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Defining NASA

The Historical Debate over the Agency's Mission

W. D. Kay

Publication Year: 2005

Most observers would point to the 1969 Apollo moon landing as the single greatest accomplishment of NASA, yet prominent scientists, engineers, and public officials were questioning the purpose of the U.S. space program, even at the height of its national popularity. Defining NASA looks at the turbulent history of the space agency and the political controversies behind its funding. W. D. Kay examines the agency’s activities and behavior by taking into account not only the political climate, but also the changes in how public officials conceptualize space policy. He explores what policymakers envisioned when they created the agency in 1958, why support for the Apollo program was so strong in the 1960s only to fade away in such a relatively short period of time, what caused NASA and the space program to languish throughout most of the 1970s only to reemerge in the 1980s, and, finally, what role the agency plays today.

Published by: State University of New York Press


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Title page

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p. vii

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pp. ix-x

Like some other NASA programs one could name, this project took just a tad longer than planned, and looks rather different from what its designers envisioned. Way back in 1996, the agency’s History Office commissioned a manuscript, tentatively titled Contested Ground: The Historical Debate Over NASA’s Mission, that would provide an account of the different goals and objectives that had been set for the agency—as well as those that it had sought on its own—from 1958 to the present. I, however, being a political scientist...


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pp. xi-xii


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1. What Is NASA’s Purpose?

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pp. 3-10

Since the opening of the Space Age nearly 50 years ago, the U.S. government has spent close to $1 trillion on space-related activities.1 Although by no means the largest public expenditure over that period—it is easily dwarfed by national defense, social security, and countless other federal programs—it is still, by any measure, an enormous amount of money. It therefore...

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2. Analytical Framework

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pp. 11-24

At first glance, accounting for the origin and evolution of NASA’s “mission”—or, indeed, that of any large, complex, big-budget, public organization—would appear to be an exceedingly difficult task. Fortunately, a number of concepts from the fields of political science, public administration, and public policy studies may make such an inquiry, if not easier, at least more systematic. Although only a few have been applied specifically to the space program, these ideas...


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p. 25

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3. Prehistory: Space Policy Before Sputnik

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pp. 27-40

Anyone reviewing the historical writing on space exploration might fairly conclude that it is one of those rare human enterprises that has two beginnings. Many books and articles trace the origins of modern spaceflight to the theoretical treatises and engineering work of men like Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Robert Goddard, and Herman Oberth (and later Wernher von Braun). For the most part,...

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4. NASA: Born Out of Fright (1957-1961)

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pp. 41-65

The twin definitions of space policy into which the Eisenhower administration had settled were utterly demolished by a dramatic series of events in late 1957 and early 1958. As some had warned (see the last chapter), on October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union became the world’s first space-faring nation with the successful launch of Sputnik I into earth orbit. This...

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5. Mission Advanced

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pp. 67-87

Broad declarations of government policy, such as Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of “war” on poverty or George H. W. Bush’s vow that the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait would “not stand” (or, for that matter, his son’s declaring war on terrorism) are, in and of themselves, really nothing more than broad statements of intention. They have real meaning...


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6. Mission Accomplished.....Now What?

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pp. 91-114

As the Apollo 11 command module Columbia splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969, two statements appeared across the 20 x 10 foot video screen in NASA’s Mission Control center in Houston. The first was the famous challenge issued by President John F. Kennedy eight years earlier: I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out,...

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7. Space Policy Redefined (Again)

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pp. 115-141

During the latter part of the 1970s, U.S. space advocates had predicted that the following decade would see spaceflight becoming “routine,” with NASA’s new space shuttle making as many as 40 or 50 flights per year. Although the STS itself came nowhere near achieving this goal (the actual number of flights in 1989, for example, was six), it can be argued that in another, perhaps more meaningful, way space technology did make major strides toward a sort of “routinization.” As this chapter...

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8. Dollars, Not Dreams; Business, Not Government

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pp. 143-164

For over 40 years, succeeding generations of space enthusiasts had been able to secure the resources necessary to advance the state of the art in spaceflight technology— at times considerably—by convincing a wide variety of political leaders that it would help them achieve their own goals. Wernher von Braun...

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9 Concluding Thoughts

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pp. 165-178

The preceding analysis does not necessarily lead to a single conclusion. It does, however, provide the basis for a number of observations concerning the place of NASA within federal science and technology policy, the agency’s future, and the overall status of the U.S. space program at the beginning of the 21st century. It is also...


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pp. 179-241


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pp. 243-247

E-ISBN-13: 9780791483633
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791463819
Print-ISBN-10: 0791463818

Page Count: 260
Publication Year: 2005

OCLC Number: 62744819
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Defining NASA

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Subject Headings

  • Space sciences -- United States -- History.
  • Astronautics -- United States -- History.
  • United States. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
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