Redirect: “Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump Weigh in on U.S. Space Policy”

Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for U.S. president, and Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate, answered nine space-related questions posted by SpaceNews. Credit: Joseph Sohm /

Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for U.S. president, and Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate, answered nine space-related questions posted by SpaceNews. Credit: Joseph Sohm /

For those who have not yet seen it, Space News on October 11, 2016, has a story on the position of the two candidates for the presidency from the two major political parties on space policy. It is located here, and well worth a read.

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Homer Newell and the Early Post-War Space Science Program

Homer Newell

Homer Newell

Homer E. Newell (1915-1983) is one of the NASA leaders I am profiling in a book I have underway. His career was remarkable. He earned his Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Wisconsin in 1940 and served as a theoretical physicist and mathematician at the Naval Research Laboratory from 1944-1958. During part of that period, he was science program coordinator for Project Vanguard. In 1958 he transferred to NASA and quickly assumed leadership of the new space agency’s science program.

In 1961 Newell assumed directorship of the office of space sciences; in 1963, he became associate administrator for space science and applications. Over the course of his career, he became an internationally known authority in the field of atmospheric and space sciences. He chronicled his activities in Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science (Washington, D.C.: NASA SP-4211, 1980), a book I would recommend to anyone. I am confining my comments below to Newell and his early work in space science before his NASA experiences.

Beginning in 1945 the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), where Newell worked as a scientist, organized a rocket research component to explore the possibilities of this new technology developed by various nations, especially Germany with its V-2 program, in the immediate post-war era. Named the Rocket Sonde Research Section, NRL viewed this organization as necessary to the long-term future of national defense. Germany had demonstrated with its V-s that this technology held potential for the United States, and all of the federal organizations engaged in research.

Newell joined the NRL Rocket Sonde Research Section immediately, and in 1946 was named to head it. He commented in his 1980 memoir that the members of this section were inexperienced and somewhat naive at first:

No one in the section was experienced in upper atmospheric research, so the section immediately entered a period of intensive self-education. Members lectured each other on aerodynamics, rocket propulsion, telemetering—whatever appeared to be important for the new tasks ahead. The author gave a number of talks on satellites and satellite orbits. Indeed, the possibility of going immediately to artificial satellites of the earth as research platforms was considered by the group, which assimilated carefully whatever information it could obtain from military studies of the time. The conclusion was that one could indeed begin an artificial satellite program and expect to succeed, but that the amount of new development required would be costly and time consuming (p. 33).

Newell’s purpose in this effort had more to do with science than engineering, however, and he guided the Section away from efforts to reach orbit as a near term goal. Instead, he emphasized the development of small and less complex “sounding rockets” designed to reach the upper atmosphere where scientists could use instrument packages to measure cosmic rays and other physical phenomena of interest. As he wrote in his memoir, “scientists could not hope to have their instruments aloft for some years to come and, anyway, were not likely to get their hands on the necessary funds. The Rocket Sonde Research Section accordingly shelved the satellite idea and turned to sounding rockets” (p. 34).

A Bumper-Wac on the launch pad at White Sands in the late 1940s.

A Bumper-Wac on the launch pad at White Sands in the late 1940s.

In the context of scientific exploration of the upper atmosphere Newell first demonstrated on a broad stage one of his chief skills, the scientist as entrepreneur. The bespectacled, balding scientist had the ability to persuade divergent people with divergent interests and priorities to agree on fundamental steps and to execute them. This proved one of his most important talents throughout his later career. He fashioned repeatedly coalitions of scientists, engineers, military and government officials to support various initiative that at first seemed impossible.

For example, he proved central to efforts to persuade the Army’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which wanted to develop rockets for national security purposes, to allow scientists to place scientific instruments atop them. Newell accepted JPL’s condition that these efforts be utilitarian science that either directly supported the larger defense mission or was a natural byproduct of it. Beyond that, he persistently advocated the role of science and oversaw efforts to place on some of the Army’s test vehicles instruments that provided data about the upper atmosphere, solar and stellar ultraviolet radiation, and the aurora. This became a very successful scientific program that was carried out with limited fanfare and funding. As a result, scientists taking part in this program used JPL’s WAC-Corporal rocket, and later the Department of Defense’s (DoD) captured V‑2s, as well as follow-on missiles, for scientific research throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

The breakthrough in Newell’s, and several of his colleagues’, campaign for science on military rockets came on January 16, 1946, when several physicists and astronomers interested in cosmic ray, solar, and atmospheric research gathered at NRL along with representatives of the military services to discuss possible cooperation. “It was plain from the deliberations that a number of groups,” he recalled in his memoir, “both in universities and in the military would be interested in taking part in a program of high-altitude rocket research” (p. 34).

This meeting led to the creation of the V‑2 Upper Atmosphere Panel to oversee this effort in February 1946 to “develop a scientific program, assign priorities for experiments to fly on the V‑2s, and to advise the Army Ordnance Department on matters essential to the success of the program” (quoted in “Minutes of V‑2 Upper Atmosphere Research Panel Meeting,” V‑2 Report #1, February 27, 1946).

In March 1948 it became the Upper Atmosphere Rocket Research Panel and in 1957 the Rocket and Satellite Research Panel. It prioritized the use of these vehicles to study solar and stellar ultraviolet radiation, the aurora, and the nature of the upper atmosphere. As a result, the panel served as the “godfather” of the infant scientific field of space science. This successful collaboration led to numerous important scientific results, including measurement of the ionosphere, solar radiation, cosmic radiation, micrometeorites, sky brightness, biomedical research, and photography of Earth from space.

