26 June, 2019
It is often taken as read that the American people’s support for the space program in its golden or romantic age (projects Mercury, 1958-1963; Gemini, 1962-1966, and Apollo, 1961-1972) was practically unanimous as well as fiercely intense (space “enthusiasm”), and also that they were accurately informed about the USA’s position in the space race during this crucial period. According to this version of events, the space exploration policies successively pursued by presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Nixon were reflective of the perceptions and preferences of the electorate.
This picture, if true, is in stark contrast to the data of the last 35 years, which show that only a modest segment of the American population feels a particular interest in space exploration. According to the latest survey of the National Science Board, while in 2016 42% of the adult population of the USA declared themselves “very interested” in science and technology in general, their aggregate interest varied widely, with 60% “very interested” in biomedical discoveries against just 24% in space exploration. Experts in this field, such as Roger Launius, William Sims Bainbridge and Raymond A. Bauer, conclude that “at no point do poll data indicate strong general support for the [American] space program,” in the words of this last author. These recent studies show that many narratives about the American public’s views on the space age are very far from true, and mask a contradiction that begs clarification: that of a leading technological power of the space age that finds only medium-to-low support for this project among society at large. An especially striking result in a country characterized by what historian Thomas P. Hugues has termed “techno-enthusiasm.”
This contradiction dissolves when we consider that what matters for the space program, and other ambitious techno-scientific public policies, is the existence of leaders of the scientific community with ready access to news media and political elites, and intent on using these means to “activate” the population sub-set known as the “attentive public” (the 15-30% who are interested in and informed about a given area), and policy-makers with the ability to associate science or technology projects with widely shared goals and values, aligned with the historical context. A more complex dynamic than a simple interaction between elites and the broad electorate.
From “space age to “space race”
Already before World War II, certain organized groups were fervent apostles for the technical viability of space travel. But it was the advent of the Cold War that lent wings to the space travel projects of visionary technologists like Sergei Korolev in the Soviet Union and Wernher von Braun in the United States. The “space age” rapidly turned into a “space race” between the two superpowers, immersed in a duel for global hegemony at a time when new nations were coming into being and sociopolitical movements were casting round for suitable symbols. In this setting, what better way for a country to gain ground in the fight for global prestige than to crown itself most advanced in science and technology.
Until 1968-69, the Soviet Union had raced ahead of the USA in the eyes of the public, with milestones like the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, the first astronaut in history, Yuri Gagarin, in 1961, and the first woman in orbit, Valentina Tereshkova, in 1963. These successes, as Kim McQuaid relates, created “elite panic,” though not mass panic, across the USA. Fanning the flames was what Walter McDougall called a “media riot,” encouraged in turn by selective leaks tracing to the proponents of space travel. Eisenhower created NASA in 1958 as a civil agency, signaling to the world that the conquest of space was not an imperialist goal, but rather a peaceful enterprise for the benefit of all mankind. On his retirement, the former general warned of the dangers of the “military-industrial complex,” the symbiosis of vested interests driving the arms and space races. It would fall to his successor, John F. Kennedy, to lead the decisive leg of the space race, though he would not live to see the triumphs of 1968 and 1969. The objective was formidable – to land on the Moon by 1970 – but the motives behind it were less about science and more about outstripping the possibilities of Russian rocket technology. By the mid-1960s, there were clear signs that the Soviet program was flagging, in parallel with the grave structural problems of the country’s economy.
Armstrong and Aldrin’s moon landing of 1969 was the first global TV spectacle followed by a mass audience, around 500 million people in 50 countries. Space exploration and the news media fed gainfully off each other, shaping the thought frames of the “attentive public” and, more weakly, the population as a whole. Although the national dimension was present in the TV coverage, with the planting and saluting of the U.S. flag and Richard Nixon’s phone call to the astronauts, the President’s own words and, especially, those spoken by Armstrong expressed what is undoubtedly the enduring legacy of the “space race”: the avowal that all humanity is one, above and beyond geopolitical borders, and the awareness that the Earth – as revealed by the iconic Earthrise image captured the previous year by the Apollo 8 mission – is a wonderful, finite, unitary network, with all its elements in constant interaction, a perception embodied in the metaphors “Spaceship Earth” and “Only One Earth” which the environmental movement, and the scientific community, have kept successfully alive. This is also what citizens on both sides of the Atlantic see today as the main contribution of space exploration, according to a European Space Agency survey run in five European countries in December 2018 and the NORC survey of May this year in the USA.
As many as 90% of Europeans (95% in Spain) see space travel in a positive light, with its scientific facets strongly to the fore: a better understanding of the universe (93%), of our own solar system (92%), and observation and understanding of the Earth, and identification of the impacts of climate change (85%). Meantime, 60% of the American population believe the benefits of the space program justify its cost, and a majority affirm that scientific understanding of the universe, the Solar System and the Earth, and the tracking of asteroids, comets or other objects that might impact our planet should be a major part of the space program. Neither the establishment of settlements on other planets nor a military presence in space are considered priority activities. Tellingly, 80% of the American population feel their country is no longer leading the world in space exploration, but is rather just one of several prominent nations.