Thoughts on an Historical Essay Currently Underway: The Space Program and the Ideal of American Exceptionalism

I have been working on an essay, that I hope to publish someday with the following working title, “The Space Program and the Ideal of American Exceptionalism.” My definition of American exceptionalism emphasizes the perceived special national character of the U.S. as democratic republic that emphasizes unique ideals and personal liberty. I understand that not all will agree with this definition, or that the U.S. adheres to these ideals. Regardless, as I envision it now,the essay will explore the history of the space program in the context of five major themes all relating to the ideal of American exceptionalism:

  1. Technological verisimilitude—the space program has been viewed as an agent of change. Technology is usually viewed as synonymous with progress and therefore as the leader in the world in this arena it is also an expression of American exceptionalism.
  2. Economic leadership—the space program has been viewed both as emblematic of the economic position of the nation (with a growing economy the nation would be unable to engage in such an endeavor) and as an agent of economic growth (since it represents investment in high-growth activities that benefit the nation as a whole).
  3. Managerial sophistication—the space program spawned a widespread organizational and managerial transformation in the restructuring of large-scale technological systems.
  4. Political transformation—the structure of the space program brought to the fore the reconstitution of the political situation in the United States as new interest groups emerged to argue for their agenda in spaceflight.
  5. Imaginative landscapes—the incorporation of a fundamentally new environment into the American consciousness altered in critical manner human perspectives on a range other issues/concerns such as the new appreciation of the Earth as a fragile place.
  6. Scientific consequences—both intended and unintended results from scientific investigations transformed the United States through the space program. One might best consider this in the context of three major issues: (1) knowledge of the Earth itself; (2) the nature of space and the places that exist beyond Earth; and (3) the possibility of life beyond Earth.

I am interested to hear from anyone on this subject. Please let me know if I have anything here that might illuminate anything useful. All ideas are welcome.

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9 Responses to Thoughts on an Historical Essay Currently Underway: The Space Program and the Ideal of American Exceptionalism

  1. Damara Arrowood says:

    “Imaginative Landscapes” seems as if it could be an essay unto itself. I’d posted a comment earlier about your earlier ideas about “re-cosmism”. These two concepts seem to reflect one another. Worth exploring!


  2. rangerdon says:

    Yes, except that era is important. We now live in the era of huge standing armies in time of peace, a seemingly pervasive police state, and a government which does not support that middle class from which so much exceptionalism springs. American exceptionalism seems to have been a major historical force, but before this current era of continuous militarism and the weakening of the middle class. That is to say, I’d agree with the concept of American exceptionalism, up to a point; but do not think it a major factor in this current era. (And let us also not forget those who built the foundations for space – Tsiolkovski was exceptional, but not American.


  3. Aren’t these things really high-flung justifications for fairly petty motivations? For example, Apollo was about winning a Cold War proxy battle with the USSR & some pork for southern states. Building the Space Shuttle & Space Station was about jobs, though they were built on the cheap. Robotic planetary missions were about competition with the Soviets up to the 1980s, by which time it was clear that the Soviets were lousy competitors. At that point, our robotic program wilted, with just enough kept alive (Galileo and VOIR/Magellan) to keep JPL alive. Robotic missions in the 1990s used SEI technology – NASA couldn’t afford to develop a lot of new tech and just about every proposed tech development program was slashed. The 1990s probes were meant to compete with up-and-coming space powers (Europe and Japan – not yet China so much) and a possible Soviet resurgence (Phobos 1 and 2, Mars 94/96).

    If space really had anything to do with American exceptionalism, then we’d support it more than we do. One-half of one percent of the Federal budget does not indicate that space is a major representative element of American life, in my view. Also, if we saw space as a big part of what it means to be American, we’d not have curtailed the space program after Challenger – not pruned it to fit the revealed weaknesses of the Shuttle – and not now be experiencing a gap in piloted spaceflight.



    • Dan Lester says:

      The association of American exceptionalism with our space program is largely a carry-over from the Cold War. At that time, when kids were diving under desks and citizens were building fallout shelters in their back yards to prepare for the worst, demonstrated exceptionalism in rockets was profoundly important, because rockets were what the threat was all about. What better way to demonstrate that exceptionalism than by putting brave people on those rockets. That being said, space as an exercise in American exceptionalism simply isn’t that important anymore, as David Portree points out. In the Cold War, when rocket-exceptionalism was a profound need, we spent a lot of money on it. We don’t anymore, at least in the public domain. To the extent that human spaceflight is supposed to demonstrate that exceptionalism, we’ve actually failed miserably in the last decade. We don’t send humans to new places, and it isn’t really a public vision that we’re doing great new things in the old places. If it can be construed as exceptionalism that we can simply keep doing what we’ve done before, perhaps adding incrementally to capabilities, we might claim some victory in achieving it. To other nations, space is, thus far at least, less about exceptionalism, and more about us doing whatever you can do. It’s about being a player more than about being a leader.

      It should be noted that a similar breach of exceptionalism has occurred for high energy physics. The national threat used to be nuclear weapons, but largely isn’t any more, and CERN is a conspicuous example of how we’ve now largely conceded at least our non-military scientific leadership in high energy physics to other nations.

      Since the Cold War, our nation hasn’t had a clear picture of what space exceptionalism really ought to look like. We continue to do what we call space exploration, more or less reflexively, as a hat-tip to what exceptionalism used to look like.