Newell played a key role in these activities throughout the pre-Sputnik period. Initially chaired by Ernst Krause, whom Newell worked for at NRL, the panel later had James Van Allen as chair and thereafter Newell. He and the other members of this Panel put the V‑2s to good scientific used. For example, between 1946 and 1951, 67 captured V-2s were test launched, most with some scientific payload aboard. The Panel also oversaw development of new sounding rockets and continued to control the nation’s sounding rocket program until NASA Headquarters took over this function in 1958. After the formation of NASA, several members of the Panel, including Newell, joined NASA and applied the experience they had gained to the organization and management of NASA’s space science program.

Viking #11 was fired at White Sands on May 24, 1954 and soared to an altitude of 158 miles and attained a speed of 4,000 miles per hour.

Viking #11 was fired at White Sands on May 24, 1954 and soared to an altitude of 158 miles and attained a speed of 4,000 miles per hour.

At the same time, Newell was involved as the space science coordinator for the Naval Research Laboratory’s Viking rocket program. Built by the Glenn L. Martin Co. the first Viking launched from White Sands on May 3, 1949, while the twelfth and last Viking took off on February 4, 1955. The program uncovered significant scientific information about the upper atmosphere and took impressive high-altitude photographs of Earth. All of these were sounding rockets, and their science experiments were coordinated through the Upper Atmosphere Rocket Research Panel.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Beyond UFOs: The Search for Extraterrestrial Life and Its Astonishing Implications for Our Future”

beyond-ufosBeyond UFOs: The Search for Extraterrestrial Life and Its Astonishing Implications for Our Future. By Jeffrey Bennett. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008. Preface, acknowledgments, photographs, bibliography, and index. ISBN: 978-0-691-13549-6, 211 pages, $26.95 hardcover with dust jacket.

While the title, Beyond UFOs: The Search for Extraterrestrial Life and Its Astonishing Implications for Our Future, offers a provocative tease about visitations by aliens from other worlds, this book is really about the very down to Earth efforts to learn the answer to the age-old question, “Are we alone in the universe?” As such it is a reasonable introduction to astrobiology written in an engaging and accessible style. For those without a background this will be useful, but for professionals there will be little here that is new or different. Additionally, this book is not really historical in focus; it is more of a work of popular science than anything else, although there is some discussion of change over time.

There is no doubt but that astrobiology is a fascinating, compelling, and important subject. Everyone’s eyes seem to light up when pondering the prospect of life somewhere else in the universe, and it is completely appropriate that NASA has made pursuit of this question a central part of its space science program. It may well be that while the twentieth century was the century of physics, the twenty-first century will be about biology, or in this case astrobiology. To his credit Bennett is willing to take on the tin foil hat brigade and skewer those who claim alien visitation and abduction, in the process offering a primer on discerning accepted fact and personal opinion. This is the story that Jeffrey Bennett tells in this book.

Bennett also relates the ferment elsewhere with direct applicability to NASA’s search for life beyond Earth. The research on extremophile life on Earth, at the bottom of the oceans around sea vents, within rocks, etc., all fueled reconsiderations of what this might mean for life elsewhere in the solar system. The origins and evolution of life on Earth has held powerful analog lessons for the prospects for life beyond. As Cornell University scientist Bill Nye commented about “extremophilic” life: “It’s compelling evidence for astrobiologists that the environmental limits for living things are set pretty far apart.”

The Mars meteorite of 1996 and the hoopla it stirred up also suggested that this was an avenue of great significance. When the 4.2-pound, ­potato-­sized rock (identified as ALH84001) was formed as an igneous rock about 4.5 billion years ago, Mars was much warmer and probably contained oceans hospitable to life. Then, about 15 million years ago, a large asteroid hit the red planet and jettisoned the rock into space, where it remained until it crashed into Antarctica around 11,000 BCE. Scientists presented three compelling, but not conclusive, pieces of evidence suggesting that ­fossil-­like remains of Martian microorganisms, which date back 3.6 billion years, were present in ALH84001. The findings electrified the scientific world but excited the public just as fully, and added support for an aggressive set of missions to Mars to help discover the truth of these theories. While the theory has not been accepted by most in the scientific community, it helped to enthuse many at NASA and reorient much of space science toward answering this question about life beyond.

Indeed, as Jeffrey Bennett notes, the Mars science program gained a new lease on life in no small part because of these developments. The missions to “follow the water” on Mars have transformed the planetary sciences since the last decade of the twentieth century. Similar possibilities of life, although strikingly different from popular conceptions of ET, may also exist on other bodies in the solar system. He discusses prospects on Titan, Europa, Enceladus, and other locations and finds that there are genuine signs that microorganisms may well be alive in these extreme environments.

Bennett then discusses the prospects for life beyond this solar system. With the discovery of extrasolar planets the possibilities appear limitless. More than 350 have been discovered since the first extrasolar planet around a sun-like star, 51 Pegasi B, was detected as a result of observations undertaken at the Observatoir de Genève in 1995. Examination of extrasolar objects has not yielded as yet any Earth-like planets, but scientists believe that in time it will. What might this portend for the future? Observations from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Infrared Space Telescope have been used to detect extra-solar planets, and other work continues from the ground. The possibilities are mind-bending, according to Bennett. Using advanced observation techniques, they will someday produce an image of a blue and white planet with liquid water and a breathable atmosphere. It seems inevitable. Such a discovery will certainly spur interest in closer observation, revitalizing the dream of galactic space travel.

Finally, Bennett discusses the much publicized search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) that began in 1960 at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in West Virginia, when astronomer Frank Drake pointed the radio telescope at Epsilon Eridani and listened for signals that might be dispatched by a technological civilization residing nearby. He unpacks the famous Drake equation, which has so many variables that one can either prognosticate that there is only one technological civilization or that there are billions. More likely, Bennett notes that many scientists have adopted the belief that while the universe may be filled with life at the micro organic scale there may still not be an abundance of life similar to us. He’s not so sure.

