Home / Articles / The Space Age That Never Arrived: A Meditation on the 50th Anniversary of Sputnik 1
A Subdued, Almost Embarrassed, Memorial
It turns out I was mistaken. Earlier this year I noted that 2007 marks the fiftieth anniversary of both European unification and the Space Age. I predicted that whereas March 25, the date the Treaties of Rome were signed, had passed almost unnoticed, October 4, the date the Soviets launched Sputnik 1, was sure to attract global attention. Instead, the anniversary of the first artificial earth satellite occasioned far less eclat than January 1, 2000 (the notorious Y2K) or even the hoopla that starts and ends the Olympic Games.
To be sure, the Russians boasted and toasted the rocket engineers who beat the Americans into space. But the wreck of the communist regime that persecuted and exploited its engineers and cosmonauts, plus the pitiful state of what remains of their space program, kept even the Russians subdued. The UN Office of Outer Space Affairs in Vienna did coordinate World Space Week (October 4-10, the latter being the day the Outer Space Treaty was signed in 1967), but it’s done that everyyear since 1999.
I myself was discouraged to see the Philadelphia Inquirer did nothing special to honor October 4. Later that day, in lecture class at the University of Pennsylvania, I asked how many of the assembled 120 students knew the significance of the date. A few senior-citizen auditors and exactly one undergraduate raised their hands. A survey of web sites proved just as deflating. SearchEngineLand.com reported that Google temporarily altered its logo in honor of Sputnik, but then Google alters its logo in honor of St. Patrick’s Day and Halloween. Other Internet portals either ignored the anniversary or treated it like any other feature story. Nor, except on the techie and trekkie blogs, did web surfers show much interest. InformationWeek.com invited discussion of its brief story on Sputnik and received no posts at all. The anniversary page on Makezine.com got just four posts, one of which was this forlorn message: “I was happy to see a Sputnik post on this historic day. Thanks.” Another site reported the European Space Agency’s plan to launch fifty miniature “nanosats” in honor of the anniversary, but observed, “the event has not been widely covered. I found only very short pieces of information.”
The New York Times essay commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Sputnik was elegant and insightful because the Times’ great retired science editor, John Noble Wilford, was the author. But his tone was nostalgic and he closed by quoting decidedly downbeat judgments from NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, space policy expert John Logsdon, historian Alex Roland, and astronaut Neil Armstrong. The first man on the moon lamented the lack of human progress in space due to the “external factors or forces which we can’t control,” and indeed if the commentary of space experts this October had any unified theme it was precisely that politics and economics have always dictated the scale and trajectory of space programs, rather than revolutionary technology transforming politics and economics. To be sure, one could point to that Outer Space Treaty that precludes military activities and claims of national sovereignty on heavenly bodies, as well as international conventions governing geosynchronous satellites, telecommunications, remote sensing, and scientific cooperation. But those regimes are merely adjustments to new technology of the same limited sort the Great Powers drafted to govern telegraphy, undersea cables, postal service, maritime law, time zones, air travel, radio, and global commons such as the seabed and Antarctica.
USA Today anticipated the anniversary with a featured essay in its September 25 science section. But it, too, was a tale of woe centered around a quotation from former NASA historian Roger Launius calling public support for the space program “a mile wide and an inch deep.” In the excellent book Critical Issues in the History of Spaceflight that Launius co-edited, he listed the five main rationales for space programs as follows: human destiny and perhaps human survival; national prestige; national defense; applications and economics; science and discovery. In retrospect it seems what occurred between Sputnik and 1961, when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the planet, was the elevation of prestige to artificial primacy in the rank of rationales. That spawned America’s crash Apollo program that space enthusiasts came to believe was, or should be, the norm when in fact it was a grotesque aberration made even worse by the 1970s decision to throw out the baby (the Apollo/Saturn hardware) with the bathwater. But USA Today also committed the error most Americans make by focusing exclusively on human spaceflight and ignoring the vastly more important, sustained, and successful robotic activity To put it another way, the original emphasis on prestige turned the human presence in space into a public relations/propaganda circus that distorts media coverage to this day, obscures the achievements of space technology that did arrive, and mourns the utopian Space Age that never arrived. Perhaps that explains the moodiness that spoiled Sputnik’s party for many of us. The human race just failed to do more than what experts back in the 1950s considered the minimum one could expect by the 21st century and fallen far short of the buoyant expectations expressed in the 1960s and 1970s.
