Wednesday’s Book Review: “American-Made”

American MadeAmerican-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA, When FDR Put the Nation to Work. By Nick Taylor. New York: Bantam, 2008.

Nick Taylor has written an elegant general history of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the legendary federal agency from the New Deal created in the 1930s. We might well need something like this again in the near future to put people back to work as the U.S. sinks into an economic morass in 2009. Accordingly, this book is especially timely and perhaps will help inform public policy in the coming months and years.

Taylor takes a thematic approach to assessing the history and legacy of this organization. He divides the work into interesting groupings by topic that makes accessible to a broad audience what the WPA was involved in and how it functioned. The WPA focused on the building of infrastructure–especially roads and bridges, airports and public buildings–and this was by far where the majority of the federal funding was spent. The building where the History Department is housed at LSU, where I completed my Ph.D., was built by the WPA in the 1930s, and while it is an aging structure it is a sound, useful building still in continuous use more than 80 years after its construction. The investment in this construction, and all manner of other infrastructure, had a profound effect on the development of the United States in the modern era. This story is well told in American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA when FDR Put the Nation to Work.

In addition, the WPA got involved in all manner of other work projects that was strikingly different from the roads, bridges, and buildings for which the agency had become famous. These included the WPA Writers’ Project and the WPA Artists’ Project, and both also had important results beyond the truly significant infrastructure contributions. As examples, and Taylor discusses these at length, are the large number of murals painted by WPA artists in post offices and other public buildings, many of which still exist, and some of the published state and river system guides and histories compiled by legions of participants employed in the writers’ projects of the WPA. Many of those books went through several editions, and some have remained in print to the present because of their continuing value.

The recalling of the work of WPA is useful at several levels because of the current economic situation, but even more Taylor discusses at length the sense of mission and commitment felt by those leading the WPA throughout its existence. From director Harry Hopkins, a close advisor to FDR, to it local officials, the sense that the people of the United States must work together in service both to the nation to their fellow citizens permeated the culture of the WPA. That sense of honorable service to others, of work for the good for the nation, struck me as one of the core lessons emerging from this account of the WPA.

Taylor’s exceptionally readable and comprehensive account does an excellent job of explaining how and why some WPA projects attracted both enthusiastic public support and vociferous political fire from FDR’s opponents until the WPA was terminated in the early years of World War II. It is not a perfect book by any means. It does not argue a new and unique thesis, but it does effectively make the case of the value of public works programs both for the national welfare and individual economic help, a longstanding theme in WPA history. It does not mine new documentary sources to fill out details of the account, even though there are exceptional collections the Library of Congress and the National Archives and Records Administration, but it certainly marshals effectively the historical data it uses.

As it is American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA when FDR Put the Nation to Work offers a unique angle of vision into 1930s America and the manner in which the federal government can accomplish useful objectives.


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NASA Viking Missions to Mars Retrospective on C-SPAN

In July 2016 NASA’s Langley Research Center celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Viking program, which placed two orbiters around the red planet, and landed two spacecraft on tis surface in 1976. Historians William P. Barry, Roger D. Launius, Glenn E. Bugos, and Erik M. Conway participated in this program. C-SPAN recorded the event and C-SPAN3’s American History TV will air it this weekend. The program will air on Saturday, August 27, 2016, at 10:30pm EDT and again on Sunday, August 28, 2016, at 4:30pm ET. Once the program airs on the C-SPAN network it will become available online here: The promotional clip above gives details of the program. Enjoy!

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Another Such Victory”

Another Such VictoryAnother Such Victory: President Truman and the Cold War, 1945-1953. By Arnold A. Offner. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002.

Harry S. Truman, the accidental president from Independence, Missouri, has enjoyed a rebirth of popularity since the 1970s, after leaving office with exceptionally low approval ratings in January 1953. His more recent popularity revolves around the Truman story of humble origins, machine politics, and a good man having greatness thrust upon him. Truman rose to the occasion and demonstrated effective leadership in a time of crisis. He took decisive action to end the war and win the peace, carrying forward the plan to create a strong international entity in the United States and championing the Marshall Plan to help Europe recover from World War II among other initiatives.

Moreover, his resolute resistance to the Soviet Union as the Cold War began to dominate international politics in the latter 1940s proved critical to ensuring a democratic Western Europe. For most historians, especially those of the dominant consensus mindset that assign blame for the origins of the cold war to Stalin and Soviet adventurism, Truman acted forthrightly to counter Soviet might. Couple that with an apparent hominess and frankness and Truman’s resurrection was assured. That is essentially the story told in David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Truman biography and a host of other publications.

Offner takes issue with this dominant interpretation and assigns the preponderance of blame for the origins of the cold war to Truman. Like revisionist historians of the 1960s and 1970s, he contends that Truman was essentially a small time politician from a backwater who proved unable to master the tides of history around him. While acknowledging his successes with the Marshall Plan and selected other initiatives, Offner finds that the Truman should nonetheless receive the lion’s share of the condemnation for the cold war.

