The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

book cover

Why does NASA do what it does?

Political science is rarely a good guide to contemporary politics: its bloodless methods and academic modes of discourse fail to capture the human passions of the day-to-day partisan struggle. As a tool of historical analysis, however, it can be very useful; this is the greatest strength of W.D. Kay’s book Defining NASA: The Historical Debate Over The Agency’s Mission. The author, a political scientist from Northeastern University, considers the strategic question: “Why NASA?”

In the process of looking at this question he sheds new light on some of the most debated points in the history of the Space Age. He begins with the Eisenhower Administration and its response to Sputnik in October 1957. In this case his methodology pays off, illuminating the desire of the president to keep the spy satellite project then known as WS-117L camouflaged, and the way he used the civilian space program to do so. The administration’s strategic goal was to penetrate the closed totalitarian Soviet society and to do so in a way that was less provocative than the U-2 or the other reconnaissance flights.

The fact is that Sputnik was a case where the people’s reaction showed a better, instinctive understanding of the stakes involved than did those of the elite.

Kay points out, “Some US officials feared that if the world’s first satellite could even be remotely perceived as representing any sort of military threat, the Soviet Union would seek to assert some form of sovereignty claim over its orbital space.” Thus the administration’s primary goal was to keep the first US satellite to be launched in the context of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) as un-military as possible. This explains why they chose the Navy’s Vanguard rocket, a version of the Viking sounding rocket which “had no military application whatsoever”, as opposed to the rockets being developed by von Braun’s team whose purpose was to carry nuclear warheads.

Eisenhower’s low-key reaction to Sputnik was based of his lack of any “particular anxiety” about America’s overall technological lead. The fact is that this was a case where the people’s reaction showed a better, instinctive understanding of the stakes involved than did those of the elite. The President is usually faulted for his failure to understand the psychological aspects of Sputnik, but unlike most space historians, Kay goes further and faults him for failing to grasp the broad potential of satellite technology for applications such as weather forecasting and communications, an interesting and original point.

Kay lapses into conventional wisdom when he claims in the title of chapter 4 that NASA was “born out of fright”; to one extent or another every new government agency established in the 20th century, from the Food and Dug Administration to the FBI and the EPA, can been said to have been born the same way. It is a characteristic of American politics that the only way to get the wheels of our thoroughly checked and balanced government moving is to raise one hell of a racket. Calm deliberation by men and women of Olympian vision leading to decisions that can be readily carved in marble is simply not the American way of doing things and the establishment of NASA is no exception.

The Democrats are often faulted for their use of the “space race” and “missile gap” issues against the administration, but to ask any politician to refrain from using such ammunition in the normal, highly partisan atmosphere of Washington is to ask for the impossible. For Eisenhower the problem was that he did not immediately and vigorously fight back, which is always a mistake. It probably cost Nixon the 1960 election as it gave the Democrats an aura of being concerned about national security and winning the Cold War that they had partly lost by twice nominating Adlai Stevenson.

Dealing with the origins of the Apollo program, Kay points to the lack of any direct, proven relationship between the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and Kennedy’s decision to go to the Moon. He does, however, note that in early 1961 the new administration suffered one blow after another, including Gagarin’s first manned flight. The author also explains how, for once, the White House and Congressional leadership were in agreement. This gave the Moon program powerful political momentum that allowed it to survive the inevitable crises and loss of Congressional and public enthusiasm.

How can a set of national goals, pursued for reasons of both national security and national prestige, be made compatible with the profit-seeking free enterprise system?

Kay stresses that after the 1964 election, LBJ seemed to have lost interest in the program that he had so strongly advocated. Other than making a few points about Vietnam and the Great Society he does not explore why this is so. One has to assume that it was at least in part due to Johnson’s realization that he would not be the President to welcome the astronauts back from the Moon. This was also a time when public support for the space program came close to collapsing. It is important to remember that the first large cutbacks in NASA’s budgetary ambitions took place during the final years of the Johnson Administration and not, as some of us tend to think, during the first years of the Nixon Administration.

From 1969 till 1981 the space program drifted along without much direction. The Moon landing were a triumph, but without any follow-up they left a generation of Americans feeling somehow cheated of the future in space that they had come to expect. The decision to build the space shuttle, and to do so as cheaply as possible, led to many of the problems we now face.

The analysis of the Reagan Administration’s policies, from the initial effort by Budget Director David Stockman to cancel the Galileo Jupiter probe to the efforts at privatization and commercialization, which mostly failed (in the case of Landsat badly), to the space station decision, is handled well told but without much originality. When it comes to the Strategic Defense Initiative, the missile defense program that Reagan began, Kay seems surprised that it has lasted so long and has survived the efforts that “…some White House officials opposed to SDI (reportedly including Chief of Staff James Baker) undertook behind the scenes efforts to ‘moderate’ the program.”

It was during the Reagan administration that the problems of commercialization and so on began to emerge. They are still with us and show no signs of going away. How can a set of national goals, pursued for reasons of both national security and national prestige, be made compatible with the profit-seeking free enterprise system? Without a low-cost way to get into orbit this problem will continue to bedevil the space industry and its supporters. This book is an excellent primer on how and why we got to where we are.