Why the First Fifty Years of Space Technology Seem Disappointing
As early as 1953, upon the fiftieth anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ flight, Chairman Hugh Dryden of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics almost casually surmised:
“There are few today who do not look forward with feelings of confidence that space flight will some day be accomplished. All that we require is to make rocket motors somewhat larger than those already in existence… the pooling of skills already available, and a good deal of money…. We may reasonably suppose that a satellite vehicle is entirely practicable now and that travel to the moon is attainable in the next fifty years.”
In other words, all the satellites, space probes, and human missions launched since 1957 amount pretty much to what Dryden took for granted in advance. What is more, the fact that moon travel was achieved just sixteen years after he wrote only compounds the disappointment that Apollo proved a dead end.
Of course, to speak of dead ends is to ignore the tremendous applications stemming from unmanned spacecraft of all sorts. Arthur C. Clarke’s 1945 vision of global communications based on relay satellites in geosynchronous orbits has been magnificently realized. Likewise, global positioning satellites locate and steer ships, airplanes, tanks, automobiles, even golf balls (on rare occasions) to their precise destinations. Likewise, remote sensing satellites have revolutionized meteorology, oceanography, environmental protection, extractive industries, even archaeology. Likewise, the deployment of satellite networks for military communications, command, control, and intelligence have become so decisive that strategists from the Beltway to Beijing routinely refer to a Revolution in Military Affairs that in turn makes utterly critical a nation’s access to earth orbit and defense of space assets.
Most spectacular (in my opinion), robotic spacecraft such as the Pioneers, Voyagers, Cassini-Huygens, and current Mars Orbiter have made voyages lasting years over hundreds of millions of miles in order to transmit pictures and data revealing the marvels of our solar system. Astronomical satellites and telescopes have expanded the purview of human knowledge all the way back to that “Let there be light” moment cosmologists call the Big Bang. Carl Sagan was right to call these decades a Golden Age of space exploration that can never be repeated, the age in which human beings first apprehended the universe and their place in it.
Still, nobody stages parades for robots. Nor have our mechanical servants in space, their seemingly magical powers notwithstanding, addressed the most cherished hopes people invested in the Space Age. In the months and years after the initial satellite launches a long queue of scientists such as Edward Teller, engineers such as Wernher von Braun, generals such as James Gavin, futurists such as Robert Jastrow, and prophets of popular culture such as Walt Disney assured Congress, the press, and the public that by the year 2000 lunar colonies, elaborate space stations, and military space armadas would be commonplace. Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film based on Clarke’s novel 2001: A Space Odyssey depicted Hilton hotels on the moon, a manned mission to Jupiter, and an artificial intelligence—the supercomputer Hal—whose birthday was January 12, 1992. Even NASA’s usually cautious spokespersons boasted that cheap, safe Space Shuttles would be the “Mack trucks” of space, and envisioned permanent space stations and manned missions to Mars to be achieved, if the money was there, within a decade or two. Visionaries such as Gerard K. O’Neill imagined the launch of huge solar panels to beam down unlimited, non-polluting energy, and hydroponic farming in space to feed the exploding human population, and colonies at the libration points where the gravitational pulls of the earth and moon are in balance. During the 1980s the permanent space station was revived, the Hubble Space Telescope was launched, and the Reagan Administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative pursued the utopian dream of rendering nuclear-armed intercontinental missiles obsolete with laser or particle beam weapons in orbit. By 1990 a manned mission to Mars by the year 2010 and commercial aerospace plane (the Orient Express) were on President George H. W. Bush’s wish list.
