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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

January 24, 2017: NASAStudying: NASA’s Origins



[January 27th marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 tragedy, one of many setbacks and challenges that didn’t deter from the US manned space program from making history. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five moments or contexts for NASA’s early years. I’d love your responses and thoughts in comments, as always!]
Three moments and figures that (along with yesterday’s international influences) contributed to the space agency’s starting points:
1)      NACA: NASA’s predecessor in the federal government, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), dated all the way back to March 1915, when it was founded as part of the nation’s responses to World War I (although President Taft had proposed a somewhat similar National Aerodynamical Laboratory Commission as early as 1911-2). After a few years of explicitly war-related activites, NACA began to expand and deepen its research interests in 1920, when President Woodrow Wilson appointed aviation pioneer Orville Wright to the agency’s board. Wright would serve on the NACA board for 28 years, helping bridge the period between these World War I origins and the post-World War II transitions into the atomic age and the origins of the space race. During that time, NACA was involved in a number of prominent and influential projects, including the supersonic research exemplified by test pilot Chuck Yeager’s famous 1947 flight.
2)      Robert Goddard: Interestingly, the man who came to be known as the father of rocket propulsion was (as far as I know) never officially part of NACA. But over the same early twentieth-century decades that Wright and his fellow NACA members were expanding their pioneering efforts, Goddard was performing his, exemplified by his March 19, 1926 launch of the first recorded liquid-fueled rocket in Auburn, Massachusetts. Goddard’s subsequent experiments were funded by both the government (in the form of the Smithsonian Institution) and the Guggenheim Foundation (thanks to the support of Goddard’s longtime friend Charles Lindbergh), reflecting the role that both public and private enterprises played in furthering these advances. Between them, the work done by NACA and Goddard in the 1920s and 30s not only led directly to the space program, but proved invaluable to the Allied cause in World War II.
3)      Dwight Eisenhower: As I wrote in this Talking Points Memo piece, we tend to give presidents more of a central role in particular periods or histories than they necessarily deserve. But at the same time, expanding our histories to include other figures and influences shouldn’t mean forgetting or eliding the role that presidents can and do play, and Eisenhower’s contributions to the origins of NASA are a case in point (as is John F. Kennedy’s subsequent role, on which more tomorrow). In part that meant, as it often does (but as, now more than ever, we unfortunately can’t take for granted), agreeing with and supporting the recommendations of his scientific advisors and the wider research community. But as reflected in his signing statement for the July 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act (the law that established NASA), Eisenhower was also well aware of the significance of these efforts, both in continuing the work done by NACA and others and in moving closer to genuine global as well as national progress in the exploration of space. One more inspiring and influential figure and moment in the multi-decade origins of NASA and the US space program.
Next NASA post tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other NASA takes you’d share?

Monday, January 23, 2017

January 23, 2017: NASAStudying: Sputnik and von Braun



[January 27th marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 tragedy, one of many setbacks and challenges that didn’t deter from the US manned space program from making history. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five moments or contexts for NASA’s early years. I’d love your responses and thoughts in comments, as always!]
On the more overt and more subtle ways that wartime adversaries drove the US space program.
It’s a truism, but nonetheless a necessary one with which to begin a series on the early years of the US space program, that our Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union provided a great deal of the impetus for and motivation behind the development of that program. Calling this element of the rivalry the “space race” (as that hyperlinked article does) links it to the “arms race” a bit more fully than might be warranted—that is, while both competitions did pit the two superpowers against one another in a race to develop new programs and technologies first, the arms race was explicitly focused on weapons that could be used to threaten and (if necessary) destroy the other nation; the space race occasionally included such military technologies (most famously, Reagan’s proposed “Star Wars” program) but also and most consistently represented a scientific undertaking with its own significant, global benefits that extended well beyond the Cold War. Yet while it thus may not be accurate to limit our understanding of the space race and the US space program overall to our adversarial relationship with a foreign power, it remains vital to consider just how fully such wartime relationships influenced and directed the space program’s historical origins.
By far the most overt such wartime influence was the Soviet Union’s October 4th, 1957 launch of Sputnik I, the world’s first artificial satellite. Both nations had been working on such satellites over the prior few years, but when the Soviet Union got there first—and then did so again less than a month later, with the November 3 launch of the even more substantial and groundbreaking Sputnik II—the resulting global attention and US political outcry galvanized American public and governmental support for a robust space program. The US would launch its own first artificial satellite, Explorer I, on January 31st, 1958; even more significantly, in late July Congress would pass the National Aeronautics and Space Act, setting a date of October 1, 1958 (not coincidentally, almost exactly a year after Sputnik I’s launch) for the creation of a new governmental agency known as NASA. As I’ve written about numerous times in this space, and despite our fondness for images of national exceptionalism and isolation, virtually all elements of America’s government and culture have been informed and influenced by international relationships and factors in one way or another—yet few have been produced in such immediate and direct response to a single international action as were these originating space program steps. I’m sure our space program would have developed eventually in any case, but it’s entirely accurate to say that it did so when and how it did because of Sputnik and the Soviet Union.
What’s perhaps less well known is just how fully those originating US space program steps likewise depended on the presence and role of another wartime adversary and technology. The Explorer I project featured a number of distinct teams led by prominent scientists, with Dr. William Pickering’s team (at Cal Tech) designing and building the satellite itself and Dr. James Van Allen’s (at Iowa State) designing the instrumentation. Yet Explorer never would have made it into orbit—never would have made it off the ground at all—were it not for the Jupiter-C rocket, a modification of the Redstone ballistic missile that was produced by former Nazi scientist Dr. Wernher von Braun and based directly on the German V-2 rocket that von Braun had helped develop for the Nazis. Von Braun not only directed the army’s ballistic missile program at Redstone Arsenal for a decade, he would then go on to direct NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and develop the Saturn V launch vehicle that would make NASA’s moon voyages possible. While the US space program’s starting points were heavily influenced by the Soviet Union, they were directly dependent on von Braun, and thus on science and technologies that had originated with our World War II adversary the Nazis. Just one more complex and unavoidable layer to the international influences on NASA and the space program.
Next NASA post tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other NASA takes you’d share?