While Bennett pooh-poohs the beliefs of many that Earth is routinely visited by alien intelligences—good for him—he holds himself open to the possibility that we may someday communicate with such intelligence. If they are out there—and Bennett believes they could be since the chemistry, laws of physics, etc., are the same everywhere—then they are almost certainly not visiting us. “In fact, I rather doubt that any such advanced aliens would be paying attention to us as all,” he writes, “except perhaps for monitoring us, waiting to see if we ever prove ourselves smart enough and friendly enough to deserve an invitation into their galactic club” (p. 196).

There is a pressing need for scholarly investigation of the recent history of astrobiology. This is not that book. It is, however, one of several recent popular, journalistic accounts on this very exciting aspect of space exploration. For scholarly analysis of this subject, Steven J. Dick has virtually cornered the market with three seminal books on the subject— Plurality of Worlds: The Origins of the Extraterrestrial Life Debate from Democritus to Kant (Cambridge University Press, 1982), The Biological Universe: The Twentieth Century Extraterrestrial Life Debate and the Limits of Science (Cambridge University Press, 1996), and The Living Universe: NASA and the Development of Astrobiology (Rutgers University Press, 2004), written with James E. Strick—and I hope he writes yet another that tells the story of the recent developments in the search for extraterrestrial life.

Enjoy this work for what it is, but don’t expect more out of it than what it was intended to be by the author.

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The Federal Government and the Development of Aerospace Technology

NASA’s “Future Flight Central,” the world’s first full-scale virtual airport control tower, opened in 1999 at NASA Ames Research Center, California. Constructed at a cost of $10 million, this facility was jointly funded by NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Since 1903, the United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars developing aerospace technology, on the management of the infrastructure necessary to support its operations, and on the military and other practical applications that it affords. Accordingly, through a century of heaver-than-air flight the federal government has been the major actor in developing and using air- and spacecraft.

The United States did not have to make that investment—it could have chosen to act like many other major nations such as China and Brazil and Turkey—but because it did the nation became the foremost air- and spacefaring power in the world. In truth, the impact of federal investments in aviation and space have been felt most directly in aerospace science and engineering, but it has also rippled through other fields of scientific and technological endeavor and across social, cultural, economic, and political arenas in the United States and worldwide. Apart from past theoretical developments in physics and the art and science of flight, federally supported R&D efforts have been a major factor—in some instances, the key factor—driving innovation.

The U.S. government’s investment in both aviation and space has supported activities performed by a wide range of parties, including both civilian and military federal agencies, nonprofit quasi-government entities, private corporations, and educational institutions. A number of important conclusions emerge from this discussion of federal aerospace investment.

The B-29 built by Boeing during World War was a critical new technology that transformed post-war aviation.

First, for good or otherwise, critical innovation in both the space and aviation sectors has been driven by external crises. Both world wars, particularly World War II, had a motivating effect on aerospace engineering and mass production processes. Industrial techniques developed by Henry Ford for automobile production were applied to the war effort—Ford Motor Company mass-produced bomber and other aircraft in numbers unimaginable before the war.

Following World War II, the Cold War saw the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles that provided the technological foundation and legacy for space launch vehicles. This era also witnessed the development of advanced reconnaissance programs, such as the SR-71 aircraft and the CORONA satellite, to gather information about areas that were otherwise inaccessible. These activities led directly to many of the present space science efforts, such as Hubble Space Telescope, whose technologies and advanced engineering were based on these early intelligence programs. The launch of Sputnik and piloted Russian spacecraft and the outcry that followed so stung the U.S. that it was propelled to accelerate the U.S. human spaceflight programs to a vast scale and cost previously considered unacceptable by the public.

Second, the federal government’s role in fostering innovation appears to have followed different paths in aviation and space R&D. Specifically, in aviation, the government, from virtually the beginning, focused on supporting inquiry into basic principles of aerodynamics and materials, as well as creating facilities for conducting basic aviation science. This investment, in turn, helped the private aviation industry to progress from a small-scale, essentially craft-centered, node of development and production to the vast, mass-production enterprise it has become today, with its own flourishing R&D component.

By contrast, the federal government’s role in fostering R&D in space innovation often appears to have reversed the typical progression from basic research to development. Instead, federal investment in space innovation concentrated on technology development and engineering, with little emphasis on basic research. By the time the U.S. space program began scaling up to produce spacecraft in the 1950s, the basic principles of rocketry and space flight were already well understood. The practical problems of launching viable spacecraft, however, were not. In turn, spaceflight facilitated deployment of new scientific instrumentation and the conduct of new experiments that fueled advances in basic science.

A control center with imagery delivered by air and space assets.

Third, the cross-fertilization between national security (defined as the military and intelligence communities) and civilian innovation has been central to the success of both the aviation and space enterprises. Because the military and civilian industrial bases in both sectors overlap substantially and many technologies are “dual use,” U.S. national security and civilian programs have often benefited from innovations emerging from the other domain or from joint efforts. Yet, different organizational missions have also led to differing institutional focus and emphasis: for the NACA and NASA, on basic aviation and space science and R&D; for the national security community, including the military Services, more often applied research and development of advanced weapon systems.

While development of a particular technology by one agency may not have led to the direct production of an operational system by another agency and thus could be construed as a failure of innovation, in other instances that technology development led to unanticipated breakthroughs in other technologies or system approaches that could be applied across organizational and institutional boundaries. Applying performance measures to pure research has not always worked, yet many would argue that taxpayer dollars for focused federal investment in aerospace R&D should provide a worthwhile return on investment. Nevertheless, opportunities for cross-fertilization between federal organizations, driven by decreasing federal investments in aerospace R&D and other factors, are having the effect of encouraging greater numbers of joint or interagency activities to pursue dual use technologies.

Fourth, the evolution of large-scale engineering techniques and methodologies has yielded important lessons for similar-scale projects in other areas. These accumulated lessons have enduring relevance—from the days of NACA and large-scale wind tunnels for testing aircraft to the large scale engineering projects involved in human spaceflight. From the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs to the space shuttle and international space station and the exploration of the Moon and Mars, they continue to guide and inform.