None of those dreams came true. In retrospect, such dreams of limitless progress through government-planned research and development (R&D) began to fade even before astronauts first stepped on the moon. NASA’s budget peaked in real terms in 1966. The American public lost most of its interest in 1969 because Apollo 11 suggested the Space Race was over and won. The Vietnam war, environmentalism, civil rights and “lib” movements, riots, protests, assassinations, Watergate, the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the oil embargo and inflation that followed were more than enough to shoot down proposals for bold post-Apollo initiatives in outer space. Bereft of a mission, NASA rusted. Many of its best engineers retired or moved to the private sector. Rocket and spacecraft teams scattered. The synergy and institutional charisma of NASA’s heroic years melted away. The agency managed to preserve a human presence in space, but only because (a) the Soviets were still around to compete or (for the sake of detente) cooperate with in earth orbit; (b) President Nixon judged that helping the aerospace industry was smart politics in key states like California, Texas, and Florida; and (c) NASA won Congress over by exaggerating the capabilities of the partially reusable Space Transportation System (Shuttle) while low-balling its cost.
There followed another round of gushing “Space Age” predictions followed by another lugubrious round of regrets. By the time Shuttle launches finally began in 1981, the program was late, way over budget, beset by bugs, and able to fly just four to six missions per year instead of the 60 promised. As a result, the Shuttle not only failed to cut the cost-per-pound of launching payloads “by a factor of ten,” it actually increased the cost over that of the discarded Saturn 5 moon rocket. What is more, the Shuttle ate up so much of NASA’s budget that robotic exploration, science, and satellite applications went begging. The Challenger accident in 1986 was a revelation not because a spacecraft and crew were lost (which was bound to happen sooner or later), but because an agency so recently praised as a model of technocratic efficiency had to submit to an outside panel led by Dr. Richard Feynman to tell it where it went wrong.
But nothing exposed the foibles of the Space Age’s “utopian socialism” more than the space station Mir, which served as a metaphor for that brave new world, the Soviet Union. Its propaganda predicted the station would grow as new wings were added in “tinker-toy” fashion until Mir became humanity’s first city in space. Instead, the Mir rattled and clanked to a halt along with the Soviet system until its own space odyssey in 2001 ended in flaming fragments over the South Pacific. Perhaps some Australian aborigines, like those who chanted for the Mercury capsule in Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff, stared at the fire from space and declared it an augury. Somewhere an empire had fallen, somewhere a god had just died.
The International Space System (ISS) has been almost as frustrating, indeed an object lesson in how the promise of hugely expensive technology can be easily crushed by politics. The original plan was to place the station in an optimal orbit to serve as a staging base for future missions to the moon and Mars. But the end of the Cold War opened the prospect of Russian cooperation, something the Clinton administration very much wanted (if only to give safe employment to former Soviet rocket scientists). So the orbit of the ISS was altered to accommodate Soyuz spacecraft launched from Central Asia, which in turn spoiled the station’s potential as a base camp for exploration (albeit the Soyuz ironically kept the station alive after the Columbia disaster grounded the shuttle fleet). Accordingly, the ISS, itself always well behind schedule and well over budget, may go the way of the Mir because it has no function under President George W. Bush’s 2004 plan to build entirely new technologies in anticipation of voyages to the Moon or Mars.
Still, one cannot help suspecting that none of the specific boondoggles, false starts, or blind allies that devoured five decades and a trillion dollars accounts for the mood of this anniversary. If so, that is because the disillusionment does not stem from humanity’s failure to transform technology. It stems from space technology’s failure to transform humanity.
