How The Space Race Changed America
When we mobilized technology for Cold War and space, we paid a price in more than dollars
DO YOU STILL THINK OF TECHNOLOGY AS MANKIND’S OBEDIENT SER vant? If so, you may be jolted by Walter A. McDougall’s observations about the space race. McDougall, a professor of history at the University of California, maintains that post- Sputnik , government-underwritten space technology has bred a genuine technocracy that is eroding the very Free World values it is supposed to defend.
“The founders of our space program,” he argues, “saw space technology as a kind of apotheosis that would uplift all of society. But as 1 see it, big-government control of the effort has led on all levels to inefficiency, corruption, and the actual warping of such traditional American values as free enterprise and individual self-reliance.”
These eye-opening views are spelled out in McDougall’s Puiitzer Prize-winning 1985 study, … the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age . The book shows how the space race has taken us in directions we haven’t understood or acknowledged. We have constantly changed our social and political values to keep them in line with a world scene transformed by the space race and the Cold War, McDougall argues, and in so doing we have begun to lose our moral and ethical bearings.
Though his analysis centers on the negative effects of government-backed space technology, McDougall’s concerns range far beyond the space race. As a cultural and diplomatic historian, he sees all technocratic dominance as a threat to the human spirit. “The machine,” he contends, “is a liberator in terms of material needs. But it can be a prison in terms of spiritual needs or individual self-expression.”
The crucial challenge, he feels, is to disentangle the machine from the grip of technocratic interests and subsidies. Fortunately, “the wonderful thing about America is its enduring faith that the world is big enough for both man and machine, a place where they can coexist and complement each other.”
Though McDougall’s avowed field is diplomatic history, not technology—he got his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago under the historian William H. McNeill—… the Heavens and the Earth has been greeted enthusiastically by historians of technology. It won the Society for the History of Technology’s 1986 Dexter Prize, awarded for the year’s outstanding book in the field.
The following interview took place last May in Berkeley, California.
You’ve shocked a lot of people by suggesting that our space-race technology is threatening some of our most cherished values.
Yes. It’s a relatively simple idea, which I will make complicated because I’m a historian. You see, I believe that in theory technology is quite neutral. But in practice, big technological systems are never entirely neutral. Why? Because the very presence of giant systems requires society to make major political adjustments to adapt to them. That is, whatever major new technology you talk about, you have to make a social adjustment to accommodate it. And once you’ve adjusted your entire economy or political structure to fit a certain technological base, you are captive to it, and the secondary effects, bad or good, have to be lived with.
It’s not that technology in itself challenges our values, but rather that the things we have to do to accommodate a technological revolution can inadvertently undermine our values.
So exploring space can really be a danger to society?
It’s my argument that Sputnik and the space race brought on massively increased government involvement in research and development—not just in military but even in civilian technology. This also spun off in government involvement in education and ultimately in energy policy, transportation, medicine, welfare, and all the rest. A lot of those programs predated Sputnik , of course, but the scale of government funding and directing of research and development shot up tremendously after Sputnik went into orbit and the space race got under way.
Starting under Eisenhower but coming to fruition under Kennedy and Johnson, this country reacted to the Soviet challenge by adopting a kind of Soviet-style, five-year-plan mentality for the creation of new technology and for the solution of social problems. We said, set up great big bureaucracies, pour in a bunch of money, bring in a lot of technocratic planners, and we will end all poverty, or get to the moon by the end of the decade, or build a thousand Minuteman missiles by 1967.
In order to mobilize the resources and brainpower necessary for these government-directed social agendas, not only government bureaucracies but universities and private corporations all got folded into a kind of government-industry-university complex for the directed solution of social goals.
Do you date all of this back to Sputnik ?
To World War II, actually. From 1941 on, our government, in order to wage war effectively, obviously had to mobilize the country. After the war, unlike previous wars, we did not fully demobilize. Because of the Cold War, we continued to maintain a large peacetime military establishment with ongoing research programs in advanced weapons—nuclear devices, long-range bombers, rockets, and so forth. Inevitably, a certain amount of private-corporation and university work also continued to be directed and funded by the government.