The results of those earlier investments in aerospace technology are everywhere around us. It was in no small measure from government investment in miniature electronics technologies in the 1960s and 1970s that the many devices we use today, such as today’s Smartphones, sprang. It is from government investment in computing and telecommunications technology that the Internet emerged. It was from government R&D that our space-based system of navigation—the Global Positioning System, or GPS — has made reading a paper map obsolete. These are only a few examples among thousands.

One can clearly speculate where the future of flight may go, but whatever the course success will still hinge on the investments in aerospace technology made today, so that in the future American capabilities may be built on firm foundations.

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What Were the Origins of Mormon/Non-Mormon Conflict in 1840s Nauvoo?

A map of Nauvoo, Illinois, at the time of the Latter-day Saints in the early 1840s.

A map of Nauvoo, Illinois, at the time of the Latter-day Saints in the early 1840s.

The non-Mormons of Hancock County, Illinois, in the early 1840s probably disliked the Mormons from the first, in the same way that most Americans have generally disliked what they have viewed as religious fanaticism, but they were initially disposed toward toleration because they sympathized with its members as refugees from oppression in Missouri. That view, however, soon began to change. Some of the Mormons, embittered against “Gentiles” (non-Mormons) because of their recent experience and impoverished because of their forced abandonment of homes in Missouri, stole food, livestock, and other things from farms in the Nauvoo area. And non-Mormons soon learned that trips to Nauvoo in search of stolen goods, or to seek payment for items sold to the Mormons, were fruitless—and even frightening.

The highly unified, separatist community did not cooperate with outsiders, and some of the Saints resorted to intimidation. For example the “whistling and whittling brigade” of young ruffians made unwelcome visitors fear for their lives as they encircled them during their visits to the Mormon stronghold. Nauvoo quickly developed a reputation among western Illinois residents as a place where lawbreakers friendly to the church were shielded from arrest.

Historic rendering of Nauvoo Temple from the 1840s.

The amount of Mormon theft is impossible to determine, since some stealing by others was undoubtedly blamed on the Saints, nor can Joseph Smith’s involvement be established with any certainty, despite what some memoirs fron older residents imply. Certain Mormon raiders may have felt they had Smith’s approval when in fact they did not. In any case, the evidence of Mormon theft is substantial, and that activity caused some non-Mormons in townships near Nauvoo to oppose the Saints.

But of far greater importance to the development of non-Mormon animosity and to the eventual eruption of mobocratic violence was the perceived threat to democratic government posed by Smith and his theocratic community. That view was expressed as far away as Macomb, Quincy, Alton, and other Illinois communities, but it was centered in Hancock County, where the Mormons dominated local politics by 1842.

Warsaw, a town of about 500 people in the early 1840s, spearheaded the opposition to Smith and political Mormonism. Founded in 1834 as a place for shipping and commerce, Warsaw was something of a microcosm of pluralistic America, an open, ambitious, progressive community where residents did not hold the religious preconceptions that made Nauvoo’s theocracy possible. Instead, local residents firmly subscribed to republicanism, the ill-defined civil religion of the Jacksonian era. Common democratic ideals lashed the people together, and the rituals of self-government affirmed the community’s ideological bond.

To the people of Warsaw, the nation had transcendent value, and republicanism was the operative faith of their town. So, it is not surprising that residents there objected to Smith’s theocratic domination of government at Nauvoo, his encouragement of bloc voting for candidates he supported, his use of the Nauvoo Charter to avoid prosecution, and, eventually, his violation of the civil rights of his critics.

The last address of Joseph Smith in Nauvoo.

That Joseph Smith also headed a huge militia, the Nauvoo Legion, made the threat of despotism seem all the more real. When a united political effort, the Anti-Mormon Party of 1841-1842, failed to curb Smith’s secular power, non-Mormons became increasingly frustrated, and there was talk of mobocratic measures to stop the threat of political Mormonism.

At the same time, after two arrest attempts by Missouri officials, the Mormon prophet became increasingly fearful of the authorities in that state, whom he regarded as thoroughly evil. He drew his supporters more closely around him by depicting the Saints as innocent chosen people and himself as their champion fighting the enemies of God. Critics and opponents in Illinois were associated with those enemies, and thus fear and intolerance increased among the Mormons and governmental authority at Nauvoo became centered in Smith. Apparently unaware of the contradiction between real democratic government and his theocratic control of Nauvoo, the prophet placed the church on a collision course with the non-Mormons in Hancock County—and, ultimately, with America.

No question, the conflict between the Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo and the residents surrounding Nauvoo, Illinois, in the 1840s is one of the most important aspects of early Mormon history. Controversies between the Mormon and non-Mormon population began almost immediately when the Latter -day Saints arrived in Illinois in 1839 and grew in intensity and violence by the middle-1840s. The assassination of Joseph Smith Jr. in 1844 and a Mormon war that only ended with the members’ removal from Illinois 1846 are only the two most visible aspects of this struggle.

This lithograph depicts Joseph Smith as the head of the Nauvoo Legion. The Nauvoo Temple is in the background.

This lithograph depicts Joseph Smith as the head of the Nauvoo Legion. The Nauvoo Temple is in the background.

By taking violent action the citizens of Hancock County reasserted fundamental direction over local government whether for good or ill. Political scientist Jurgen Habermas has suggested that when the “instrumental rationality” of the bureaucratic state intrudes too precipitously into the “lifeworld” of its citizenry, they rise up in some form to correct its course or to cast it off altogether. The “lifeworld” is evident in the ways in which language creates the contexts of interpretations of everyday circumstances, decisions, and actions. He argued that the “lifeworld” is “represented by a culturally transmitted and linguistically organized stock of interpretive patterns.”

Artist’s depiction of the assassination of Joseph Smith on June 27, 1844.