      I should add that the “five major themes” that you’re considering are hardly unique to space exploration. So although our space program can certainly be considered with respect to those themes, so could a lot of other things.


  4. Guillaume says:

    Since I am not an Americanist, I’ll bow to others on the matter, but one suggestion comes to mind. Your elements are convincing, but remain US-tied, whereas exceptinalism also involves self-definition in relation to other nations. I.e. what helps project the notion of American exceptionalism also involves other nations willingly/begrudgingly accepting it: foreign cultural diplomacy/policy. Consider that a great unsung heroic factor is the Fulbright fellowship program and other associated elements. Even critics of the US generally marvel at their year abroad on the north American continent. True, these are “soft” foreign policy measures, but the space program inscribes itself well into such measures, as it allows other nations/peoples to accept the notion that the US projects a friendly stature. Evidence? The donated capsules/boilerplate models, the astronaut goodwill tours, the flown flags, the moon rocks, etc… And if you frame this in further comparison with the Soviet attitude (very limited “gifts,”) that counts for something. I joked with your most recent successor at the NASA history office, (but it turns out this was true from his time in Paris) that the French recognize more easily the “Meatball” than any of the CNES logos over the years. If that does not reinforce a sentiment of “being special” (to borrow from my students), I am not sure what does. Happy 2015!


  5. Pingback: Space Law Reading List (2015-01-05) - Spatializations

  6. mike shupp says:

    I’ve a couple of issues here. Beginning with, “What’s your space program?” The 17 billion per year we spend on NASA? The 50 billion or so the government spends on NASA, NOAA, DoD, NSA, etc? The 100 billion or so that includes federal spending plus communications satellites and all the email and TV programs that are distributed by comsats? Or what? Because, frankly, I don’t see anything “exceptional” in the overall lineup; I see a somewhat paranoid commercial society with advanced technological skills which has grown to unprecedented size and affluence, but basically does what other folks do, albeit at larger scale. We’re big, in other words, but not different — and there isn’t the slightest evidence that the people who run this society, or even most people who just live in this society, want a space program that is in any way “special.” I think David Portree nailed this.

    Secondly, I’ve a gut feeling that people who speak of American exceptionalism really don’t mean by it the things you’ve pointed to. I think most of them would point to pragmatism, self-sufficiency, a touch of idealism in the national character, a trace of hucksterism, a willingness to dream of a better future, and so on. We’re reflecting on the trace of Huckleberry Finn that lies within us as individuals — not admiring our Leaders and Managers, not patting ourselves on the back for the skillful ways we’ve used Space to deliberately transform society. If anything, the top-down directed bureaucratic nature of current space programs is completely at odds with this image of the national character. And again, our Leaders and Managers are perfectly happy with this.

    A fictional note — if you haven’t already read it, you might dig up an old paperback SF novel by Raymond Gallun, THE PLANET STRAPPERS, for a picture of space exploration and colonization mirroring the Westward Movement in US history. There’s a story of spaceflight which invokes the spirit of American Exceptionalism!


  7. russellsilk says:

    Hi Roger,

    Space Progam and US Exceptionalism

    You may recall I interviewed you back in May 2013 for my MA Dissertation that I took here in the UK while studying at University College London.

    Looking back on this I could consider my choice of subject, US Presidency and Leadership of the US Space Program, addressed my general disappointment and bewiderment that the US Leadership evident in the Apollo years ( when I was a teenager and University student) had ground to a halt.

    In fact thinking about I seem to have unconsciously bought into the US Exceptionalist view that the US with its superior economic strength and technological leadership was creating an exciting future world. In the 1960’s here in the UK, the US seemed to the natural world leader in so many fields that I naturally assumed this would last indefinitely.

    However, as I grew up, gained my Astronomy PhD and then when into the fast moving telecommunications industry, ultimatley becoming an expert in satellite communications, I began to realise that US exceptionalism meant really US paroachialism and that the US was neither leading or following what was happening elsewhere in various fields of technology.

    A trivial but telling example is the fact that US space industry still uses British Imperial Units while British science and industry had long accepted metric measurements. At international meetings I attended in Washington I believe it with some embarrassment that my US colleagues accepted that the US were behind the times. In another example of celluar technology the 2G GSM system was becoming a global standard except for the US where it went its own sweet way.

    Still NASA was seen as the world leader in space but over time I noticed that Europe was getting its act together and perhaps assisted by the long term planning needed for European joint ventures it seemed superior in competing with the US in certain areas. While Europe did not follow the US lead in manned missions, probably because of the expense, it became very effective in its commercial launcher business and satellite industry which have arguably been more importatant as engines of economic and commercial growth in the space field.

    If exceptionalism means overwhelming wealth and spending then US is still “exceptional” but to this is different from leadership. Over time the US seems to have become more self-centered rather than less. It seem unable or unwilling to lead even when it has the capabilitly to do so. This is a great shame to my mind because it has the capability to provide global leadership in space but appears to choose not to bother. Others would willingly follow if the US were prime mover. Instead through its perennial security fears of others catching up, via say its ITAR restrictions, it is allowing alternatives and future rivals to develop.

    If interested I could develop these arguments if that would help.

    Good luck with your essay.

    Best regards

    Dr Russell Silk


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