By the 1960s this government mobilization—this planned creation of new technology and, you might say, of the future—expanded to such a degree that it amounted to a qualitative change in American history. We sacrificed, on an altar essentially of governmental power, many of our old-fashioned notions of individualism—that is, we sacrificed autonomous universities, autonomous corporations competing in a free market, balanced budgets, and self-reliance among individuals making it or breaking in a competitive environment.
Was there some sort of driving force behind this vast transformation?
Well, the big justification for it was, first and foremost, the need to fight the Cold War, which I happen to believe was a necessary thing to do. That’s why all this is so terribly ironic and tragic. A secondary impetus was our quest for the vaguer goal of social justice, for a society that was more egalitarian and provided more opportunities for people, one that would continue to enjoy rapid economic growth to create a better life for more of its citizens. In the end, those old-fashioned virtues that folks like Truman and Elsenhower had still tried to uphold were sacrificed, and a new kind of technocratic approach to public policy triumphed.
You’ve written that contrary to popular notions, military R&D does not always produce spin-off benefits for the civilian sector.
That’s right. We don’t put money into military R&D to stimulate the economy; we do it to defend ourselves. Some military technology helps the civilian economy and some doesn’t, but there’s absolutely no way you can predict. If your goal is to stimulate the civilian economy, you ought to spend your R&D stimulating the civilian economy.
You’ve said that the government-supported “contract state” actually penalizes risk-taking firms.
I made that comment about the aerospace industry in particular. In military R&D you have two great models. One is the government arsenal, where you have in-house people working in bureaucratic government laboratories. The other is the contract system, where you hire a private corporation to do the work. Now, the contract system, which NASA and the Air Force adopted, looks good because it seems like more of a free-enterprise system than the arsenal approach. But you don’t get free enterprise, because government corrupts business.
The usual cliché in our society—the one our schools like to teach—is that business corrupts government. Big businessmen buy congressmen and manipulate bills and so forth. This was the great discovery of the Progressive Era, back at the turn of the century, and it led to a lot of reform. To me, the great discovery of the space age will be the way government corrupts business.
How does that work?
Well, as soon as Uncle Sam appears at the door of the Treasury with forty-four billion dollars in his hands, that creates an awful lot of temptation. Congressmen, bureaucracies, big contractors, grant-seeking academics—everybody’s going to want to get on the gravy train. For a big defense firm, the trick is to land a government contract to do something nobody else is doing. I mean, only one company’s going to build a moon craft, so if you get the contract, the competition’s over. Now you’ve got a free ride. The contract system makes private industry a kind of ward of the government. It creates a great temptation to promise far more than you can deliver and then pad costs and drag out development time.
Can’t a company just stay honest and still turn a profit?
No. A company that is resolutely honest about the costs and problems of developing a new technology just won’t get the contracts. It doesn’t have a chance. Let’s say a company comes to the government and says, hell, we’ll build you a space shuttle, but it’s going to cost twice as much as you want and take five years longer than you want. Well, the agency’s going to say, these guys don’t sound very confident. Let’s go talk to some other firm.
What if that other firm now comes in and says, we know how to build a space shuttle, we’re already working on it with our own funds, and we can do it for you in only six years and for only this much money? The agency’s going to jump at them. Why? Because the agency’s future depends on getting its big programs funded by the Congress.
So the agency, like the big corporations, has an interest in overpromising, both on cost and on performance. The United States Congress, ultimately, is the sucker that goes along with the whole deal. Then it finds out five years later it’s going to have to ante up another 100 percent and wait another five years before it gets its product. And the final product may not be as good as everyone thought it was going to be. It’s all built into the system.
Isn’t there some way out of this bind?
Well, the alternative is socialism, which is worse. Because then the entire system is one big government monopoly-bureaucracy. There’s absolutely no room in socialism, or very little, for private initiative, and good, old-fashioned honest work. So the socialist system only takes to an extreme what we’ve been experiencing since World War II in our government-managed programs, be they in the military sector, the technology sector, or for that matter in the civilian welfare sectors.
