Technology and Culture 41.4 (2000) 849-851
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NASA and the Space Industry
NASA and the Space Industry. By Joan Lisa Bromberg. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. Pp. x+247; illustrations, figures, notes/references, bibliography, index. $38.50.
Joan Lisa Bromberg's NASA and the Space Industry is the sixth volume to appear in the New Series in NASA History. The Johns Hopkins University Press is to be commended for publishing these titles, which together ensure that the U.S. civil space program receives historical scrutiny from perspectives more varied than those one normally finds in R&D program histories sponsored from within the federal agencies themselves. Bromberg organizes her story chronologically around six periods: the emergence of the firms that supplied the armaments and aircraft of World War II and would serve as the nucleus of the modern aerospace industry; the schism between the "U.S. Army arsenal" (in-house) and the air force (external contractor) development of materiel, which persists as a fundamental tension in the NASA culture to this day; the heyday of the 1960s Apollo adventure and the scramble among NASA and industry managers and engineers alike to meet the president's goal; the decline of public interest in space during the post-Apollo 1970s, which forced NASA to be more solicitous of industry for its political support; the first Reagan administration, with its free-market ideology, [End Page 849] which pushed NASA further toward accommodation with the private sector; the post-Challenger period, which threatened to seal the doom of the shuttle as a viable "national" transport system; and the 1990s contraction of the aerospace industry, and unprecedented leadership priorities and style of Daniel S. Goldin, former head of TRW's classified space programs.
Bromberg's theme is the interplay of government know-how and leverage--government being the principal if not only customer--with industrial firms seeking to position themselves in a high-investment industry with low-volume sales in the process of large-scale technological innovation. Tracing this theme through her well-written chapters requires close attention. To this reader, however, the more compelling story she tells is of the interplay between the economic calculations of the firms operating in NASA's orbit and the political survival strategies of the government agencies upon which those firms were perilously dependent.
As the Democratic Party has moved toward the political center, it has adopted a generally shared ideological opposition to "industrial policy," at least industrial policy as we know it in its Japanese and British Labourite flavors. Thus the enthusiasm in Washington policy circles for "commercializing" space has survived transmission from the Reagan White House's 1988 National Space Policy into the Clinton administration's National Space Policy. "Commercialization" and "privatization," policies associated with Reagan and with Margaret Thatcher, stress the transfer to the marketplace of a host of public functions and infrastructure that were previously government-operated or government-owned. Thus, "commercialization" connotes in the minds of most of us a rejection of "industrial policy."
However, things are often not what they seem. Few could better document the extent to which the United States has, in fact, engaged in "industrial policy," and continues to engage in it, than Bromberg has done in this study of NASA's long-standing codependent relationship with the aerospace industry. The process by which this codependency has evolved has been subtle and intricate, because it involved not merely the transfer of funds and activities but the not-always-easy resolution of distinctive approaches toward developing and managing new technologies. Given the necessary institutionalization of large-scale technological enterprise, this process undoubtedly accounts for the net technological and organizational gains of the nation's space program. Bromberg's characterization of this process as it occurred during the Apollo program could be applied to other episodes in her story as well: "Apollo did occasion a real extension of space expertise in industry, but it was not simply a flow from NASA outward. Rather, NASA's Apollo opened a network of conduits by which technological and managerial knowledge moved with new...