the Heavens and the Earth

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

To most casual observers, the so-called space race between the United States and the Soviet Union remains essentially mysterious. Part of the reason lies in the fact that the Russians, even by their own standards, have been unusually reticent in disclosing the nature of Soviet space research and technology. Just as troublesome to laymen, however, is the inherent complexity of the subject itself. Space programs are mostly hidden from public view; occasional triumphs (and disasters) are the main reminders of their existence. This basic ignorance of the nature of American and Soviet space programs has in turn created an unfortunate pattern of popular overreaction to their visible dimensions. People everywhere, even in America, were too quick to concede that the successful launching of Sputnik in 1957 constituted proof of Communism’s inherent advantage over democracy in producing sophisticated technology. For many this exaggerated conclusion was stood on its head eleven years later when an American first set foot on the moon. In the absence of better and more complete information, these dramatic swings of public opinion are likely to continue, whether the focus of future space programs is the exploitation of the immediate space environment or the penetration of the more distant heavens.

To say that an author has performed a public service constitutes high praise indeed. Yet, such an encomium applied to Walter A. McDougall’sThe Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age is not misplaced. McDougall has been amazingly successful in piecing together the scattered and often bewildering parts that collectively constitute the space-policy puzzle. Thus, for the first time, it is now possible by reading a single volume to become enlightened as to the origins of space exploration and the relationship of that achievement to American and Soviet national policies.

Inasmuch as the space race did not emerge full bloom in 1945, McDougall sensibly devotes the first two chapters to tracing in its background.

Until the close of World War II the potential uses of space remained the province of visionaries such as Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the Russian father of space flight, and his younger American counterpart, the oppressively secretive Robert Goddard. Although both men pioneered in the theory and development of rockets, the conquest of space itself awaited the emergence of a solid foundation of state-directed research and development combined with the political decision that such an effort was worthwhile. In 1939, Adolf Hitler assembled the cream of Germany’s scientists and engineers at Peenemünde on the Baltic in an effort to produce a superweapon that would ensure victory. By war’s end, this team had produced the so-called V-2 rocket, which represented state-of-the-art ballistics development. Meanwhile, beginning in the early 1930’s, Joseph Stalin, despite deeply engrained fears about the possibility of creating an apolitical technocratic elite, poured vast sums into support of research and development. While heightened international tensions leading to war produced no Russian equivalent of Peenemünde, by 1945 the Soviet Union had in place the expertise requisite to the development of its own space program.

As McDougall shows, the United States in 1945 was ill prepared to enter the space age. The very concept of command technology was alien to the most cherished of American traditions, the belief that a free marketplace was the only legitimate incubator of research and development. With very few exceptions, the American alliance between government and science and technology was an uneasy one, to be tolerated only during emergencies such as war. The restoration of peace in 1945 thus called for federal retrenchment rather than expansion. Although the United States was bequeathed virtually the entire German Peenemünde team, in addition to the bulk of its records and disassembled rockets, scant use was made of this resource. A V-2 rocket was successfully test-fired in the New Mexico desert in 1946, but within two years the nascent United States missile program was dead in its crib, a victim of peace and budget cutbacks.

The crisis necessary to produce a serious reexamination of past ways of managing the national defense occurred in 1949. Until that time, Americans had remained reasonably assured that a combination of atomic weapons, Strategic Air Command (SAC) bombers, and forward bases was adequate to national security needs. The credibility of this deterrence, however, was rudely shaken at the close of 1949 by the discovery that the Soviets had developed both an atomic capability and their own rocket. The fear stimulated by this discovery produced the decision to proceed full-speed with the development of the hydrogen bomb. The opening of the Korean War a half year later exerted a similar influence on intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) research. In 1951, the air force, itself divided between the traditional “blue-sky” generals and the advocates of ballistics delivery systems, was authorized to begin work on the Atlas missile. National security considerations had caused the United States belatedly to join the space race.

McDougall gives President Eisenhower high marks for his management of American space policy during its formative stages. For all his apparent willingness—some would say eagerness—to delegate responsibility, Eisenhower stood firm in his conviction that excessive federalization of the nation’s work was counterproductive to its long-term interests. Thus he doggedly resisted efforts to create a crash program that was designed expressly to beat the Soviets into space. Rather, he preferred a program that aimed to place a satellite in orbit in 1958 as part of the American contribution to the International Geophysical...

(The entire section is 2379 words.)