I was struck by the passages in your book about the way defense spending has politicized even the academic world.
It’s a volatile issue, of course. It comes up perennially here at Berkeley because the University of California manages the government atomic-research labs at Livermore and Los Alamos. That’s always a great source of strife. Should we do bioengineering and gene splicing on campus? Various kinds of medical research for the government? When the university gets into the business of doing the government’s bidding, it’s automatically going to be politicized.
How does the politicizing process make itself felt?
You encounter all kinds of government rules about classification, secrecy, cost, safety—even about your curriculum and hiring and peer review. In short, all the things that used to make universities autonomous, self-governing institutions come under attack by the federal agencies. It’s awful to behold, and I don’t know how university administrators can stand it. I would think that at some point they’d throw up their hands and say it’s not worth the money they’re getting to put up with all this.
These points are, of course, all spelled out in your book.
Basically what I try to do in the book is just show how what I call technocracy came to be the norm for American government. It happened in large part because we had to compete with the Soviet Union. Incidentally, by technocracy I mean the funding, direction, planning, and control by the government of initial research and development, and ultimately of all kinds of social change. I don’t mean government by technical experts. Our government is still run by politicians and other important interest groups who use technology and technical skills to effect political goals of their own making. Technology therefore becomes a kind of magic wand in the hands of politicians, lawyers, journalists, and academics who don’t really understand what technology can and cannot do. They tend to overestimate its power, and they therefore give technology a bad name.
I know you are interested in the way great imaginative writers have dealt with the human implications of technocracy.
Yes, and of course they all deal with the problem in different ways. Kafka writes about the nightmare of the thoroughly impersonal bureaucracy. Then there’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s monster. By the way, I hate it when people call the monster Frankenstein. The poor monster was Karl; Frankenstein was the scientist—and of course it’s the scientist who’s the dangerous one, not the monster. The monster, defective brain and all, was a peaceful, calm fellow until the society turned on him.
He liked children.
That’s right. When the villagers, in their fear and hatred, turned on the monster, he became violent, and this I think is a wonderful metaphor for modern technology. Because if in fear and loathing our society turns on technology research and scientific progress, it’s at that point that our scientific, technological system may go out of control. I believe we have to embrace our technological creations as if they were our children—which in a way they are- and discipline them, love them, bring them up to maturity, but not turn on them in hatred or frustration.
You even take on the knotty question of whether we need some kind of objective force—a Guarantor of Destiny, or G.O.D.—to give us our bearings as a society.
Well, this is a point central to all philosophy. The fellow who coined, or at least popularized, this notion of the G.O.D. is a Berkeley philosopher—a computerage philosopher, if you will—named C. West Churchman. Churchman’s point is this: When human beings sit down to manage anything and create a future, how can they know where they’re going? How do we know the results of the actions we are taking today? And even if we could magically foresee those distant results, how could we say they’d be “good” or “bad”? In any kind of future-oriented activity, you have to have some notion of what progress is. And that means both that you know where you want to go and that you have a reasonable belief that your actions will get you closer to it.
Yet the fact is, the irony is, we in the West don’t know where we want to go. The Soviets know where they want to go, but I don’t want to go there; we in the West spend billions of dollars creating a future, creating new technology, changing society through government policy, and yet as a nation we seem to have very little consensus about what values we are trying to serve.
Does Churchman see a way out of this dilemma?
He theorizes that what every system needs is some kind of a guarantor outside of the system—a guarantor that both becomes the source of your value judgments and ensures that you will work so as to get closer to those values. This is an idea found in many civilizations. In the Soviet Union, the dialectics of history is the guarantor. Whether it’s the Chinese I Ching, the Hindu Atman, the pagan Fates, Spinoza’s rational spirit of the universe, or Judéo-Christian Providence—whatever your philosophy of history is, there’s some kind of guarantor that lies behind the system. If you can posit a God standing outside the system, moving the human race toward some kind of conclusion, then that’s your guarantor. You don’t know that what you’re doing is right but you pray that it’s the right thing, and you hope God will come in and fix things if you muck it up too badly. In the United States, a nonideological country with no established philosophy or religion, we have no public consensus about whether we’re doing the right thing. I think in past ages there was such a consensus. I think most Americans believed that the United States was sort of the new Jerusalem and that God was looking after us.
