WHY UNITED STATES?
“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” declared Neil A. Armstrong as the world held its collective breath. In Paris, the streets were eerily quiet; the French were watching TV, as were millions of Americans. This may have been the first global moment. Neil Armstrong’s words were spoken as the first human set foot on the Moon.
A COCKTAIL PARTY
On a Friday night in October 1957, the embassy of the Soviet Union in Washington, D.C. hosted a reception. Arriving early, in hopes that under the influence of their national schnapps some of the Russian scientists might tell him if their own International Geophysical Year (IGY) project was as far behind in time and cost as the United States’ beleaguered satellite, Project Vanguard head John Hagan slipped into the cocktail party. Across the room, Hagan spotted Walter Sullivan from the New York Times. Moments later, Sullivan took a telephone call, then immediately crossed by the vodka and blini to whisper into the ear of Richard Porter of the American IGY committee. The revelation? Sputnik I, the first satellite to orbit the earth, had been launched by the Soviet Union from a desert test location in Kazakhstan.
The space race had begun. Shortly after John Hagan’s worst fears were realized. On December 6, 1957 the first of America’s Vanguard launches left Project Vanguard’s head embarrassed in front of the entire White House press corps and extensive general media invitees who had gathered to view the booster’s debut. The American rocket rose three feet off the ground, vibrated ominously, and then crashed, taking the nation’s hopes with it.
FIRST DOG IN SPACE
Within weeks of the success of Sputnik I, the Soviets launched Sputnik II carrying a dog. That was November, 1957. By December, American had Vanguard flop viewed by the media that no doubt produced wry smiles in Moscow.The pressure was on. By mid-1958, the American Congress passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act. Among other things, it created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and charted the new agency with “preservation of the role of the United States as a leader in aeronautical and space science and technology.” (Building the World, p. 580). But despite such stated intentions, America was not the leader. The Soviets continued to move from strength to strength, achieving the first impact on the moon by an artificial object, and the first photographs of the moon’s “dark side.” Soon the first dog in space would be succeeded by the first human – Yuri Gagarin.
When John F. Kennedy took office on January 1961, he intensified the space race. In May, he appealed to Congress to approve a major development in the U.S. space program with a centerpiece achievement of manned voyage to the moon. Just weeks before, Yuri Garagin, the Soviet cosmonaut, became the first human to orbit the earth. Congress agreed with the President who stated “space achievement may hold the key to our future on earth.” (Building the World, p. 580). But achieving that goal remained elusive until a certain scientist stepped in.
WERNER VON BRAUN
It was time for a Deus ex Machina. Just as Albert Einstein, a German refugee, had contributed scientific insight to developing atomic energy leading to the Manhattan Project, so too did Werner von Braun change America’s leadership in a field that was to redefine the very definition of earth.
With the United States’ Project Vanguard a clear failure, the former German scientist Werner von Braun sat in his office thinking. Then, slowly he walked across the hall, opened the door of a storage closet that contained a pile of old untried plans which had been proposed. He pulled out just one: Project Explorer.
On January 31, 1958, at 10:55pm Pacific daylight time, a perfect launch by the Juno I booster rocket sent Explorer I aloft. But then von Braun stopped a Pentagon meeting at exactly 12:41am. The room grew hushed as the scientist wrinkled his formidable brow. Glancing at his watch, he remarked the signal that Explorer I was to send when passing California had not appeared. A collective sigh of relief swept through the Pentagon eight minutes later. At 12:49am, the signal came through. Why eight minutes later? The Juno booster had fired so strongly that Explorer I was somewhat higher in orbit than expected.
The space program meant jobs. To sustain the Apollo program, by 1965 NASA had ramped up to a workforce of 36,000 civil-service employees plus more than 376,000 contra t workers. It had an operating budget of $5 billion. When the program concluded in 1972, 12 astronauts had landed on the moon while hundreds of thousands of expert workers supported them on the ground.
MINIATURIZATION – A NEW INDUSTRY
The cell phone in your pocket and the computer on which you are reading this are a direct result of the space program because of miniaturization. Space travel, although powered initially by heavy rockets, requires a floating orbital world and living in rather tight quarters. Current achievements like the International Space Station exemplify this. Miniaturization is a necessary part of that world. So are long-lasting battery devices like smartphones and portable computers.