For a sizable proportion of the citizens of Hancock County, the activities of the Mormons intruded into their “lifeworld,” as their expressions of discontent demonstrated, and they could obtain no resolution through the “instrumental rationality” residing in the state. Accordingly, they took direct and violent action and justified it without a tinge of conscience for the rest of their lives.

By doing so, they violated the very democratic ideals to which they subscribed and committed the most notorious acts of the Mormon conflict—the murders of Joseph and Hyrum Smith in June 1844 and the expulsion of the remaining Mormons from Nauvoo in September 1846.

With regard to the Mormons, they can be praised for their religious idealism, hard work, and personal sacrifice, but the anti-democratic tendencies of their dogmatic, crusading spirit are equally apparent. Conflict with their neighbors in Illinois was inevitable because their myth of identity made community with other Americans impossible. Their experience at Nauvoo demonstrated the dangers of theocratic government, the danger of demonizing other people, and the deceptions fostered by the illusion of innocence.

These same three dangers—theocratic government, demonizing other people, and the illusion of innocence—should be persistent issues in studying the history of Mormonism.

They are not largely because the Mormon conflict is viewed as part of the sacred history of the church—a church whose mission was, and remains, to restore erring humanity’s true relationship to God, build the kingdom of God, and bring salvation to the peoples of the Earth. While honest in intent and sound in methodology, historians have seldom explored beyond the safe boundaries of the Latter-day Saint faith story to analyze the Mormon war for what it was, a clash of world views.

From the very earliest history of the Latter Day Saint movement, the sense that Joseph Smith and his followers were being unjustly persecuted by a sinister group conspiring to destroy the gospel was a persistent theme. The vision of a widespread and sinister conspiracy seeking to destroy Joseph Smith personally and the Mormon Church collectively represented a paranoia about the way in which the world worked. This is not a particularly unusual occurrence in history, but the logical conclusion of this mindset was that Mormonism went to war with American society.

Photograph of Nauvoo in the middle 1840s with the Mormon Temple in the background

Photograph of Nauvoo in the middle 1840s with the Mormon Temple in the background

Interpreting the Nauvoo experience in this manner makes impossible a larger exploration, one that I believe would lead historians to appreciate that the conflict was an ideological struggle between two civilizations with differing social, political, and institutional visions.

Conflict of some kind seems inevitable in this context, and when Smith condemned his Mormon critics as enemies of the people and suppressed their civil rights through institutionalized violence, the non-Mormons—politically frustrated and fearing despotism—resorted to mobocratic measures. Other causes, such as lawlessness by some Mormons aimed at the Gentiles economic and social strife, contributed to the outbreak of violence, but in my view this ideological struggle was central.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Science Talk: Changing Notions of Science in American Culture”

science-talkScience Talk: Changing Notions of Science in American Culture. By Daniel Patrick Thurs. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007, paperback reprint 2008. Vii + 237 pgs., acknowledgments, introduction, notes, index. ISBN: 978-0-8135-4420-5, $27.95 paperback.

Science is one element of modern American society that is ubiquitous. We see it all around us, even when we do not seek it, and we cannot envision a life without its presence. We mostly view science and the scientific enterprise as benevolent and positive. Mostly, however, we ignore it, or do we? Americans have engaged in some of the most heated controversies in the nation’s history with science as the center of the debate. That is what this book is about, and not just the debates themselves, but also how those debates have shaped the nature of scientific investigation itself.

We seemingly love these debates, despite the fact that they may be far removed from the issues that affect our lives. For example, many Americans were incensed in 2006 when the Pluto was demoted to dwarf planet status by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). The state legislature of California even passed a resolution accusing the IAU of “scientific heresy.” New Mexico’s state legislators even declared that Pluto will always be considered a planet while in New Mexican skies. This is a rather light-hearted controversy to be sure since very little of significance, perhaps beside pride, is riding on the status of Pluto.

Not so with several other scientific controversies.  In Science Talk: Changing Notions of Science in American Culture, Daniel Patrick Thurs, a fellow in New York University’s Draper Program at the time of its publication, takes aim at five major controversies in science in the United States. Two of those are nineteenth century debates—phrenology and evolution—and the remainder—relativity, UFOs, and intelligent design—are decidedly twentieth century debates. There is quite a lot riding on these debates, not the least of which is religion and worldview. These debates, besides containing deep ideological fissures, are complicated by the complexity of scientific research and its meaning.

This may seem confusing for many casual observers, prompting many individuals to defer to those they trust. This is unfortunate. Among those comfortable with the role of science in American life, this could foster support for the authority of scientific experts. This deference may, but does not necessarily, lead to blind acceptance of all that is done in the name of science. It may also lead to deference to another type of authority. In the case of evolution and intelligent design this could be a privileging of religious ideals and those who espouse them. In the case of something like UFOs or phrenology or the like it might foster deference to those who claim to have firsthand knowledge of the subject, whether or not they might be credible.

It is important note that in every case the author is seeking to explore contrasting opinions about science and its unfolding throughout the more than two-hundred years of U.S. history. Thurs especially tries to unpack the place of skeptics in this process, counterbalancing that trend with the dominant place science enjoys in which it is credited with inevitably leading Americans to a better future. Using a broad set of sources, ranging from analysis of magazines, newspapers, journals, and other forms of public discourse to personal papers and public opinion research, Thurs describes the rising perception of science as something beyond the capability of ordinary Americans to understand and the need to employ translators between those engaged in the practice of science and the general public.

The rising elitism inherent in this term has both aided in creating a high stature for scientists and the scientific enterprise and a distancing of the population from the practice of science. The lack of general understanding about science has ensured that it will be misunderstood. Accordingly, in something like intelligent design where there is a broad-based effort to misconstrue the nature of the science the result has been confusion, obfuscation, and not a little chicanery.