It’s certainly an appealing idea.
Appealing, yes. But I think it’s very hard to accept the notion that the United States is being looked after by some transcendental force. And if such a force isn’t looking after us, we are very, very lonely. It means that as individuals and as a nation we can never be sure that anything we do—the Presidents we elect, or the technologies we develop—will ever get us closer to the values we cherish. It means we might in fact be fouling our own nest. And it means that even if we as individuals have certain values that we want government to help us all pursue, we won’t share those values with our neighbor. We’ll all have very different values.
I was intrigued by the sections in your book on early rocket experimenters, such trailblazers as Tsiolkovsky in czarist Russia and his opposite numbers in the West.
For me, these early rocketeers are fascinating precisely because they were not driven by the desire to build superweapons or to make money by patenting new inventions. Nor were they motivated by patriotism. In virtually every case they simply dreamed of traveling in space. They dedicated large portions of their lives, in some cases their entire lives, to pursuing this dream.
They were inspired in almost every case by the early fathers of science fiction—H. G. Wells and Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs and so forth. Even though these writers were pretty fanciful, their young readers seized on these dreams of space flight and tried to turn them into physical realities.
Did any of the pioneers survive into modern times?
Some did, even into the 1930s. But by then both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany had totalitarian governments that rounded them up and put them to work building military weapons. It wasn’t until after World War II that a second generation of rocketeers got the chance to go back to building large rockets for the purposes of space flight.
How did the American rocket pioneer Robert Goddard stack up against the other pioneers?
Goddard could only have been an American, I think, because he’s a perfect example of the lone-wolf inventor. Yet he did the most extraordinary work in liquid-fuel rockets of any of the early rocketeers, back in the nineteen twenties and thirties. Unfortunately, he was paranoid about competition and about people stealing his ideas. And he was so vexed by reporters and publicity that he actually isolated himself out in the desert in New Mexico and carried on his research all by himself, up until 1941. He was a consultant with the U.S. military in World War II and died in obscurity in 1945.
Your book draws a memorable picture of Dwight Eisenhower. American Heritage recently ran an article by Steve Neal that said, “We were right to like Ike.” But your picture of him is by no means so adulatory.
Well, I’m interested to hear you say that, because most people accused me of making Ike the hero of the book. If you ask me, we should have liked Ike. But he didn’t achieve all he could, he had some blind spots, and his own values were undermined by a lot of the developments in the 1950s. So he left office feeling unfulfilled.
The two things he wanted more than anything were to reverse the tide of government involvement in society and to shrink the federal budget. He wanted to do these things because he wanted the United States to get back to the old-fashioned virtues I’ve mentioned: self-reliance, small government, and so forth. He certainly arrested the trend toward big government during his eight years. But he did not reverse it, and indeed some of the developments of that time planted the seeds of the great 1960s expansion of federal power. Ike was unable to hold off those trends. Of course Sputnik and the dawn of the missile age was a main trend.
Was that his major disappointment?
No, the other thing that Eisenhower wanted was an end to the Cold War. He wanted to achieve some kind of broad understanding with the Soviet Union, including a very strict arms-control agreement. That he was unable to achieve, in part because of the U-2 scandal in 1960.
You point out that President Kennedy, America’s patron of space shots, was originally very anti-space.
When Kennedy took office in 1961, he had to go through a kind of cram course about space. In the process, he came to realize the tremendous importance of space technology in the prestige race between the Soviets and the United States. I’m sort of critical of this whole concentration on prestige, but I have to admit as a diplomatic historian that prestige is an important national asset. In the late fifties and early sixties the Soviets and the Americans were neck and neck in a race for prestige in the eyes of the newly decolonized Third World. The notion at the time was that these new countries were looking around for the best model of societal development, and the United States had to prove it was still the greatest technological country in the world in order to persuade the new countries to follow our system rather than the Soviets’.