“It looks like we’ve got a dragon by the tail,” might go down in history alongside Neil Armstrong’s poetry. NASA astronaut, Donald R. Pettit, of the International Space Station, spoke those humorous words to confirm that somewhere in the sky over Australia, a certain robotic arm had just grabbed (or in technical language of NASA grappled) a floating cargo capsule delivered by Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, nicknamed SpaceX. That moment was the first in which a private craft was able to dock with the International Space Station. Elon Musk, SpaceX’s chief executive, stated it would be seen as a “significantly historical step forward in space travel.” (“First Private Craft Docks with Space Station,” by Kenneth Chang, published May 25, 2012, New York Times ).
When NASA left the shuttle business to private contractors, the United States had four decommissioned spaceplanes: Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour, which all flew in space, and Enterprise, a prototype. Museums began to lobby to house the retired space vehicles. For entry costs, every candidate museum had to spend about $28 mllion just to clean and deliver the craft in specially built temperature-controlled final resting places. But it was worth it. In New York City, the Intrepid Museum was an early front-runner in the shuttle acquisition campaign; it projected 300,000 additional visitors would come to their location each year spending over $100 million in the gift shop. Intrepid’s preparation paid off; Enterprise has found a home there for when it moves from its place in a Smithsonian annex in Chantilly, Virginia. In its place, the Smithsonian will receive Discovery. Atlantis will find its permanent home at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Not to leave out the West Coast, Los Angeles’s California Space Science Center will get Endeavor.
Document of Authorization
THE NATIONAL AERONAUTICS AND SPACE ACT
Public Law No. 85-568
July 29, 1958
To provide for research into problems of flight within and outside the earth’s atmosphere, and for other purposes.
Section 102. (a) The Congress hereby declares that it is the policy of the United States that activities in space should be devoted to peace purposes for the benefit of all mankind.
Excerpt from Speech by President John F. Kennedy
May 25, 1961.
First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goals, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space.
- From, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, Containing the Messages, Speeches, and Statements of the President. January 20 to December 31, 1961. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1962, p. 403-4. See also, Building the World, p. 602-604. For an audio track: http://media.jfk50.org/audio/home/2/17.610525_Quote_03_12bc638531d.mp3
VOICES OF THE FUTURE: Discussion and Implications
Miniaturization and New Industry: The computer you are reading this on, the cell phone in your pocket, are a result of a new industry of miniaturization related to the space program. What innovations might be emerging from current scientific exploration? How can discoveries and applications be linked?
Unispace: Is space where the human race will finally achieve peace? What are the implications for territorial aspects of space?
To read the complete chapter, members of the University of Massachusetts Boston may access the e-book through Healey Library Catalog and ABC-CLIO here. Alternatively the volumes can be accessed at WorldCat, or at Amazon for purchase. Further resources are available onsite at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Healey Library, including some of the following:
(*indicates printed in notebook series)
Bijker, Wiebe E., Thomas P. Hughes, and Trevor J. Pinch, eds. The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.
Brooke, Kathleen Lusk and George H. Litwin, “Organizing and Managing Satellite Solar Power,” Space Policy: an International Journal 16, no. 3 (July, 2000): 145-56.
Davidson, Frank P., Kathleen Lusk Brooke, with Cherie E. Potts, Building the Future, Boston: 2012.
Davidson, Frank P. Macro: A Clear Vision of How Science and Technology Will Shape Our Future. New York: William Morrow, 1983. Includes first suggestion for a University of the Moon.
Glaser, Peter E., Frank P. Davidson, and Katinka I. Csigi. Solar Power Satellites: A Space Energy System for Earth. Chichester, England: John Wiley and Sons/Praxis Publishing, 1998.
Hughes, Thomas P. American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm. New York: Penguin Books, 1989.
Kuhn, Thomas W. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.
Lambright, W. Henry. Powering Apollo: James E. Webb of NASA. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.
Rosenstock-Huessy, Eugen. Out of Revolution. Norwich, VT: Argo Books, 1993.
For history of NASA and Apollo mission, http://history/nasa.gov.
For historical records of the International Geophysical Year, send an email to the Archives of the National Academy of Sciences – National Research Council at firstname.lastname@example.org
For histories of Sputnik, NASA, and other space initiatives, as well as articles and monographs by Roger D. Launius, NASA’s chief historian, see
To learn more about the International Space Station, see
For more on Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, see
For space travel as depicted in popular culture, see Star Trek at
For earlier images, consider the American comic strip Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (published in more than 400 world newspapers in 18 languages from 1929-1967) at http://www.buck-rogers.com/.
On SpaceX: Chang, Kenneth, “First Private Craft Docks With Space Station.” New York Times, May 25, 2012.
For more on space travel and transport, see Building the Future (2012), pages 50-52.
For Unispace: www.unoosa.org/pdf/reports/unispace/A-59_174.pdf.
Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.