Representative of many such statements in Another Such Victory, Offner writes that “Stalin put the interests of the Soviet state before the desire to spread Marxist-Leninist ideology, pursued pragmatic or opportunistic agreements, recognized America’s vast military and industrial power, and always calculated what he called the ‘correlation of forces’” (p. 27). In other words, Offner asserts that Stalin and the Soviet Union was never the threat that Truman believed. Truman’s lack of experience on the international stage and a raft of character flaws made matters much worse than they ever had to be with the Soviet Union.

Offner presented a restatement of a standard revisionist conception about the origins of the Cold War. Truman and several of his advisors, he wrote, “were American politicians of limited international experience and vision suddenly thrust into positions of global leadership. Their soles, their sensibilities, were undoubtedly hardened by witnessing a global war of unparalleled devastation and atrocities. They were appalled and frightened by Soviet advances in Europe and Asia and readily equated Communists with ‘Nazis and Fascists’ or other imperial or ‘Tsarist’ aggressors. They quickly persuaded themselves that if they got ‘tough,’ they could make the Russians more ‘manageable’ and willing to accede to American principles and interests…” (p. 99). At the same time, according to Offner, Truman mishandled the Soviet Union at every turn, misjudged intentions in Eastern Europe, failed in China and Korea, and engaged in nuclear threats and innuendo in an effort to force greater pliability from cold war rivals.

In the end, Offner’s Another Such Victory is largely a restatement of the criticisms of American leadership offered in the revisionist work of such authors as Gabriel and Joyce Kolko’s The Limits of Power, first published more than thirty years ago, and Daniel Yergin’s Shattered Peace (1977).

Additionally, Offner’s work abandons much of the nuanced criticisms present in Melvyn Leffler’s masterful A Preponderance of Power (1992), which also seeks to roll back the arguments of the pro-Truman community but does so with more balance and reason. Indeed, a major criticism of Offner’s book is that despite its in-depth research and detailed documentary approach, he says little in this book that moves the historiography beyond where Leffler left it nearly 25 years ago. What he does do, and it is an important contribution, is provide a massively referenced presentation of the story well-grounded in documentary sources.

Beyond that, we learn that Truman was parochial, given to fits of rage, racist and biased toward others, limited in experience and judgment, and manipulative in his dealings with Stalin. He might have taken a different approach, Offner states, by seeking a true collaborative arrangement with the Soviet Union. His personality and limitations would not allow it, according to Offner.

As a counterpoint to the Truman revisionist position present in such works as David McCullough and Robert H. Ferrell, Another Such Victory may prove useful. Offner, however, goes too far in his zeal to tarnish Truman’s image. Melvin Leffler’s work is much more useful as thoughtful criticism of Truman and the origins of the Cold War.

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The Beginnings of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory

The first meeting of the main committee of the NACA in 1915.

The first meeting of the main committee of the NACA in 1915.

We are approaching in 2017 the centennial of the founding of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory (LMAL) by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), at Hampton, Virginia. Now NASA’s Langley Research Center this facility transformed aeronautics in the United States with its path-breaking research. It seems appropriate to reflect on this history as we approach this anniversary.

While the establishment of a laboratory had not been explicitly authorized in the NACA charter of 1915, it also contained no proscription against it. This left NACA officials with an entrée for the creation of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. For instance, NACA officials observed in the New-York Tribune on December 16, 1915: “If the committee is to be prepared to keep pace with the needs of the very rapid development already under way, stimulated by the unusual conditions existing in Europe, the facilities and technical assistance recommended are essential.” Accordingly, the agency received license to establish such a research facility.

Almost immediately NACA officials began scouting for an appropriate location for its new laboratory, deciding to collocate it with a new U.S. Army airfield near Norfolk, Virginia. Both the military and the NACA facilities were named after the Smithsonian’s former secretary, Samuel Pierpont Langley, in honor of his contributions to aeronautics. Both the Army Air Service and the NACA installation shared the same runways. NACA director of research George Lewis commented about this location:

It has large areas of cleared land now under cultivation. The removal of a few trees, fences, and a little brush would give a clear field 2 miles or more in length by a half a mile in width. This area could be increased materially by the cutting of a few small groves of trees and brush. Most of the area under consideration for a site is about from 4 to 6 feet above mean tide, and where not naturally well drained, could be drained without undue expense. The requirements being so fully met by the area north of Hampton, your committee strongly recommends that this site be secured as soon as practicable.

The Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1920.

The Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1920.

That rosy picture, however, masked difficulties with construction. Construction began in 1917, a body-crushing effort in the marshlands on the coast. Author Thomas Wolfe, famous for his largely autobiographical novel, Look Homeward Angel, worked on the construction crew as a young man. He remembered the toil of “grading, leveling, blasting from the spongy earth the ragged stumps of trees and filling interminably, ceaselessly, like the weary and fruitless labor of a nightmare, the marshy earth-craters, which drank their shoveled-toil without end.” One Army observer described it as a “nature’s…cesspool” comprised of “the muddiest mud, the weediest weeds, the dustiest dust, and the most ferocious mosquitoes the world has ever known.” The work was more than difficult, it proved deadly; between September 1918 and January 1919 46 members of the work crews died from influenza. Because of this, the NACA chose “to limit the personnel at the laboratory to that required for the laboratory operations alone.”