Saturday, January 21, 2017

January 21-22, 2017: A Tale of Three Inaugurations



[Although I’m writing this in early January, the current plan is for Donald Trump to be inaugurated on Friday, January 20th as the 45th President of the United States. While I’d like nothing more than to think not at all of this impending event, that’s not the AmericanStudier way—so for this special post I wanted to use two salient prior inaugurations to consider this one. I’d love your thoughts, fears, hopes, or fervent prayers in comments, please!]
1)      1865: I’ve written before about how uncertain, and how vital, the 1864 presidental election was. Abraham Lincoln’s victory in that election would seem to make his subsequent Second Inaugural Address, delivered on March 4th, 1865, far less significant in contrast. Yet even if we leave aside the speech’s aesthetic power (it’s usually put on par with the Gettysburg Address as a measure of Lincoln’s rhetorical gifts), I would argue that it nonetheless comprises a vital historical moment all its own. The speech is largely remembered for the magnanimous phrases and attitudes of its concluding paragraph, particularly the opening clauses, “With malice toward none, with charity for all.” But I would stress that those attitudes follow the long prior paragraph, in which Lincoln engages at length with slavery, “the cause of the war” and such a historic horror that, he argues, if the war were to continue for hundreds more years, “still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’’ It seems to me that we could use a lot more communal spirit derived from engagement with, rather than ignorance of, dark historical realities here in January 2017.
2)      2009: Barack Obama has been compared to (or contrasted with) Abraham Lincoln unceasingly over the last 8 years, and I’m not trying to continue the tradition. Nor am I suggesting that the national situation in January 2009 was as dark or challenging as those faced by Lincoln, although I’d say it’s on the list of the most difficult moments faced by a President-elect (as, to be sure, is our current one). Instead, I’m highlighting Obama’s first Inaugural Address on its own terms, both as a response to such a challenging moment and (especially) for its uses of history both personal (“why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served in a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath”) and national (“In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river”) in service of its potent vision of America’s identity and future. I’d be lying if I said I believed Donald Trump could summon up either of those forms of historical argument successfully to help reframe our own troubled moment and uncertain future—but I’m trying to remain an optimist.
3)      2017: So here we are. Not yet in a second Civil War or next Great Recession, but in a moment that feels fraught with such horrific possibilities. Inaugurating a president who is neither Lincoln nor Obama, but who will nonetheless be at least as central to what happens next as they were. I’ve written elsewhere about what we public scholars and Americans can do in such a moment, and am not trying to minimize those roles in any way. But Donald Trump will have a role to play as well, and no amount of either wishful thinking nor of resistance will change that fact. Will that role be as destructive as I fear? Is it possible that Trump can offer or become something different from the worst version of ourselves he has represented throughout this campaign? The inauguration will be only one moment in any case, but I want to have some small hope that it might begin to reflect such alternatives, linked to the best versions of our history and identity that we can find in these prior inaugural moments. As with much, time will tell, and we AmericanStudiers will be vigilant.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. What do you think?