In Spirit a Sort of Religion
In 1918, while Americans waged what President Woodrow Wilson deemed a “war to end war” and evangelical leaders deemed a millenarian “war for righteousness,” a 35 year old Clark University physicist recorded his vision of a different sort of manmade rapture. His tract entitled “The Great Migration” foresaw a time when the human race must seed the stars to survive because its own sun was burning out. It imagined a fleet of interstellar ships transporting freeze-dried human protoplasm to unimaginably distant planets, thus rendering Homo sapiens immortal. The author, Robert H. Goddard, devoted the rest of his career to experiments with the liquid-fueled rockets he hoped would make it all possible. He worked in obscurity. But in the years after World War II, when German emigres Willy Ley and Wernher von Braun promoted rockets and spaceflight, the optimistic, technological, future-oriented, progress-worshiping American people immediately felt the appeal of spaceflight and assumed their nation would lead the way.
The United States did not lead the way, because, just as with the first satellite launch, a Russian had preceded Goddard. As early as 1903 the threadbare, partly deaf mathematician Konstantin Tsiolkovsky published “Exploration of Cosmic Space with Reactive Devices.” Its theoretical contributions included the multi-stage rocket and orbital mechanics, but dearer to its author and later disciples were its teleological contributions. Tsiolkovsky imagined space colonies girdling the earth “like the rings of Saturn” to capture an infinite measure of energy from the sun and sustain a human race which, after breaking out of “the prison of terrestrial gravity,” must surely achieve perfection and immortality. The Soviet regime that seized power in Russia after 1917 was officially atheist, but futuristic, technocratic utopianism was at least as congenial to Marxism-Leninism as to Americanism. One of Tsiolkovsky’s disciples, F. A. Tsander, met Lenin himself and was gratified by his interest in rockets and space. Accordingly, amateur Soviet rocket clubs thrived until the purges and war effaced civil society. But after Stalin’s death in 1953 and especially after the exciting launches of the Sputniks and manned Vostoks by Chief Designer Sergei Korolev’s rocket tem, the Russian public imbued spaceflight with meaning beyond that of the Kremlin’s propaganda. Thus, although communism perished, a perfectionist cult called Cosmism thrives to this day in Russia.
The third “first-generation” prophet of spaceflight, a Transylvanian German named Hermann Oberth, evangelized in books, pamphlets, and film, inspiring visionaries such as Wernher von Braun to found amateur rocket societies. We know the rest. By the mid-1930s Hitler and Stalin would launch crash armaments programs in their dictatorial technocracies and absorb (by recruitment in Nazi Germany; by incarceration in Soviet Russia) the amateur rocketeers into their military-industrial complexes. The dreamers of spaceflight thus labored perforce as designers of weapons of which the most infamous was the 46 foot tall V-2 medium range ballistic missile. Then, in the waning days of World War II, the American and Soviet occupiers quietly competed to capture German engineers and their V-2 technology. Henceforth, the Cold War dictated the pace and direction of rocket technology, with Stalin pressing his people to develop an ICBM capable of threatening the United States and the Truman and Eisenhower administrations experimenting more leisurely with rockets since they already possessed long-range bombers and overseas bases. At length the Space Age arrived in 1957 as the byproduct of competition in R&D between two geopolitical rivals.
Harvard sociologist William Sims Bainbridge, however, has always maintained that the religious or (as he styles it) social movement was central to the origins of spaceflight and explains its historical timing. Bainbridge contends that technocratic governments, far from “capturing” spaceflight zealots, were in fact “captured” by them. The upshot was that Germany, the USSR, and the United States went to the trouble and expense of developing space technology as many as fifty years prematurely! That is, had it not been for the private spaceflight enthusiasts, clubs such as the Verein fuer Raumschifffahrt (1927), American Rocket Society (1930), and British Interplanetary Society (1933), rocket experimenters, and science fiction writers, it would not have occurred to the rival governments of the mid 20th century to invest large sums in a technology the military establishments of the world had already given up on, several times over, by the end of the 19th century.
Bainbridge’s intriguing theory may have merit. But insofar as the spiritual (or social) movement was successful in promoting it cause up to 1957, it also set us up for the big letdown felt in 2007. That is, insofar as we consumers of popular culture were proselytized about the futuristic, revolutionary, even utopian potential of spaceflight, we were bound to be frustrated by the reality of folly, waste, corruption, and politics as usual at home and in orbit.
