Helpful Lessons from the Space Race

By Barry, William P.; Friedman, Louis et al. | Issues in Science and Technology, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Helpful Lessons from the Space Race


Barry, William P., Friedman, Louis, Oberg, James E., McCurdy, Howard E., Issues in Science and Technology


I very much enjoyed reading "John F. Kennedy's Space Legacy and Its Lessons for Today" by John M. Logsdon in your spring 2011 edition of Issues. As usual, my friend has turned his sharp eye toward the history of space policy and produced an incisive and provocative analysis. Although I find myself agreeing with much of what he has to say, there is one point on which I would take some exception. Logsdon notes that "the impact of Apollo on the evolution of the U.S. space program has on balance been negative." This may seem true from a certain perspective, but I think that this point obscures the broader truth about the space program and its role in our society.

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For those of us with great aspirations for our space program and high hopes for "voyages of human exploration:' he makes a clear-eyed and disheartening point. I am one of the many people who expected that by the second decade of the 21st century I'd by flying my jet-pack to the nearest spaceport and taking Eastern or Pan Am to a vacation in space. The sprint to the Moon and the Nixon administration's decision to abandon the expensive Apollo technologies as we crossed the finish line certainly crushed the 1960s aspirations of human space exploration advocates. From a 2011 point of view, it is easy to marvel at the folly of the huge financial expenditures and the negative longterm impact of the expectations that those expenditures inspired.

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However, I can't help but think that, from a broader perspective, going to the Moon was far from a "dead end." Much as it may be hard for any of us to conceive of this now, in the Cold War context of 50 years ago, President Kennedy faced a crisis in confidence about the viability of the Western capitalist system. It was an incredibly bold stroke to challenge the Soviet Union in the field of spaceflight; a field in which they had dominated the head lines for the four years since Sputnik. Yet by the end of the 1960s, serious discussion about the preeminence of the Marxist model of development (and of the Soviet space program) had vaporized. Instead, human spaceflight had become the icon of all that was right with America. So from a larger geopolitical perspective, the Apollo program was a dazzlingly bold success. Moreover, consider the broader related impacts of the space race on our educational system, technology, competitiveness, and quality of life. Certainly, the ripple effects of our investment in the Apollo program have radically changed our lives, though perhaps not in the ways we had originally dreamed.

Nonetheless, Logsdon is correct when he observes that although we face difficult space policy choices in 2011, we are not (nor seem ever likely to be) in a "Gagarin moment:' President Kennedy's call for a Moon mission was not about space exploration, it was about geopolitics. We can choose to emphasize the negative impact of that decision on our aspirations, but I am heartened by the prospect that President Obama and our elected representatives might draw a different lesson from the space legacy of President Kennedy. That broader lesson is that investment in space exploration can have an enormous positive strategic impact on our country and our way of life and, most of all, that we should not be afraid to be bold and imaginative in pursuing space exploration.

WILLIAM P. BARRY

Chief Historian

National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Washington, DC

bill.barry@nasa.gov

John Logsdon has provided a valuable service in his detailed and insightful analysis of President Kennedy's decision to launch the Apollo program. In his Issues article and more completely in his new book John E Kennedy and the Race to the Moon, he helps us understand a conundrum that we "space people" have lived with for the past 35 years: How could something as great and significant as the American achievement of Apollo yield so little to build on for further achievements? …

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