Finally opened on for business on June 11, 1920, the first facilities at Langley were less than impressive—a small atmospheric wind tunnel, a dynamometer laboratory, an administration building, and a small warehouse. With that opening, the Langley laboratory—which still had only 100 employees by 1925—began to pursue pure research, mostly related to aerodynamics. The first Langley director, Henry J.E. Reid, served in that capacity from 1920 to 1960, spanning the entire career of the facility from establishment until after it had become part of NASA. With its formal opening, Langley served as an enormously important government research and development organization, materially enhanc­ing the development of aeronautics.

Those who experienced the NACA during that early era remembered it in idyllic terms. It was a tiny organization, it numbered only 43 people at the establishment of the LMAL, but would grow thereafter. Researchers were able to develop their own research programs along lines that seemed to them the most productive, handle all test details in-house, and carry out experiments as they believed appropriate. The day-to-day operations of the agency were decidedly informal, staff hob-nobbed together in social settings and any individual had access to the most senior leadership in the agency. Langley’s director held the official title of “Engineer-in-Charge,” eschewing hierarchy and creating an aura of collegial relations both in rhetoric and fact. This sense of freedom made it possible to recruit some of the most innovative aeronautical engineers in the world. They knew they were valued, that they had freedom to pursue research that could revolutionize the field, and that they personally could make a difference. While the NACA as an organization would become more formalized over time, it remained committed to fostering creativity and innovation.

Howard Morris in the old Instrument Shop in the first floor of the old LMAL administration building taken in February 1922.

Howard Morris in the old Instrument Shop in the first floor of the old LMAL administration building taken in February 1922.

The NACA as it emerged in the 1920s was a small, loosely organized, and elitist non-bureaucracy that provided aeronautical research services on an basis equally available to all. An exceptionally small headquarters staff in Washington—so small in fact that it could be housed in a corner of the Navy Building—oversaw the political situation and secured funding for research activities. A committee of appointees from a range of engineering fields served without pay, making it one of the most nontraditional organizations of the federal government.

During the 1920s the NACA built a balanced research staff at Langley that pioneered novel methods of flight research; new ideas for recording instruments; and new methods and facilities for research on engines, propellers, structures, seaplanes, ice prevention, helicopters, and many other branches of aerodynamics. They developed and made use of various types of wind tunnels—variable density, full scale, refrigerated, free flight, gust, transonic, and supersonic—the core instruments the NACA engineers employed to advance aerodynamic knowledge.

It began modestly but evolved rapidly.

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The Current Crop of Commercial Starts-Ups in Space Were not the First

SpaceX Dragon capsule docked to the International Space Station in 2013.

SpaceX Dragon capsule docked to the International Space Station in 2013.

Many journalists and others have been much enamored with the activities of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Sir Richard Branson, and other entrepreneurs who have bet their fortunes, at least some of their fortunes, on the development of new space access vehicles and commercial prospects in Earth orbit and perhaps beyond. For all of their successes, and those deserve proper kudos, there is a history of earlier efforts that deserves to be a part of this larger story to develop space as another realm of ordinary human endeavor.

In response to the Reagan administration’s efforts to open commercial space activities in 1984, with the “Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984” a number of firms arose to fill an apparent need for commercial launch services. The one corporation to survive those early heady years and become a major player in space access was the Orbital Sciences Corporation founded in 1982 by a daring group of under-30 space entrepreneurs led by David Thompson. With an initial investment of only $1,500, the company went on to develop the air-launched Pegasus space access vehicle.

With the Pegasus’s first deployment from a modified L-1011 the firm took off, literally, and by the end of 1990 had grown to over 700 employees and $100 million in annual revenues. It was the first entrepreneurial space company to “go public,” and Orbital/ATK remains a major space launch provider to the present. It is important to remember this as accolades accrue to SpaceX and other entrepreneurial firms for their successes.

Orbital's Lockheed L-1011 Stargazer launches Pegasus carrying three satellites in 2006.

Orbital’s Lockheed L-1011 Stargazer launches Pegasus carrying three satellites in 2006.

Additionally, by the mid-1990s several other start-up companies had been organized to develop new vehicles in response to an envisioned expansive market for space launch services. Indeed, 1996 marked something of a milestone in the history of space access. In that year worldwide commercial revenues in space for the first time surpassed all governmental spending on space, totaling some $77 billion. This growth continued in 1997, with 75 commercial payloads lofted into orbit, and with approximately 75 more military and scientific satellites launched. This represented a threefold increase over the number the year before.

Market surveys for the period thereafter suggested that commercial launches would multiply for the next several years at least: one estimate holding that 1,200 telecommunications satellites would be launched between 1998 and 2007. In that context many space launch advocates believed that the market had matured sufficiently that government investment in launch vehicle development was no longer necessary. Instead, they asked that the Federal government simply “get out of the way” and allow the private sector to pursue development free from bureaucratic controls.