Think about it. That icy systems analyst Robert S. McNamara might have remarked that outer space is not a cause or mission, it’s just a place. But to a postwar generation enthralled by the daydreams and nightmares of Hollywood, outer space is infinite, spooky, and seductive all at once. Outer space is the heavens. Outer space is whence flying saucers descend with hideous aliens come to destroy us or benign aliens come to prevent us from destroying ourselves. Outer space is where answers lurk to humanity’s most gnawing question this side of death: is there life out there, or are we alone? Perhaps few people today have ever heard of Goddard, Tsiolkovsky, or Oberth, but they have heard the space gospel by a cohort of charismatic preachers ranging from science fiction authors to film producers, professional futurists, scientific utopians, and Age of Aquarius cultists. Recall how Carl Sagan bade us tour the universe in his virtual spaceship and surrender to the hypnotic trance in which he rhapsodized over “billions and billions of stars.” Recall the almost Biblical parables that served as plots for Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, not to mention its assumption of a unified human race, a galactic federation of planets, the redemptive power of science and logic, and the moral imperative “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Viewers ready to laugh and cry, cheer and mourn, and genuinely care about the characters in Space Age fantasies (even robots in the case of Star Wars) testify to their subconscious faith that spaceflight out there and unity down here are the Manifest Destiny of the Earthlings and probably the key to our survival.
Consider the greatest icon bequeathed by space technology. It is not Neill Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, or the American flag on the lunar surface. It is not the dramatic nighttime launch of the Saturn 5 rocket bearing Apollo 17. Nor is it some spectacular color image of a moon of Jupiter or distant nebula. It is Earthrise, the photograph taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts of the gorgeous blue earth, silky with clouds, rising behind the bleak lunar disk. Earth: a delicate marble sparkling in the blackness of space; the sole source of life, so far as we know; humanity’s home. It has become a cliche to observe how Earthrise inspired environmentalists since it vividly depicted our biosphere as finite and fragile. But just as important was the urgent if obvious revelation that the natural, holistic earth seen from space is free of political, racial, and religious boundaries. The sum of those two perceptions must be a Spaceship Earth mentality transcending mundane considerations of geopolitics and geoeconomics. Yet no such transcendence has begun to occur. Even after the end of the Cold War, so often blamed for perverting the dream, astronautics has worked no metamorphosis, no paradigm shift, in human behavior.
In Fact a Theater of Strategy
Astronautics has had only a marginal effect on human values and institutions because it has always been mostly about national defense. Nobody wants to hear that: not the promoters of civil space programs, much less the trekkies, because it punctures their dreams; not the military and intelligence communities because they don’t want people to notice their costly, classified programs; and not the aerospace industry whose public relations departments much prefer to identify with the NASA slogan “we came in peace for all mankind.” But the historical truth is that strategic concerns of the highest order formed the context in which the first space launches occurred. In the Soviet case it was demonstration of an intercontinental ballistic missile with guidance systems sufficient to place a satellite in a precise orbit, hence a hydrogen bomb in downtown Manhattan. In the American case it was experimentation with secret reconnaissance satellites able to yield reliable intelligence on Soviet R&D and deployments whether an arms race or arms control prevailed.
In my own 1985 book …the Heavens and the Earth I presented the first partially declassified evidence that the Eisenhower Administration’s top priority in the 1950s was not to beat the Russians into space (although it understood the propaganda value of doing so), but rather to ensure that the first satellites prompted no protests about “illegal overflight” and so established the Freedom of Space. Thus, even as the Pentagon and CIA pursued top-secret spy satellite programs, Eisenhower approved a public, civilian satellite program under cover of the scientific International Geophysical Year. The reasoning was that there were two ways a Freedom of Space precedent might be set: first, orbit an innocuous satellite and have no one (read Moscow) object; second, let the Soviets launch first. That did not mean the Eisenhower administration hoped the Soviets would beat the U.S. into space. But preventing it was not their first priority, a fact proven by the evidence that anyone “in the know” realized how close the Soviets were to a satellite. After all, they made no secret of their own IGY satellite plans. They successfully tested their huge R-7 intercontinental rocket in August 1957. As the date neared they even publicized the radio frequency on which their Sputnik would “beep, beep.”
