Friday, December 31, 2010

The Politics of Outer Space: The Cold War and the Gemini Program

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below, I discuss the Cold War motives for the beginning of the American space program.

The rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union extended even into outer space. Fear spread across the country when, on October 4, 1957, the Soviets successfully launched Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite, into orbit around the earth. Americans immediately worried about the military implications of the Soviet scientific achievement, and worried that a fleet of spacecraft far beyond any American defense system could bombard the United States with nuclear warheads. The Soviets launched Sputnik II, with a dog named Laika on board, in November. Worried about not just the military aspects of Soviet space flight, but also the blow to the prestige of the United States, which had been seen as the world’s scientific leader, the Eisenhower Administration inaugurated a crash space program to catch up with the Soviets. The United States put an unmanned craft of its own, Explorer I, into orbit on February 1, 1958.

This first American spacecraft sent data back to Earth, producing an important scientific discovery, the Van Allen radiation belt. By July 29, 1958, President Eisenhower had signed legislation creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which would plan future space missions, design new spacecraft, and determine priorities in what was already being called a “space race” with the Soviet Union.

Many blamed the American education system for allowing the U.S. to fall behind the USSR in space technology. Congress passed, and Eisenhower signed, the National Defense Education Act, which aimed to improve math and science programs at public schools and universities across the country. NASA soon announced the beginning of the Mercury space program, which would culminate in manned flights in space. Meanwhile, Soviet scientists continued to give the United States headaches, sending out unmanned space ships on three separate missions. One vessel flew past the moon, another struck the lunar surface, and a third took the first-ever photographs of the dark side of the moon.

Always romantically attracted to adventure, Kennedy approved the Apollo program, which aimed to land humans safely on the moon. American scientists felt even more pressure when the Soviets sent the Vostok I into Earth orbit carrying cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who on April 12, 1961 became the first human in outer space. By this time scientists working for the American government had developed powerful Saturn V rockets that could carry heavy payloads deep into space. Many of the scientists involved in the space program, like Dr. Werner Von Braun, formerly developed deadly war rockets for Nazi Germany but had been brought to the United States as part of what the military called “Operation Paperclip.” The United States government decided that it was in the national interest to ignore the war crimes committed by some of the German scientists if they could help the country keep up with the Soviets in the arms and space races.

American astronaut Alan Shepard became the second man in space on May 5, flying onboard the first of the Mercury program rockets. President Kennedy now felt confident enough to announce even bolder plans for NASA. During a May 25, 1961 speech before Congress, Kennedy announced, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

Kennedy accelerated the Mercury program. By February 20, 1962, astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth, making the round trip three times and spending what was then a record 34 hours in space. Soon the United States launched the Telstar TV satellite, which made worldwide television broadcasts possible for the first time. In May 1965, Ed White became the first American to conduct a space walk. Even when three astronauts, White, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, and Roger “Bruce” Chafee, burned to death inside the command module of Apollo I on January 27, 1967, Americans felt confident that the United States would meet its goal of landing on the moon by the end of the 1960s.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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