...The Heavens and the Earth

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Walter A. McDougall. …The Heavens and the Earth: A political History of the Space Age. 1985 reprinted Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. xxiii, 464p. $24.95



The subtitle of Walter McDougall's dense but beautifully written work "...The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age," is somewhat misleading. Or more accurately incomplete. Perhaps the words "...and America's March toward Technocracy," should have been added. While this work describes, in occasionally minute detail, the political conditions that precipitated America's move into the Space Age and the machinations of the leaders who took us there, McDougall's main goal is to describe America's transition from an era of private intiative in technology, to an age characterized by the "...institutionalization of technological change for state purposes...the state-funded and -managed R&D explosion of our time." (McDougall,5) More interestingly to McDougall, is the transition in public attitudes towards this march to technocracy. Where public opinion early was well represented by President Eisenhower's fears of the "military-industrial" complex and educational elites driving public policy, the prospect of nuclear competition with the Soviet Union, America's new role as the protector of Europe, and the advent of the space age, in particular the shock to American confidence represented by the launching of Sputnik I in October 1957, precipitated a change in public attitudes towards the use of state sponsored technology for national purposes. It becamse clear to our political leaders, and to the public at large, that the cold war was no longer simply a military contest, but a contest for the hearts and minds of the world community. And as such, involved the full range of human activity, the most conspiciuos of which, starting in 1957, was the space race. By the end of the 1960's, even conservative opponents of space exploration were not arguing against it based upon opposition to technocracy itself, but only whether the resources devoted to it were being allocated to maximum benefit. Ironically for proponents of the space program, the success of the effort to land a man on the moon was used as an argument for a reduction in its funding. Through the vision and competance of James Webb, first Administrator of NASA, the success of large projects, using system analysis as their primary management tool, became embedded in the body politic. Pressure grew to apply the same techniques to larger, more earth-bound problems, such as poverty, racism, and educational opportunity. Problems viewed as more important now that the Soviets had been beaten to the moon. The slogan "If we can land on the moon we can..." became part of American lexicography.

McDougall documents this transition with remarkable clarity and detail, incorporating social and political changes in both the USSR and United States into his narrative. Written in 1984 prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, the most detail is of course provided on U.S. efforts. McDougall in particular takes great pains to detail the role of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the itransition. McDougall credits Eisenhower with being a much more forceful actor in dealing with this transition than he is generally given credit for. And, as McDougall argues, the U.S. was well ahead of the Soviets in space and missile technology by 1960. In particular he documents the myth of the 'missile gap' on which John F. Kennedy based part of his campaign for President. Where McDougall does fault Eisenhower, is in his refusal to recognize the importance of Sputnik and other Russian advances to public opinion, and how that event signaled a widening of the war between democracy and communism. Where Eisenhower clearly had an excellent grasp of the military consequences of Soviet missile activity, vigorously expanding U.S. missile capabiity, his in born reticence against the transition to technocracy kept him from recognizing its importance.

Ultimately, McDougall concedes that technocracy was nearly inevitable given the situation following WW II, when technological changes that must be responded to could happen practically overnight (as Sputnik demonstrated), and the United States could no longer depend upon the private sector for technological advancement. The speed required to respond could only happen through the sponsorship of the state. Nevertheless, in many ways he laments this development. In his view, the promise of technocracy, and the use of systems analysis to generate the blueprints by which state sponsored technology would solve them, has simply not worked. In his view the decline of the space program during the 70's, the failure in VietNam, and with many of the Great Society programs, butress this argument. Contrary to the contention of many, that state sponsored technology could solve our many problems, and elevate the human spirit, McDougall argues this now rings somewhat hollow. In the end, he argues, competition will continue to be the driving force behind advances in space.


Jim Daniels, fall 2005

In my view this book has one major flaw - it was written in 1984. Written only twelve years following the success of Apollo, it was (and is) too early to pronounce the failure of technocracy in my opinion. McDougall's contention that competition will be the only true inducement to manned spaceflight is, at least for now, proving to be incorrect. With the fall of the Soviet Union, we now see cooperation between Russia and the U.S not only in space science, but in space engineering. The International Space Station was built using both U.S. and Russian technology, and we regularly see astronauts and cosmonauts functioning as crew members of each others spacecraft. Unthinkable only 20 years ago, we now see American military personnel under Russian command and Russian military personnel under American command aboard the space station. We are also seeing plans, though preliminary, for a return to manned exploration of the Moon and of Mars. McDougall may yet prove to be correct, that manned space programs can only survive in an enviroment of competition, but I believe it is too soon to make that judgement. -- 16:01, 19 Sep 2005 (EDT)

Ray Clark, spring 2006

--Ray Clark 14:18, 8 Feb 2006 (EST)

In late spring of 1968, a year before the first moon landing, Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey was released. For those of us who were unrestrained technophiles this movie was a reaffirmation that the United States despite political and social problems of that year was headed in the right direction. None of the technology on display seemed all that more advanced from what was possible in the late 1960s so doing all this in the next 30 years seemed doable. What was particularly encouraging was that according to the vision of the filmmaker private industry not governments would be taking the over moving humanity into space. The next year man walked on the moon and the rest of the future was cancelled.

McDougall’s book is about this initial phase of the conquest of space. It’s a political history because the technology involved became intertwined with national security almost as soon as it matured. The political story is not a simple one since it involves three separate narratives; the internal political battles in the United States, similar but unique events in the Soviet Union, and the international competition between the two superpowers.

McDougal divides his subject into three periods. The first of these covers the time from the original rocket experiments by amateur groups prior to World War Two through the race to launch the first orbiting satellite. The middle period was when the USSR made all the first in space (first man in orbit, first dual launch, first woman, first space walk, etc.) and the USA was trying to catch up. The final period saw the United States win the race to the moon and the two competitors turn their attention from translunar to near-earth space.

The key political dynamic examined by McDougall is whether missile and space technology should be civilian or military in nature. On the domestic level with the government stepping in to fund research, development, and exploration the struggle becomes which executive agency controls the funding. The decision made early in the Eisenhower administration was that space exploration was a civilian activity and the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), a civilian agency, was put in charge. There were military missile and satellite programs but they were subordinate to the civilian space program. This decision didn’t mean that the issue was settled the debate would continue through each administration as to who should be in control.

Civil or military usage of space was not limited to the domestic arena. The USA and the USSR negotiated constantly throughout the cold war over the extent to which space could be militarized. The areas of discussion were almost limitless. Could the same missiles used as intercontinental weapons be used to launch satellites; just military satellites or civilian satellites as well? Can serving military officer work for civilian space agencies? Can nuclear weapons be stored on the moon, on Mars, in orbit? It was an era of job security for negotiators.

Overall this is an excellent book for the political history of the first years of the space age and also the growth of government involvement in research and development in general. It is appropriate for both upper level undergraduate and graduate courses.

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