Pictured is a drawing of Kistler's rocketplane,

Pictured is a drawing of Kistler’s rocketplane,

This modern “gold rush” sparked several new corporations to muscle their way into the tight conglomerate of launch vehicle companies. One of the farthest along and best financed of this new breed was Kistler Aerospace Corporation, based in Kirkland, Washington. Seeking low-cost access to space, Kistler employed Russian-built engines as a centerpiece of its K-1 reusable launcher. It was intended to deliver up to 10,000 pounds to orbit, depending on inclination. The first stage of this vehicle would fly back to the launch site; the second would orbit Earth before returning. Both stages would descend by parachute and land on inflatable air bags. Sound familiar? Unfortunately, the company was unable to deliver on its plans and eventually folded.

Rotary's Roton ATV (Atmospheric Test Vehicle) approach and landing demonstrator made a flight for 4,300 feet along a Mojave airport runway, October 12, 1999.

Rotary’s Roton ATV (Atmospheric Test Vehicle) approach and landing demonstrator made a flight for 4,300 feet along a Mojave airport runway, October 12, 1999.

Pioneer, Inc., also worked to develop the Pathfinder rocketplane, an aerial propellant transfer spaceplane that would accommodate a crew of two and deliver a payload of 5,000 pounds to low-Earth orbit (LEO). Additionally, Kelly Space and Technology, Inc., worked on its Astroliner, a reusable spaceplane that was intended to deliver 11,000 pounds to LEO for a cost of $2,000 per pound. Among these various companies the most interesting concept, albeit one that many people believed was doomed to failure from the start, was the Roton rocket built by the Rotary Rocket Company. Roton was intended as a fully reusable, single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) space vehicle designed to transport up to 7,000 pounds to and from LEO. Roton planned to enter commercial service in the year 2000 with a target price per flight of $7 million ($1,000 per pound). None of these start-ups survived to fly  successful space mission.

Other space launch firms experimented with unique launch approaches, and some have been successful. The Sea Launch Company LLC used a floating mobile platform that could handle launches of heavy vehicles out of its Long Beach, California, facilities. This launch method reduced legal, operational, and infrastructure costs. Since it was mobile it offered equatorial launches in any inclination from a single launch pad, providing maximum efficiency from the launcher.

A Sea Launch LLC launch from a floating platform.

A Sea Launch LLC launch from a floating platform.

Established as a partnership between Boeing (USA), Aker ASA (Norway), RSC-Energia (Russia), and SDO Yuzhnoye/PO Yuzhmash (Ukraine) the Sea Launch Company was organized on April 3, 1995. It had the backing of large aerospace firms, and was less entrepreneurial than some of the other corporations that had emerged ear the same time.

Once stood up, Sea Launch constructed its platform and launched its first test payload into orbit on March 27, 1999. Using a jointly produced Zenit-3SL launcher built in the Ukraine, Russia, it flew its first commercial payload on October 9, 1999, a DIRECTV 1-R communications satellite. Since that time Sea Launch has made 36 launches, with three failures and one partial-failure. This system was touted as a major success story in international commercial cooperation for space access, the road for the company has been rocky. It filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in June 2009, with the Russian backers absorbing most of the stock to keep it afloat. Since then the company has withered.

Despite some successes, only Orbital Sciences and Sea Launch LLC had yielded a new operational space launcher by 2000. With the failure of the Iridium Corporation in spring 2000, a new satellite communications system that many believed would be the vanguard of a rapidly expanding space launch market, investment for space enterprises became even scarcer. In some measure because of this, although they had previously eschewed government investment and the corresponding red tape, many of these start-ups began seeking capital from NASA and the military to support their efforts. Accordingly, it seemed that as the twenty-first century began there was still a pressing need for substantial government investment in space launch R&D. Enter SpaceX and a range of other firms in the early twenty-first century. It’s a story that is far from being complete.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “America’s Right Turn”

America's Right TurnAmerica’s Right Turn: From Nixon to Clinton. By William C. Berman. Second Edition. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Why has the political environment in the United States veered away from the New Deal liberalism of the middle third of the twentieth century toward an increasingly conservative position? This fine overview offers a well-grounded historical analysis of the process of rising conservatism and related questions. It serves as an excellent introduction to an important and complex topic. William C. Berman takes on an interesting and controversial issues in recent political history, and handles it in a relatively non-biased manner although partisans on one side or the other will probably not acknowledge this.

Berman’s account, which is designed for use in an undergraduate course on twentieth century history, takes a chronological approach to the topic. Beginning with the resistance to the policies of FDR to combat the Great Depression of the 1930s, he offers chapters that deal with “The Politics of Culture and Class, 1964-1974, “The Conservative Upsurge, 1974-1976,” “Jimmy Carter and the Crisis of Liberalism,” “The Triumph of Conservatism, 1980,” “The Reagan Revolution,” “Conservatism in Decline, 1985-1992,” and “The Clinton Center.” This second edition was published in 2001 so there is virtually no discussion of the election of 200o and the presidency of George W. Bush.

