International Prestige and Soft Power in the History of Spaceflight

Almost from the beginning of thought about the potential of flight in space, theorists believed that the activity would garner worldwide prestige for those accomplishing it. For example, in 1946 the newly-established RAND Corporation published the study, a Preliminary Design of an Experimental World-Circling Spaceship. This publication explored the viability of orbital satellites and outlined the technologies necessary for its success. Among its many observations, its comment on the prestige factor 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.”

This perspective is a classic application of what analysts often refer to as “soft power.” Coined by Harvard University professor Joseph Nye, the term gave a name to an alternative to threats and other forms of “hard power” in international relations. As Nye contended in an article in the International Herald Tribune on January 10, 2003:

Soft power is the ability to get what you want by attracting and persuading others to adopt your goals. It differs from hard power, the ability to use the carrots and sticks of economic and military might to make others follow your will. Both hard and soft power are important…but attraction is much cheaper than coercion, and an asset that needs to be nourished.

In essence, such activities as Project Apollo for the United States represented a form of soft power, the ability to influence other nations through intangibles such as an impressive show of technological capability. It granted to the nation achieving it first, rightly as James Lipp forecast, an authenticity and gravitas not previously enjoyed among the world community. At sum, this was an argument buttressing the role of spaceflight as a means of enhancing prestige on the world stage.

There is no question but that the Apollo program in particular, but also all of the human spaceflight efforts of the United States, was firstly about establishing U.S. primacy in technology. Apollo served as a surrogate for war, challenging the Soviet Union head-on in a demonstration of technological virtuosity. The desire to win international support for the “American way” became the raison d’être for the Apollo program, and it served that purpose far better than anyone imagined when first envisioned. Apollo became first and foremost a Cold War initiative, and aided in demonstrating the mastery of the United States before the world.

This may be seen in a succession of public opinion polls conducted during the 1960s in which the question was asked: “Is the Soviet Union ahead of the U.S. in Space?” Until the middle part of the decade, about the time that the Gemini program began to demonstrate American prowess in space, the answer was always that the United States trailed the Soviets. At the height of the Apollo Moon landings world opinion had shifted overwhelmingly in favor of the United States, as shown in the chart below. The importance of Apollo as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy—which is not necessarily identical with national prestige and geopolitics but is closely allied—should not be mislaid in this discussion. It served, and continues to do so, as an instrument for projecting the image of a positive, open, dynamic American society abroad.

So for decades the United States launched humans into space for prestige, measured against similar Soviet accomplishments, rather than for practical scientific or research goals. This was in essence positive symbolism—each new space achievement acquired political capital for the United States, primarily on the international stage. As Caspar Weinberger noted in 1971, space achievements gave “the people of the world an equally needed look at American superiority.”

In this context the civil space program, both its human and robotic components, were fully about national security. Demonstrations of U.S. scientific and technological capability were at sum about the need to establish in this new type of stand-off with the Soviet Union the credibility and reliability of nuclear deterrence. If the Soviets did not believe that was real, if the rest of the world thought it bogus, the American rivalry with the Soviet Union portended a dire future for humankind. American success in space offered a perception of credibility worldwide about its military might. “This contest was rooted in proving to the world the superiority of capitalism over communism, of the American and communist ways of life, and of cultural, economic, and scientific achievements,” according to historian Kenneth Osgood in his 2006 book, Total Cold War: Eisenhower’s Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad.

The importance of this prestige issue for civil space also worked at home. It conjured images of the best in the human spirit and served, in the words of journalist Greg Easterbrook, as “a metaphor of national inspiration: majestic, technologically advanced, produced at dear cost and entrusted with precious cargo, rising above the constraints of the earth.” It “carries our secret hope that there is something better out there—a world where we may someday go and leave the sorrows of the past behind.”

It may well be that space achievements, particularly those involving direct human presence, remain a potent source of national pride and that such pride is the underpinning reason why the U.S. public continues to support human spaceflight and would find a decision to end the U.S. human spaceflight program unacceptable. Certainly, space images—an astronaut on the Moon or the Space Shuttle rising majestically into orbit—ranks just below the American flag and the bald eagle as patriotic symbols.

The self-image of the United States as a successful nation is threatened when we fail in our space efforts, as we have seen from the collective loss when astronauts die before our eyes in space shuttle accidents. Americans expect a successful program of civil spaceflight as part of what the United States does as a nation.

Americans may not be overly concerned with the content or objectives of specific space efforts, but they are concerned that what is done seems worth doing and is done well. It is that sense of pride in space accomplishment that has been missing in recent years. If anything these themes of national soft power and international prestige have only intensified over time.

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