the History of Spaceflight, ed. Steven J. Dick and Roger D. Launius, 269–300. Washington, DC: NASA.
- McDougall, Walter A. 1985. The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age. New York: Basic Books.
- Neufeld, Michael, 1996. The Rocket and the Reich: Peenemunde and the Coming of the Ballistic Missile Era. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Ordway, Frederick I., III., Carsbie C. Adams, and Mitchell R. Sharpe. 1971. Dividends from Space. New York: Crowell.
- Roy, Stephanie A., Elaine C. Gresham, and Carissa Bryce Christensen. 2000. The Complex Fabric of Public Opinion on Space. Acta Astronautica 47: 665–675.
- Van Dyke, Vernon. 1964. Pride and Power: The Rationale of the Space Program. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
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