Berman emphasizes several benchmarks in the rise of conservatism to its current dominant place in the political life of the United States. The first is the now nearly mythical stomping in the 1964 presidential election by the Democrat Lyndon Johnson of Republican Barry Goldwater, a principled conservative who would rather adhere to his ideals than compromise for the sake of political office. Second, the development of conservative-leaning intellectual institutions that gave haven to thinkers and incubated the ideas that emerged in the 1970s to dominate the political discourse. Those ideas fueled the conservative movement, far more effectively than most people probably possible, during the political fights of the rest of the twentieth century.

Third, Berman emphasizes the rise of Ronald Reagan as a standard bearer not just of opposition to New Deal/Great Society liberalism but also of a coordinated and consistent ideology of what government should be and how it should behave. Efforts to put into place that alternative philosophy of governance and polity in a way that could not be dismantled by a Democratic successor to the Oval Office may have been Reagan’s most lasting accomplishment, certainly Berman’s account of the Clinton presidency suggests that may well be the case. Failing to forge a useful counter to the conservative forces in society and politics, Clinton moved increasingly to the center, some would say center right, to ensure his reelection in 1996.

Finally, and this was my most significant take away from this book, Berman makes explicit how the convergence of conservative economic ideas, conservative political philosophy, and social conservatism created a powerful coalition of strikingly divergent people who did not agree with each other on many issues but could work together toward a common general, if ill-defined, vision of the United States. I have read many other books that talk about this merger of ideas into a political juggernaut, however uneasily the disparate elements may have cooperated, but Berman’s account is both more crisply written and clearly argued than many of these other works. Moreover, his refusal to take sides in the debate is both unusual and refreshing.

While some might see political bias in this book, the reality is that this is one of the most even-handed treatments of this important political movement I have read. Nothing, of course, is totally unbiased, and America’s Right Turn is not either, but William Berman tries hard to offer a balanced perspective and overall he succeeds.

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Key Developments in USA/USSR Space Cooperation During the Cold War

Apollo-Soyus Test Project Mission Patch.

The post-Cold War era has seen the United States and Russia undertake fundamentally significant cooperative ventures in space. This was an enormously significant development for the pursuit of aggressive human space activities, no doubt, but it tends to overshadow a sizable level of interaction between these two space powers during the Cold War when they were intense rivals.

Several early efforts to cooperate between USA and USSR had only mixed success. Kennedy and Khrushchev met over lunch at the Vienna summit on June 3, 1961, and discussed, in addition to other topics, the possibility of an American/Soviet lunar expedition with both astronauts and cosmonauts. Kennedy broached the idea of whether they “should go to the moon together,” and while Khrushchev was at first reluctant, but later admitted, “All right, why not?” In follow-up meetings Khrushchev backed away from a joint program without mutual disarmament, allowing that rockets “are used for both military and scientific purposes.” This concern for the overlapping of military and scientific applications of technology were at the heart of negotiations of US/USSR space cooperation ever since.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev meets with President John F. Kennedy at a summit in June 1961.

Other efforts at U.S./Soviet cooperation in space exploration followed during 1960s. Many were motivated by political advantage to be gained by, in the language of McGeorge Bundy in 1962, making “it clear that we are forthcoming and energetic in plans for peaceful cooperation with the Soviets in this sphere.” NASA Deputy Administrator Hugh Dryden developed a low-key relationship with the Soviet Academy of Sciences in early 1960s aimed at cooperation. A series of negotiations, 1962-1965, between NASA and Soviet scientists led to limited agreements to cooperate in certain aspects of satellite meteorology, communications, geomagnetic surveying, and space biology and medicine. NASA and the Soviets exchanged lunar samples and photos from various missions.

The most significant cooperation between the superpowers throughout the 1960s was expressed in several treaties, mostly detailing what the parties would not do rather than in joint space efforts:

  • Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons Tests in Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water (1963).
  • Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and other Celestial Bodies (1967).
  • Agreement on the Rescue and Return of Astronauts (1968).
  • Agreement Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics of Measures to Improve the U.S. of A.-U.S.S.R. Direct Communications Link (1971).

By far the most significant US/USSR space cooperation came on July 17, 1975, during the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. It represented a culmination of five years of effort. In April 1970 NASA Administrator Thomas O. Paine met with Soviet scientist Anatoliy A. Blagonravov to discuss a cooperative venture to develop a compatible docking system for space rescue missions. An October 1970 agreement between US and USSR established three working groups to begin design of a joint docking module. As work continued, on May 24, 1972, President Nixon and Soviet Premier Aleksei N. Kosygin signed “Agreement Concerning Cooperation in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space for Peaceful Purposes.”

