Historicizing the Decision to Scuttle the Shuttle

This marks the first in what I hope will be a series of historical comments on NASA's transition away from the Space Shuttle. Robert R. MacGregor, a Princeton grad student writing a dissertation on rocket design in the US and Soviet Union, kicks us off.

Upon my request, Bob offered a host of powerful historical frameworks to help us think about scuttling the shuttle. Part of what Bob suggested was that we consider this transition alongside the earlier decision to replace the Apollo program with the space shuttle program in the first place. I was struck by one of his side points about the disjoint between the powerful narratives we all know of technological progress and what actually happened to manned space flight:
A big part of why Apollo hoax conspiracy theories are so successful is precisely because the space race narrative doesn't fit in with the narrative of technological progress.  Why would we go to the moon and then just stop? It doesn't make sense---if technology is getting better---that we could go to the moon and then not go back for a half century.  How could the Europeans have ignored the New World after Columbus came back?  While the original Apollo hoax believers were a small minority, and the public cheered Buzz Aldrin when he punched Bart Sibrel in the face while filming a documentary on the moon landing conspiracy,  these arguments only gain credibility as time goes on.  

You might ask, what alternative narrative is there?  Well, the Soviet Union never publicly saw the space race as a race to the moon, and indeed the entire Soviet lunar effort was only made public in the late 1980's during glasnost.  For the Soviet Union, the narrative focused on Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, who kicked off the rest of the narrative with a bang, but left its ending unfinished.

I'd like to suggest that the real answer is that space flight is hard and it's not getting any easier.  It's not the kind of problem that better computers or better plastics solve, and the technology involved only gradually gets better over time.  It's a drag-out slugfest with nature that will always be dangerous and expensive.  So instead of Columbus and his conquistador followers, who found a tropical paradise comparatively emptied of its inhabitants by disease and easily overrun with guns and horses, perhaps the better metaphor to the moon landings were the Norse Vikings who, in the early 11th century, landed at L'Anse aux Meadows in Canada and built a small settlement.  They, unlike the Spaniards, didn't find a lush and inviting paradise with cities of gold, but instead found a hostile, bitter environment full of people intent on killing them far from their home and loved ones.  They decided to leave.  No Europeans would come back for four hundred years.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments. More smart NASA comments coming this week.



Just a quick comment - I think part of the answer to alternative narratives lies in decentering space history from national narratives and taking different viewpoints into account. Roger Malina, astrophysicist and son of JPL co-founder Frank Malina, tells a great story. When in India he showed a picture of the first "footprint" on the moon. when he asked his audience of Indian students what they saw, the first answer was a "bootprint." A very different viewpoint, indeed...

What I love about that story is how it makes technology that was to some extent invisible visible. The footprint becomes a bootprint and with that change comes a sense of the enormous apparatus that went into the moon landing.

It would seem, however, that decentering national narratives from space science history would be a very tall order. After all, few science programs required as much state involvement or became such important tools for establishing state prestige.

Patrick, that is indeed an interesting story, and an interesting question in space history is the cultural impact of spaceflight. Certainly the moon landings are the most heavily cited examples, but we can also point to, for instance, China's enthusiasm at being the third space-faring nation after Yang Liwei's flight in 2003. Also the Interkosmos program, which saw cosmonauts from Soviet allied countries from Eastern Europe and the Third World had important cultural impacts during the Cold War, when so much energy was being invested in spaceflight for prestige issues.

Still, I think space history must absolutely be approached from a nation-state-oriented framework, there's really no other way to look at it. While there has been a lot of international cooperation in space (Apollo-Soyuz, ESA, the ISS), we should note that it's very haphazard and delicate, even the ISS has separately managed and run US and Russian portions. The only human beings that have ever flown in space who were not government employees (usually in the armed forces) were the few space tourists on Soyuz (some NASA Payload Specialists debatably might also count).

And for all the talk about commercialization of space, I think that for the foreseeable future it will remain the nation-state that will be at the center of human spaceflight.

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