Indeed, if the space history community achieved anything in our media interviews this Fall, it is to disabuse any journalists of the old idea that Sputnik came as a shock to the Eisenhower Administration. Suffice to say that on July 5, 1957, CIA Director Allen Dulles wrote Deputy Defense Secretary Donald Quarles to report that “the USSR probably is capable of launching a satellite in 1957” and that “for prestige and psychological factors, the USSR would endeavor to be first in launching an earth satellite.” In short, the United States did not “lose” the first space “race” because Eisenhower was concerned less about priority than about establishing an international legal cover for the spy satellites to come. They would come as early as 1960, the very year the Soviets developed an anti-aircraft missile capable of shooting down the U-2 spy plane.
I am gratified to report that further research and declassification of documents, especially that of R. Cargill Hall and Dwayne A. Day, have confirmed the broad lines of the argument in my 1985 book. (Albeit Day has recently discovered from newly declassified documents that concern over Freedom of Space and its implications for satellite policy originated not with the Technological Capabilities Panel, which reported in February 1955, but with the CIA’s Richard Bissell six months before). However, my derivative speculation concerning the choice of the Naval Research Laboratory’s Vanguard program for an IGY satellite over the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) program appears to have been unwarranted. No evidence has surfaced suggesting that the impartial committee of scientists chaired by Homer Stewart was influenced in its choice by secret instructions, Freedom of Space issues, or bias against the Army’s mostly German rocket team.
Nonetheless, the consequences of the Stewart Committee’s decision were enormous. Major General John Bruce Medaris, commander of the ABMA, had fought prostate cancer, Pentagon resistance, and inter-service rivalry to give Wernher von Braun’s engineers the approvals and resources they needed to design and test the Redstone, a missile much larger and further along than the Navy’s Viking on which Vanguard would rely. Indeed, Medaris had to swallow the frustration of filling a Redstone’s upper stage with sand rather than fuel lest he accidentally launch the nose cone into orbit. That was in 1956! Finally, Medaris formed a close partnership with William Pickering, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech. The JPL scientists could have built, in just a few months, a worldwide tracking system and sophisticated satellite for the ABMA, but did not get a green light to do so until after a second Soviet triumph and a Vanguard flop. On January 31, 1958 (just seventeen weeks after Sputnik 1, but it seemed like forever), the Medaris/von Braun/Pickering team launched a modified Redstone dubbed the Jupiter-C from Cape Canaveral and put into orbit Explorer 1, the satellite that discovered the radiation belts named for Dr. James Van Allen.