By 1973 the prime crew complement was named—Thomas P. Stafford, mission commander, Vance D. Brand, command module pilot, and Deke Slayton, docking module pilot. In April 1973 Soviets announced Soyuz crew: Aleksei A. Leonov, commander, and Valeri N. Kubasov, flight engineer. Both Soyuz and Apollo systems were launched on July 15, 1975, and established an Apollo-Soyuz-Houston-Moscow communication link. The two spacecraft dock at 12:09 p.m. EDT on July 17 over the Atlantic Ocean, and at 3:17 p.m. the hatches were opened and crews exchanged commemorative items.

Deke Slayton and Aleksei Leonov meet during the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.

After 19 hours and 55 minutes of free access between the two spacecraft and five joint experiments on July 18 the hatches were closed, and at 8:02 a.m. EDT on July 19 the spacecraft separated. The Soyuz spacecraft landed on July 21, and the Apollo landed two days later; Apollo had a mishap during reentry and toxic fumes vented into the spacecraft causing eye and lung irritation.

While a success, the cooperative program was criticized as a costly space stunt. It could be compared to the cross-country flights and air races of the first part of century in establishing the importance of aeronautics. But it also demonstrated the viability of international cooperation in space operations. It also laid the groundwork for future cooperation between the US and USSR.

Cooperative efforts with the Soviets between 1975 and the end of the Cold War were less dramatic. They cooperated in an exchange of scientific data from deep space probes and other robotic missions. This was informal until ensconced in the April 1987 Shultz-Schevardnadze agreement to exchange data from planetary missions and biomedical experiments. At a May-June 1988 US/USSR summit these areas of cooperation expanded somewhat. It led to cooperation in several joint conferences and constant sharing of scientific information followed thereafter. It included unofficial visits and meetings at international conferences and at aerospace fairs. It also led to the establishment of satellite communications links on a cooperative basis during the December 1988 Armenian earthquake to assist relief effort. In commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America in 1992, additionally, these nations cooperated in the International Space Year.

Cooperation between the US and USSR in space was constant throughout the Cold War era, but often it was informal, and it enjoyed varying degrees of support from national leaders on both sides. The most significant cooperation came as a result of détente policies of early 1970s and led to highly successful Apollo-Soyuz Test Program. With the conclusion of the Cold War a new era of cooperative ventures are underway in space. What might the future hold?

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Visualizing Apollo’s Exploration and the Idea of Progress

Buzz Aldrin at the Flag, an iconic image from Apollo 11. This image also circled the globe immediately after its release in July 1969 and has been used for all manner of purposes since that time. The flag in this image proved a powerful trope of American exceptionalism.

For all but a handful of space travelers the voyages of exploration into space were events participated in vicariously by the  billions of humans living on Earth. It has brought a connectedness and reinforced a common set of values among many Americans, no doubt. Most importantly, I would assert, the power of space imagery has served very specific needs for the United States, and it has largely been mobilized to concretize those issues in the period since the last flights.

This imagery fundamentally documented in graphic detail scientific aspects of these missions. Second, these images served the important task of demonstrating quite effectively the vicarious nature the exploration. Third, all of this spaceflight imagery signaled a public message of progress and a prosperous future. At one level they served as harbingers of economic activities that would ultimately exploit the universe as it came under human control.

Finally, and most importantly, all of this imagery served a very specific national sense by highlighting prestige and honor in demonstrating the verisimilitude of the accomplishment. These images bespeak the expansive manner in which the United States took its measure among the nations of the globe. In creating such powerful and unique images, the United States stood to gain in the eyes of the world penultimate stature. Especially in the case of the voyages of Apollo but also in other settings and projects, the imagery offered an archetypal statement of American ingenuity, technological virtuosity, national exceptionalism, and the power of the state to accomplish useful things. It represented one aspect of the manner in which the U.S. stood at the center of a developing global culture with consumerism, capitalism, and other “isms” at its core.

As art historian Laura M. André has suggested in the context of Apollo photography but it may be extended to the full range of spaceflight imagery, “in the midst of the Cold War, NASA and the western mass media took full advantage of these neat, coincidental alignments of ideology and event, naturalizing the first manned lunar orbit as a victory not only for the United States, but also for democracy, Judeo-Christian values, capitalism, and, of course, the patriotic American heroes who made the dangerous journey.” This, of course, came despite its origins as a struggle for world domination between two superpowers. She overstates, but barely so, that the imagery that has become so iconic over time proved “merely ironic by-products of a bellicose endeavor—the Cold War space race.”

“Earthrise,” one of the most powerful and iconic images from the Apollo program, was taken in December 1968 during the Apollo 8 mission. This view of the rising Earth greeted the Apollo 8 astronauts as they came from behind the Moon after the first lunar orbit. Used as a symbol of the planet’s fragility, it juxtaposes the grey, lifeless Moon in the foreground with the blue and white Earth teeming with life hanging in the blackness of space.

In many ways this suggests a dominant narrative of the idea of progress, an amorphous concept but one that is central to American national identity, present throughout the imagery of spaceflight. The imagery supports the assertion of anthropologist Taylor Dark:

The idea of progress has typically advanced three claims: 1. There are no fundamental limits on the human capacity to grow, however growth is defined; 2. Advancements in science and technology foster improvements in the moral and political character of humanity; and, 3. There is an innate directionality in human society, rooted in societal, psychological, or biological mechanisms, that drives civilization toward advancement.