For readers of this journal, the chapter on the UFO craze of the middle part of the twentieth century will probably be the most interesting. This represents a form of pseudo-science in which the majority of the public accepts as a given that Earth is being visited by extraterrestrials with technologies far beyond what is present here. In some cases this is a benign visitation; in others it represents a ruthless process of horrific medical experimentation. The evolution of this UFO craze offers a useful case study in the manner in which something beyond the bounds of science intrudes on the scientific enterprise. For their parts, scientists have dismissed claims to visitation but have failed to persuade, in no small part because of the diligence, perseverance, and imaginativeness of advocates. And this despite the lack of any evidence whatsoever to support the claims of visitation.

There is much of value in Science Talk: Changing Notions of Science in American Culture and Daniel Patrick Thurs should be commended for bringing to light the process whereby scientific controversies have evolved over time. It is an engaging study, one that will benefit all those interested in science and its place in American history.

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Redirect: “China wants to build the world’s biggest spaceplane”

The Chinese Suborbital spaceplane concept.

The Chinese suborbital spaceplane concept.

During the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in late September in Guadalajara, Mexico, Chinese space official Lui Haiquang, from the Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, unveiled a plan to build the “biggest” spaceplane ever to be used for suborbital tourism. Perhaps the initiative will be successful, but I am skeptical. I’m quoted in the piece as saying, “It is always easier to draw illustrations and talk possibilities than to build and fly spacecraft.” I stand by that assessment. Some stories on this subject are herehere, here, and here. What do you think?

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Sputnik and Free Overflight in Space

A Soviet engineer and Sputnik 1.

It came like a shock to the system on October 4, 1957. The Soviet Union launched a beach ball-sized orbital satellite to usher in the “Space Age.” The act in itself proved neither particularly shocking nor threatening but what it signaled certainly was; the sense that if the Soviets could put an orbital spacecraft over our heads it could bring a nuclear missile down on our heads. This resulted in a total reorientation of priorities in the United States and the establishment of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as a focal point for space activities.

At the same time a little-known principal critical to the safety of the entire world also resulted from Sputnik. The Soviet satellite established the overwhelmingly critical principal of overflight in space, the ability to send reconnaissance and other satellites over a foreign nation for any non-lethal purpose free from the fear of attack on them. Orbiting reconnaissance satellites served more than virtually any other technology as a stabilizing influence in the Cold War. The ability to see what rivals were doing helped to ensure that national leaders on both sides did not make decisions based on faulty intelligence. Both the Americans and the Soviets benefited from this capability, and the world was safer as a result, but it might have turned out another way.

Versions of the Nike surface-to-air missile. From left to right: Nike Ajax, Nike Hercules, and Nike Zeus.

In a critical two-volume 190-page assessment, “Meeting the Threat of Surprise Attack,” issued on February 14, 1955, U.S. defense officials raised the question of international law governing territorial waters and airspace, in which individual nations controlled those regions as if they were their own soil. That international custom allowed nations to board and confiscate vessels within territorial waters near their coastlines and to force down aircraft flying in their territorial airspace.

This has resulted in shoot-downs on occasion, as when the Soviet Union downed a Korean Air Lines Boeing 747 in 1983.  But in 1957 space as a territory had not yet been defined, and U.S. leaders argued that it should be recognized as beyond the normal confines of territorial limits. An opposite position, however, argued for the extension of territorial limits into space above a nation into infinity.

“Freedom of space” became an extremely significant issue for those concerned with orbiting satellites, because the imposition of territorial prerogatives outside the atmosphere could legally restrict any nation from orbiting satellites without the permission of nations that might be overflown. Since the U.S. was in a position to capitalize on “freedom of space” it favored an open position. Many other nations had little interest in establishing a free access policy that allowed the U.S. to orbit reconnaissance satellites overhead.

From left to right: Russian Premier Nikolai Bulganin, United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower, French Premier Edgar Faure, British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden at the 1955 Geneva Conference. At this conference Eisenhower put forth the “Open Skies” plan.

U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower tried to obtain a “freedom of space” decision on July 21, 1955, when he proposed it at a U.S./USSR summit in Geneva, Switzerland. Soviet leaders rejected the proposal, however, saying that it was an obvious American attempt to “accumulate target information.” Eisenhower later admitted, “We knew the Soviets wouldn’t accept it, but we took a look and thought it was a good move.” The Americans thereafter worked quietly to establish the precedent.

Donald Quarles, Eisenhower’s Deputy Secretary of Defense.

Then Sputnik, a scientific satellite, overflew the United States and other nations of the world. On October 8, 1957, an Eisenhower advisor, Donald Quarles, offered this irony to the U.S. president: “the Russians have…done us a good turn, unintentionally, in establishing the concept of freedom of international space.” Eisenhower immediately grasped this as the precedent for overflight and pressed ahead with the launching of a reconnaissance satellite, and eventually first did so in 1960. The precedent held for later satellites and by the end of 1958 the tenuous principle of “freedom of space” had been established. By allowing the Soviet Union to lead in this area, the Russian space program had established the U.S.-backed precedent for free overflight.

Throughout 1958 the Eisenhower administration affirmed the free-access-to-space position already established in precedent and declared that space would not be used for warlike purposes. At the same time it asserted that reconnaissance satellites and other military support activities that could be  aided by satellites, such as communications and weather, were peaceful activities since they assisted in strategic deterrence and therefore averted war. This was a critical space policy decision as it provided for open use of space and fashioned a virtual “inspection system” to forewarn of surprise attack through the use of reconnaissance satellites.

Some have speculated that Eisenhower might actually have held back the U.S. effort to launch an orbital satellite to allow the Soviets to do so first, thereby establishing this all-important principal of overflight. After all, had the U.S. launched before the Soviet Union, Khrushchev might have protested it as a violation of his nation’s airspace. This could have thrown the “freedom of space” concept into years of intense and confrontational international negotiation. While this is a fascinating possibility, there is no evidence to believe that the Eisenhower administration actually conspired to lose the race to launch the first satellite. Instead, establishing the precedent of “freedom of space” is much more likely a serendipity from the Soviet Sputnik launch.