Furthermore, Sputnik and the so-called missile gap were a source of great unease for the Europeans. Our politicians argued that if the NATO alliance was to survive, the United States had to persuade the European countries that we were still in a position to deter a Soviet attack and defend them with our nuclear armaments. For these reasons, Kennedy was convinced that the United States could not stand too many more Soviet triumphs in outer space—no matter what value shooting men up to space might or might not have. And so Kennedy insisted, in his famous speech of May 25, 1961, on a program to surpass the Russians in space technology, and to show the world that we were still number one in technology.
Any thoughts on the Strategic Defense Initiative?
I’ll make just a few abbreviated comments. Above all, I fear that SDI will be another example, perhaps the biggest example, of the trends that I outline in my book and am very skeptical about—overreliance on large systems, corruption of the private sector, more and more university involvement with government research, and so on. Star Wars is a perfect example of the kind of development that Elsenhower deplored and that I myself am very worried about. On the other hand, the promise of Star Wars is a wonderful thing—a world in which stability between the superpowers is based on defensive rather than offensive technologies. But is it possible? Huge government programs always end up costing many times the original estimate. In particular, our problem right now is launch-vehicle capacity. Even if we develop all the Star Wars technology needed for a good defensive system, we face the problem of how we can launch all this stuff into space. A more realistic approach to ballistic-missile defense, I think, would concentrate on simple ground-based “kinetic kill” systems rather than exotic technologies based in orbit.
How can we break out of our space-technology bind?
One way out is to foster private enterprise in space. Let the simple tasks of building old-fashioned, unmanned rockets and launching satellites into orbit be done by competing private firms. You would make efficiency, mass production, and low cost factors again. Next, you would get the government and NASA back to what they were supposed to be doing all along—basic research. You see, NASA is supposed to be a research agency. At the beginning of the space program, anything done in space was considered research, because it was all new. But over the years NASA has, especially with the shuttle, gotten into the business of operations.
Is there something we haven’t touched on?
Well, I would like to take issue with something Professor Arthur Squires said during your interview with him in the last issue of this magazine.
Squires says that disasters like the Challenger or Chernobyl are directly traceable to deadly flaws in the bureaucracies that preside over technology. He then points out that there are these extraordinary people, whom he calls maestros of technology, who are able to make big technology work. I’m skeptical of Squires’s conclusion—though not his premise. I would say, with Max Weber, that bureaucracy is always tending toward inertia, inefficiency, and possibly catastrophic disaster. Even when you have a maestro, you can have disasters. James Webb, the administrator of NASA in the 1960s, was as great a maestro of technology as we’ve had in recent decades. Yet even he had to deal with a great disaster—the Apollo fire—which resulted from all kinds of convoluted inefficiencies and minor corruption in his own bureaucracy and in the contractor corporations.
Squires gives you the impression that if you’re lucky enough to have a maestro around, it can all work. My reaction is, let’s not put our faith in maestros any more than we put our faith in the flawed bureaucracy. The maestro is a wonderful thing, but he or she cannot compensate for the inefficiencies inherent in every bureaucracy.
There’s no way at all to compensate for such structural inefficiencies?
We can begin by recognizing that large bureaucratic systems are created by large government involvement. They impose natural inertial drags on any program you try to establish, and at some point they perversely begin to defeat your purpose.
You put a lot of federal bucks into something and you may indeed get better results in the short run, whether it’s in medical research, space technology, the building of schools, or the expansion of university faculties. So you figure, gee, let’s shoot in another ten billion dollars and we’ll get a doubling of our results. Wrong! At some point you reach the top of the Laffer curve, where putting in more government money just leads to more and more layers of bureaucracy, more entrenched interest groups, and more corruption on every level. This is true of the private citizens who receive aid and of the private corporations that hold government contracts. And it is emphatically true of the bureaucrats and politicians who play pork barrel with all this money. The more government money you put in, the more interest groups are created, the more corruption is created, the more inefficiencies are created—to the point where if you put in still more public money, you will actually end up getting back much less for your money.