The national panic over the apparent Soviet lead in what journalists insisted was a race for the highest stakes obscured the fact that the U.S. was ahead of the USSR according to every measure of rocketry and space science except weight-lifting. The White House made matters worse by failing to “spin” the news in a credible, reassuring fashion, while Democrats pounded the so-called Missile Gap for all its worth on down to election day 1960. That obliged Eisenhower to react as if the shock, humiliation, and fear were justified following Sputnik 1 and—a month later, on November 3—the larger Sputnik 2 (on which dog Laika, the first space animal, perished) was justified. The truth was otherwise, but Ike could not go public with U-2 data that showed the experimental Soviet rocket force was not yet a threat. Still, Ike’s reactions were uniformly positive, something Charles Krauthammer noted in his own anniversary column. Ike accelerated work on the Pentagon’s liquid-fueled missile programs including the Jupiter and Thor IRBM’s and Atlas ICBM, and initiated crash programs for solid-fueled ICBMs including the submarine-launched Polaris and the silo-based Minuteman. Ike founded the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency that has since made many technological breakthroughs including the computer networking that spawned the Internet. Ike’s 1958 National Defense Education Act to promote science instruction was a landmark victory over segregationist Democrats and small-government Republicans who opposed federal aid to education. Ike also promoted scientific literacy at the top level of government through a President’s Science Advisory Committee led by the great scientists and public servants James Killian and George Kistiakowky. Finally, Eisenhower worked closely with Democratic leaders in Congress to craft the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 that founded NASA and gave it responsibility for civilian space programs. Yet, whereas Ike took into account the need to reassure allied and neutral countries about U.S. technological prowess, he spurned competition for spectacular “firsts” in space and endorsed NASA Administrator T. Keith Glennan’s plan for a modestly paced, well thought-out, and predictably funded space program so that progress would be continual over the years and decades to come. Most famously, Ike warned in his Farewell Address against the dangers of the nation becoming in thrall to a “military-industrial complex” and “scientific-technological elite.”
The Kennedy Administration repudiated that legacy as swiftly and thoroughly as it could. Having promised to get the country moving again, compete with communism for the allegiance of the decolonized third world, and pioneer on a New Frontier stretching from inner cities to outer space—in short, having won a razor-thin presidential election by exploiting a false panic—the Kennedy Administration itself panicked in the wake of the Soviet launch of the first man into space. Within months the Pentagon under McNamara decreed the largest peacetime military buildup in history (which created an enormous missile gap on the Soviet side), and NASA under James Webb was given the task of sending men to the moon by the end of the decade. Between the Apollo program, the pursuit of military space applications by the ARPA, Air Force, and Navy, and the CIA’s satellite intelligence operations, upwards of 90 percent of U.S. investment in space technology during the 1960s was devoted to Cold War defense and prestige. The space budgets of NASA and the Pentagon then maintained a rough balance until military space programs soared anew in the 1980s.
Unless and Until Spaceflight Gets Cheap, Follow the Money
What is humanity doing today with its spending on space technology? Have priorities changed since the collapse of the Soviet bloc? Is more being spent on the civilian infrastructure for an expanded human and robotic presence in earth orbit and beyond? There is an easy way to answer those questions based on another of McNamara’s aphorisms. The budget, he said, is the strategy. So let’s follow the money.
The latest estimates by the authoritative Space Foundation put the whole world’s allocations for space activities at $74.5 billion for calendar year 2006. Just under $60 billion of that, or about 80 percent of all global investment in space, is America’s share. Ipso facto the priorities of the human race are really the priorities of one nation-state. The European Space Agency (ESA), a multilateral consortium, contributes $3.5 billion, or just under 5 percent, and other national programs like those of China, Japan, Russia, and India total about $11.4 billion, or 15 percent of world spending on space. The goals of the ESA in operating the Ariane 5, an excellent expendable launch vehicle, and building spacecraft are almost wholly commercial and scientific. The goals of the national programs are a mix of defense, intelligence, prestige, and technological competitiveness.
The breakdown of spending by the United States, the 800 pound gorilla in space, is even more telling. In 2006 the biggest chunk of $22.5 billion went to the Pentagon. Congress allocated another $20.5 billion to the top-secret programs lodged in the National Reconnaissance Office and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. The principal charge of the former office can be easily guessed; the official mission of the latter, as proclaimed on its website, is to “provide accurate and timely geodetic, geophysical, geotechnical analysis, and geospatial intelligence information to support national security, Department of Defense, and Intelligence objectives.” Thus, about $43 billion, or 58 percent of humanity’s space budget, is devoted to American national security. By contrast NASA, which is responsible for all human spaceflight, science and exploration, satellite applications, new launch technologies, test-bed technologies, and “human destiny and survival” (if we put the searches for extraterrestrial life and killer asteroids in that rubric), received a total of $16.6 billion. That amounts to 28 percent of U.S. space spending and 22 percent of global space spending. To put it another way, if we add the NASA budget to that of the ESA and the one-third or so of national budgets that are devoted to civilian space, we arrive at a total of around $24 billion. That accounts for just 32 percent of the Space Foundation’s global figure, which means that 68 percent, or more than two-thirds of planet Earth’s space technology, serves national defense and prestige.