This proved to be an important serendipity, without question, and as is so often the case in history the unintended consequences of actions turn out to be more important than the intended ones. The story of the establishment of “freedom of space” is a critical case of an unintended consequence of momentous importance for the rest of the Cold War.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age”

red-moon-rising-sputnik-and-the-hidden-rivals-that-ignited-the-space-ageRed Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age. By Matthew Brzezinski. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2007.

The fiftieth anniversary of the launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, sparked the publication of several new books reconsidering the origins of the space age. It was an important demarcation point, to be sure, and fully deserving of reconsideration and perhaps reinterpretation. Matthew Brzezinski, a former Moscow correspondent for the New York Times, has written a richly detailed, personality driven account of the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States that led to the launch of the first human-made Earth satellite. Red Moon Rising contains many wonderful anecdotes and little-known details. As such it is a useful new work on a subject already much plumbed by many skilled historians and journalists.

Brzezinski is a vivid storyteller, and his extraordinary narration is a great strength of this book. The author’s flamboyant style makes Red Moon Rising a joy to read, rather than a chore. Unfortunately, too many historians seem to inflict dense prose on those interested in their subjects. The richness of Brzezinski’s narrative, coupled with the recounting of little-known aspects of the story are the principal reasons students of the history of spaceflight will pay attention to this account.

Brzezinski’s version of this story benefited greatly from the end of the Cold War and the opening of Soviet archival materials as well as access to many interview subjects in Russia. He demonstrated an indefatigable obsession for tracking down stray facts and recreating unknown scenes. A review of his sources reveals Brzezinski’s multi-layered efforts to gather primary materials from wide-ranging archives of private sources.

For all of his research—and I applaud his efforts on that score—there are several troubling aspects of Brzezinski’s work. Perhaps the most important is his complete inversion of the account of how the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to support the International Geophysical Year (IGY) with orbital satellite programs.

The IGY was an international scientific effort to undertake coordinated measurements of various aspects of the Earth’s meteorology, geology, magnetism, geodesy, and a host of other physical sciences. Brzezinski’s account notes: “A few weeks prior to the IGY’s 1955 convention in Rome, Radio Moscow announced that the Soviet Union would launch scientific instruments into space…In response, the National Academy of Sciences promptly declared that the United States would also send up a satellite to study the earth’s protective cocoon” (p. 92). Unfortunately, this sequence of announcements is totally wrong; the U.S. announced that it would launch a scientific Earth satellite and then the Soviet Union responded.

It is both amazing and troubling that Brzezinski mischaracterized these actions so thoroughly. Of course, this story is well known and has been discussed at length in Asif A. Siddiqi’s impressive account, Challenge to Apollo: The Soviet Union and the Space Race, 1945-1974 (Washington, DC: NASA SP-2000-4408, 2000), the gold standard for understanding the Soviet side of the space race.

In addition, some of Brzezinski’s details seem more inventive than is acceptable in works of history. Factual errors are present throughout the book, and their persistence forces readers to question the larger story that the author seeks to tell. Brzezinski too often comments on “the spare historical record” of a particular event and then describes it in great detail, discussing at length the thoughts, motivations, and even body language of the actors involved. Scene setting is to be expected at some level in any work of history, but on what did he base such vivid accounts of obscure events? Filling in missing gaps in the record is something all historians do, but how far may we legitimately go in structuring the past? How much dramatic license is appropriate? Those are questions of significance, and readers are always empowered to ascertain how far they wish to trust an author’s narrative.

When Edmund Morris published his controversial biography of Ronald Reagan, Dutch, in which he inserted himself as a wholly artificial participant in the story it set off a fire storm of controversy. Many questioned the appropriateness of such a literary device but at least Morris was forthright about his style. In the case of Red Star Rising readers may appropriately ask how much of the narrative is based on solid historical research and how much of it is dramatic recreation. At sum, this is a philosophical debate in which individuals of good intentions may disagree.

Whatever strengths this work might possess, there is nothing in Red Moon Rising whatsoever that will change the contours of the larger story of Sputnik and its place in world history that has already been mapped out by such scholars as Walter A. McDougall and Robert A. Divine. Indeed, some of that larger story of Sputnik as a world changing event is lost amidst all of Brzezinski’s enriching details. At best it is a lucid recounting of the creation story of the space age, in which the image of the Soviet Union as a technological backwater is reversed, spaceflight as an exemplar of progress and forward thinking is advanced, and the destiny of humanity is placed in a cosmic perspective.

In the United States, moreover, the launch of Sputnik touched off a crisis of confidence in the nation’s scientific and technological elite and led to a series of important decisions, among them the creation of NASA and the establishment of major educational programs. As Duke University historian Alex Roland observed about this type of narrative in 1994, it is not so much history as it is “tribal rituals, meant to comfort the old and indoctrinate the young” (Alex Roland, “How We Won the Moon,” New York Times Book Review, July 17, 1994, pp. 1, 25).

As a story of creation for the space age, Red Moon Rising is probably acceptable for most space enthusiasts. It offers a usable past for those interested in this subject, but I recommend reading it with a critical mind and questioning its dramatic recreations. As a statement of “Truth,” if such a thing exists and if we can define it, Brzezinski’s narrative has holes that are readily apparent to anyone with a modicum of knowledge about the early history of spaceflight. All are cautioned to be appropriately hesitant to accept any particular version of the past; that caution is doubly appropriate with Red Moon Rising.