Although progress had been present earlier in the works of space advocates it emerged full blown in the heroic age of spaceflight when enthusiasts believed they were on the verge of a new golden age in which anything could be accomplished. Spaceflight’s transcendental qualities were not lost on those who believed that the human race could eventually attain this end. Movement into space, first with exploring expeditions and later with colonies, offered an opportunity for humanity to move outward and start anew on a pristine planet. Apollo had shown it was possible. It suggested that America had both the capability and the wherewithal to accomplish truly astounding goals. All it needed was the will. As Senator Abraham Ribicoff mused in 1969, “If men can visit the Moon—and now we know they can—then there is no limit to what else we can do. Perhaps that is the real meaning of Apollo 11.”

The essence of progress present in Apollo imagery is unmistakable, along with the dominant narrative of American triumph, exceptionalism, and success so much a part of the interpretation of space exploration in American history. From an advertising perspective, the linkage of individual corporations to this grand endeavor was an easy sell. Is it any wonder that it would be central to positive elements of the American culture in the last half century?

This impressive lunarscape, with an Apollo 17 astronaut and the lunar rover small at the center of the image, suggests the awesomeness of the “Magnificent Desolation” of the Moon.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Atmospheric Science at NASA”

atmospheric-science-at-nasa-a-history-erik-m-conway-22850-MLM7786999236_012015-OAtmospheric Science at NASA: A History. By Erik M. Conway. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. Acknowledgments, list of abbreviations, illustrations, notes, index. ISBN: 9780801889844. Hardcover with dustjacket. 416 pp. $57.00 USD.

During the first decade of the Space Age using remote sensing satellites to study the Earth was in its infancy. Although aerial photography had been used for all manner of scientific efforts ranging from geology to climate monitoring to oceanography as part of interwar era programs, the first conference on space-based observations was not held until 1962. Likewise, overhead reconnaissance had been used since before World War I, and had become standard in the Cold War, but extending this to space-based systems proved difficult. The first program proved successful beginning in the 1960s, but the technologies evolved only with considerable investment.

This is the story that Erik M. Conway, the JPL Historian, tells in this outstanding account. It is amazing that Conway is the first to undertake a legitimate historical investigation of this subject. It is a worthy topic and in Conway it has found an able and effective historian who explain the story in an accessible and illuminating manner.

We find that scientific uses of space-based imagery of Earth could be imagined even before the space age, but bringing it to fruition required significant time and money. A small collection of scientists (mostly geographers and geologists and mostly located either at universities or government laboratories other than NASA) were interested in a scientific observation satellite for monitoring Earth resources even as the Space Age began. NASA early on conducted its first tests of the effectiveness of using space systems for Earth observations. By the mid-1960s, NASA—in consultation with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the Army Corps of Engineers—began exploring a potential program for Earth observations designed to aid scientific research and practical applications.

Accordingly, in its first 20 years of existence NASA launched three satellites devoted to Earth observation: the weather satellite Tiros in 1960, the Earth resources monitoring satellite Landsat in 1972, and the oceanographic research satellite Seasat in 1978. From a scientific and technical perspective, these satellites were unqualified successes, delivering promised scientific data of significance to researchers around the globe.

But those meager activities belied a serious effort to lay groundwork in Earth system science pursued by a small group at NASA and elsewhere. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center’s Division of Aeronomy and Meteorology under William Stroud, with an important offshoot in the Goddard Institute of Space Studies at Columbia University, became heavily involved in coordinating Earth science research in the middle part of the 1960s. It also supported the Global Atmospheric Research Program (GARP) beginning in 1967 that cut across many organizations, scientific disciplines, and priorities.

Notwithstanding some recent studies that have questioned NASA’s role in the development of Earth system science in the United States during the 1960s, Conway’s study makes clear that there is considerable evidence to support a conclusion that the agency’s managers nurtured scientific activities in this realm, and worked effectively to create networks of researchers who had strong interest in using remote sensing technology to observe and measure aspects of the Earth from space. Without question, data from NASA technology, satellites, institutes, scientists, and organizational initiatives were essential in creating the global picture of the Earth as a system that emerged later.

There was, of course, a tension between NASA’s human spaceflight enthusiasts with their relative disinterest in Earth science, and the researchers interested in science and answers to scientific questions. In NASA those people tended to be self-sorted into the agency’s two big chunks, the human program and the science program. They competed with each other for resources and to outside observers NASA in the 1960s might have been best characterized as “the Moon Agency,” but that was an oversimplification. Even though NASA had no separate Earth science organization prior to the 1980s, entities within the space agency organized to support Earth system science early on.