The point of quantifying that remarkable truth is not to criticize, complain, lament, or accuse. Perhaps that truth just reflects human nature, the abiding imperatives of national sovereignty in a dangerous world, and the strategic importance of the “high frontier.” It has long been a hallowed tenet of our national strategy that the U.S. must aspire to command of the aerospace theater, which means assured access to orbit for our assets and if necessary denial of access to rivals. Those of us lacking classified information can only guess as to why the “black” space-based defense and intelligence programs have rapidly grown over the past several years. But the guesses would surely include: the need to reconnoiter terrorist cells, not just in Afghanistan and Iraq, but in many corners of the world; the need to prevent another fiasco such as occurred over Saddam Hussein’s putative WMD, not least in the cases of Iran and North Korea; and the need to harden and/or deploy redundant satellite systems in light of China’s recent demonstration of an anti-satellite system. In any event, American determination to control orbital space isn’t quite so arrogant as it sounds. Most other nations prefer that the United States police the planet’s canopy rather than see it contested or controlled by some other power. In that respect U.S. space power fulfills a global function similar to that of Britain’s Royal Navy before 1914.
Unless and until presently unimaginable laws of physics make possible interstellar transport, the human presence will almost certainly be restricted to the vicinities of the Earth, Moon, and Mars. Unless and until some revolution in launch technology sharply reduces the cost and danger of boosting people and cargoes into orbit, spaceflight will remain largely the business of governments. Unless and until some extraterrestrial resource (like lunar helium) becomes accessible at a cost that makes its extraction worthwhile, space colonization and industrialization will remain science fiction. That means that for the foreseeable future large-scale operations in space will be justifiable only insofar as they serve a nation’s defense.
Unless and until, that is, I am proven wrong by some technical breakthrough that permits private corporations, civil societies, and individuals to explore, exploit, and colonize nearby space, or by some supranational movement among young people inspired by gospels of spaceflight and anxious to make virtual reality real. Sociologist Bainbridge thinks such a “great awakening” of utopian fervor quite possible. Space historian Howard McCurdy warns us not to be trapped by generational thinking. Youthful space scholar Asif Siddiqi asks that we cease to fear our imaginations. Apollo chronicler and social analyst Charles Murray says in so many words that the way to launch a true Space Age is to “get a grand mission, believe in it, give it to a new generation, and get the hell out of the way.”
I think that’s all stardust. But even if it is not, I think Murray has gotten it backwards. I think we tired old baby-boomers ought to get out of the way so that a new generation can decide for itself what it believes in and script its own mission in space. Beam me up, Scotty.
William Sims Bainbridge, The Spaceflight Revolution: A Sociological Study (1976)
Lincoln P. Bloomfield, ed., Outer Space: Prospects for Man and Society (1962)
Rip Bulkeley, The Sputniks Crisis and Early United States Space Policy (1991)
Rip Bulkeley, Space Weapons: Deterrence or Delusion? (1986)
William Burrows, The New Ocean (1998)
Radford Byerly, Jr., ed., Space Policy Reconsidered (1989)
Dale Carter, The Final Frontier: The Rise and Fall of the American Rocket State (1988)
Andrew Chaikin, A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts (1994)
Iris Chang, Thread of the Silkworm: The Story of Tsien Hsue-shen (1995)
Boris Chertok, Rockets and People, 2 vols. (2006)
William David Compton, Where No Man Has Gone Before (1989)
Norman Cousins, moderator, Why Man Explores, A Symposium (1976)
Dwayne A. Day, Eye in the Sky: The Story of the Corona Spy Satellites (1998)
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