Can Democracies Fly in Space? The Challenge of Revitalizing the U.S. Space Program

Can Democracies Fly in Space? The Challenge of Revitalizing the U.S. Space Program

Can Democracies Fly in Space? The Challenge of Revitalizing the U.S. Space Program

Can Democracies Fly in Space? The Challenge of Revitalizing the U.S. Space Program


Over the last two decades, the image of the U.S. space program has become seriously tarnished. Its problems have ranged from massive cost overruns to serious program delays to catastrophic mission failures. The space program, once the most prominent symbol of American scientific and technological preeminence, now seems but one more example of government bumbling, extravagance, and waste. In this study, Kay examines the recent problems of the space program and finds that NASA's failures, like its earlier successes, are ultimately traceable to the way the American political system operates. Asking "can democracies fly in space?," the author suggests that the traditional workings of democratic politics actually exacerbates those very features of space projects--size, expense, and complexity--that make their development so difficult in the first place.


Like many millions of others around the world, I am a devoted follower of the Star Trek television programs. Unlike most other fans I know, however, I tend to view the shows through the eyes of a political scientist. Several years ago, I became aware of an unstated, but extremely important political premise that underlies the Trek universe. We are never told how or when, but sometime in its past, the members of this fictional society made and followed through on a decision--or, more precisely, a series of decisions--to devote considerable (by the look of things) resources to exploring and developing space. and remember, this is supposed to be a depiction of our future.

When the first Star Trek series debuted in the mid-1960s, this premise did not seem to be that far-fetched. nasa and the U.S. space program had been on a steady, if not spectacular, course of progress toward a landing on the Moon, albeit with a few setbacks along the way. the only obstacles to continued advancement in space seemed to be technological; it was just a matter of building this or developing that. Thus, the idea that human beings would routinely live and work in space by the twenty-third century seemed perfectly reasonable, an extension of what Americans were already experiencing.

By the time Star Trek: the Next Generation premiered in 1987, however, matters had become much more complicated. With all of the criticisms of nasa as an organization, constant infighting among public officials over whether or not to proceed with the space station, and the enormous budget deficits that seem to preclude any major new projects, it is very difficult for me to see how we get from here to there, this time for political, not just technical, reasons.

This does not mean that I wholeheartedly support all of the goals of the space program. Nor do I intend for this book to endorse any particular approach to space policy. I do not know, for example, whether building the space station is a good idea, just as I see both sides of the question on the role of humans in space, at least at this time. My goal here is not necessarily . . .

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