During the decades since the 1980s, Earth science has become a major aspect of NASA’s mission, competing effectively for agency dollars with the other three major missions, human spaceflight, space science, and aeronautics. Erik Conway lays out in this book the nature of this competition and the place of atmospheric sciences in it. As space robotics technologies matured NASA scientists already involved in environmental science refocused attention on developing a view of the Earth as an integrated, interdependent system using satellite observations to help create global climate models. In 1987, at a time when NASA was reappraising its role in space research and development following the loss of space shuttle Challenger, NASA empowered former astronaut Sally K. Ride to study Leadership and America’s Future in Space. Among other things, the Ride report recommended embracing the “Mission to Planet Earth” concept as a priority for the agency. While there had to be rescoping of the program over time, this report served as the catalyst for an investment of more than $7 billion to build and operate a series of orbital spacecraft, and to analyze data from them for environment purposes. The program’s Earth Observing System (EOS) satellites consisted of a range of remote sensing satellites that collected data in a variety of ranges on air, land, and sea bodies on the planet.

Conway notes how these Earth observing satellites have had a profound influence on human civilization. Climate monitoring satellites have detected and tracked forest fires, volcanoes, and severe storms, as well as documented measures of rainfall and winds, seas and currents, ozone depletion and global warming. This excellent book reviews the institutional and scientific issues associated with conducting Earth science in an organization that was predisposed not to be focused on that activity as pursued space exploration. It highlights that leadership at NASA that helped to form a broad-based, multidisciplinary community of scientists oriented toward understanding planet Earth in much the same way that it sought to understand other planets in the solar system and what this portended for the future of this scientific activity.

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Gerrymandering, Safe Districts, and Political Extremism

The original Gerrymander concept.

We are in another election season, one of the strangest in modern American history, and there is much speculation about the race for both the Presidency and Congressional elections. It seems appropriate, therefore, to say something about the Congress, safe districts, and political extremism. But the historian in my thinks we should go back in time to discuss this in the context of the 19th century before offering some thoughts on the current races.

It is a truism of elective office that whenever a politician has little fear of being turned out from office by the electorate s/he is more likely to take hard-line ideological positions and to refuse efforts to compromise on issues of significance. I was reminded of this during graduate school when I studied Civil War politics. Antislavery members of Congress representing safe districts in the North had the luxury of radicalism in their opposition to slavery because they did not fear that an electoral challenge would be successful in unseating them. Those in less solidified districts had to take more moderate positions and engage in the grand political art of compromise.

Historians analyzing the politics of the era found that even if a northern congressman opposed slavery the mandate from his electoral jurisdiction controlled his ability to espouse antislavery ideals. Consequently, politicians such as Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner, both of whom had the avid support of their constituents, could dare to be radical.

There is much to be admired in a story in which an antislavery politician pursued relentlessly the end of slavery regardless of how divisive the issue might be in the nation as a whole. Sumner, Stephens, and others had the luxury of safe districts, sometimes gerrymandered to ensure that they were indeed safe for their incumbencies, from which to pursue their antislavery agenda. Political extremism was the result of these safe districts—and it is important to note that southern members of Congress had similarly pro-slavery safe districts of their own—and the first casualty of this situation was the ability to compromise in the political process as each side stood firm against the entreaties of the other. Deadlock resulted, and in the case of the slavery questions it was only resolved through force of arms and Civil War.

On the other hand, in spite of his personal antipathy toward slavery, Abraham Lincoln was at first moderate in his public statements because he could not afford to compromise his questionable popular base of support as president. Lincoln recognized that his administration’s ability to hold the nation together in the wake of Southern secession in 1861 was dependent upon his walking a narrow path of acceptability to a coalition of factions with sometimes divergent beliefs about the slavery issue. Without sufficient support for his leadership his position as president would be undermined and he would never be able to accomplish anything worthwhile. In spite of personal desires, it was a question for Lincoln of first things first.

Accordingly, only when the tenor of the population shifted did Lincoln act to abolish slavery by executive order, the sesquicentennial of which is recently passed. At a fundamental level this pragmatism represented the essence of American politics and it is important to acknowledge its central place in the history of the nation’s political system.

We seem to be at an impasse over many issues on the nation’s agenda at present as both sides have hardened positions that offer little room for compromise. None of these issues rise to the level of the moral abomination of human slavery, so it is not exactly the same thing as the Civil War era, but the inability to reach compromises that will facilitate governing the United States are very real. The same reasons are at play, safe districts created in part through gerrymandering, and an unwillingness to compromise are resulting.

Because of gerrymandering—in this case to create a rock solid Republican majority, and one that has become increasingly radical and uncompromising—House Speaker Paul Ryan is in a primary battle with an even more conservative and uncompromising Republican who may become the nominee for Ryan’s House seat. It would not be the first time this has happened in the recent past; as an example in 2014 even someone as conservative as Eric Cantor (R-VA) was challenged and defeated in his primary bid.

We are coming into an election season in which all of these issues are a major subtext. Whatever your beliefs, engage in the political process and make sure that your position is heard. Should politicians, in your view, hold hard lines on issues or work to compromise for the sake of governance? Whatever your answer, make sure your elected representatives hear it.

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