Of course, historians have been wrestling with the nature of truth about the past since the profession first emerged. Who has the authority to decide what the history says? Is it professional historians, journalists trained in turning a good phrase and telling a story, actors recollecting the events the way they wish, some combination of these or others of disparate vantage points? No less a figure than historian Carl L. Becker said in the 1920s that everyone had to be their own historian. He wrote presciently about this issue in one of his seminal essays, “What Are Historical Facts?” Becker commented that we all assign value to facts based on the concerns personally felt, the perspectives invoked, and the concerns of the age: “the simple historical fact turns out to be not a hard, cold something with clear outline, and measurable pressure, like a brick. It is so far as we can know it, only a symbol, a simple statement which is a generalization of a thousand and one simpler facts which we do not for the moment care to use, and this generalization itself we cannot use apart from the wider facts and generalizations which it symbolizes” (Carl L. Becker, “What Are Historical Facts?” Western Political Quarterly 8 (September 1955): 327-40).

Is Brzezinski’s book simply a statement of a set of perspectives about the past and that his perspective is as valid as another other, or are there such things a right and a wrong, accurate and inaccurate accounts of the past? I have always believed that historians must strive for an accurate recording of the past insofar as possible, while always understanding and acknowledging that such a goal is unattainable. But some histories are more accurate than others. In that sense, while I value much of what Brzezinski has accomplished I am also concerned about how well it reflects historical truth insofar as we can know it. Accordingly, I will be hesitant to recommend it as a standard work to read about the origins of the space age.

An old baseball joke seems apropos here. Three umpires were discussing how they call balls and strikes behind the plate. The first said, “I call them as they are,” a pre-modern, absolutist position that I wish I could embrace but I know is unattainable in history. The second said, “I call them as I see them,” a position reflecting rationality and modernity that I accept as the most workable approach to history as each contributes to the marketplace of ideas and individuals are then asked to sort out the divergent positions. The third opined in a fit of post-modern existential angst, “They ain’t nothin’ til I call them.”

It seems that this last perspective is the critical element in considering such books as Red Moon Rising. Is it possible that the reality of what happened does not matter all that much; the only thing that is truly important are decisions about meaning? That may well be an intensely personal decision predicated on many idiosyncrasies and perspectives. Intellectually, I can understand this; in practice I find it an epistemological cul-de-sac which if carried to its logical conclusion no one will be able to say that they know anything about anything.

Ultimately, Red Moon Rising will probably serve most readers quite well in offering a usable space age creation story. I hope also it will motivate readers to explore further, recognizing that Brzezinski’s narrative is simply one among several offered in the marketplace of ideas. It, like all of the others, needs to be reviewed in order to reach an informed decision about the past.

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Eisenhower as Sputnik Crisis Leader

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Since tomorrow is the anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, I thought it appropriate to reflect on the Eisenhower response to what became an important crisis in his presidency in the fall of 1957. Without question, in reacting to Sputnik in October 1957 President Dwight D. Eisenhower was pressed by a set of political exigencies beyond his expertise in responding to the crisis. How well he did in this arena deserves reevaluation. Indeed, he lost the initiative in agenda setting and national leadership in the fall of 1957 and did not regain it, at least in terms of space policy during the remainder of his term. For this failure Eisenhower’s leadership as president deserves criticism.

This bring to the fore the issue of Eisenhower revisionism that has been underway for the last thirty-five years and highlights its inadequacies. At a fundamental level this revisionism was built on the flimsiest of reasons: “Eight years of Eisenhower: seven and a half of peace. Ten years of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon: almost ten solid years of war.” At least that was the assessment of a political commentator.

So what might we make of Eisenhower’s leadership in the Sputnik winter of 1957-1958? There are several important questions that beg discussion. Most important, how did he so miss the psychological importance of Sputnik for the American people? There are, of course, many other issues of a more sublime nature, but focusing on this question promises a few useful insights.

Failure to appreciate the prestige associated with spaceflight is seemingly unfathomable for an individual of Eisenhower’s savvy, cagey, strategic nature. Both military and civilian observers had been discussing it for more than a decade. Under the Department of Defense and its predecessor a series of important studies on the use of space systems for national security and other purposes pointed this up quite well.

Perhaps the key one appeared in 1946 from the newly-established RAND Corporation published a Preliminary Design of an Experimental World-Circling Spaceship. That study explored the viability of orbital satellites and outlined the technologies necessary for its success. Among its many observations, this one proved especially prescient: “A satellite vehicle with appropriate instrumentation can be expected to be one of the most potent scientific tools of the Twentieth Century. The achievement of a satellite craft would produce repercussions comparable to the explosion of the atomic bomb.

In a paper published nine-months later, RAND’s James Lipp expanded on this idea: “Since mastery of the elements is a reliable index of material progress, the nation which first makes significant achievements in space travel will be acknowledged as the world leader in both military and scientific techniques. To visualize the impact on the world, one can imagine the consternation and admiration that would be felt here if the United States were to discover suddenly that some other nation had already put up a successful satellite.” Moreover, Eisenhower had been explicitly warned of this potential in 1955 in a critical National Security Council document.

A Soviet engineer and Sputnik 1.

A Soviet engineer and Sputnik 1.

Failure to appreciate the role of national prestige in space endeavors suggests an overriding tin ear in perceiving political issues. And despite warnings from key administration officials he refused to accept their conclusions. Eisenhower utterly failed to, in the words of historian Robert A. Divine, to “quiet the fears of the American people that Sputnik represented a fundamental shift in military power and scientific achievement from the United States to the Soviet Union.”

As president, and there is a long list of U.S. chief executives who have done this more effectively than anyone thought possible—Lincoln, FDR, JFK, and Reagan come immediately to mind—one critical responsibility is to provide the guidance and direction that calls the American people back from despair and dread to forthright action. Since he did not accept the premise that a psychological effect could result, Ike proved incapable of responding with the leadership required even if he had had it in him to do so.

Instead Ike and his lieutenants fumbled about, incurring criticism from all sides, and if any leadership was to be offered it had to come from other sources. Ultimately, a coalition of political opponents, scientists, military space advocates, space exploration enthusiasts, and leaders in the aerospace industry seized the initiative.

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