restricted access 3 Promoting the Human Dimension
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c h a p t e r t h r e e Promoting the Human Dimension Without question, the most powerful vision of space travel to emerge in the first half-century of cosmic flight was that articulated by Wernher von Braun, one of the most important rocket engineers and champions of space exploration during the mid–twentieth century. Von Braun appeared as a spokesperson for space exploration as the result of a series of articles he helped write for Collier ’s, a popular weekly periodical of the era. The articles commenced in the winter of 1952; later that year, von Braun was asked to address an important symposium on spaceflight taking place at the Hayden Planetarium in New York. He became a household name following his appearance on three Walt Disney television shows dedicated to space exploration beginning in 1955.1 His ideas influenced the collective imagination of millions of people and helped chart the course of actual space activities in the United States. Von Braun centered his vision for the exploration of space on human flight, leaving virtually no room for autonomous robotic activities. His vision became official government policy and elicited billions of dollars in annual taxpayer funds. This was a fantastic accomplishment, given that most people at the midpoint of the twentieth century treated space travel as science fiction—that “Buck Rogers stuff”—and not particularly worth government investment.2 Von Braun’s relentless proselytizing, moreover, elicited strong official resistance within the administration of President Eisenhower, the government for which he worked. Yet his plan triumphed over objections to its advisability and the more modest and parsimonious robotic alternative. What factors might help explain the acceptance of von Braun’s grandiose vision of human space travel within the U.S. civil space program? To be sure, many people had been exposed to its principal elements through works of science fiction stretching back several decades.3 This literature had long excited public anticipation, which prepared the way for real space travel and even prompted von Braun to attempt to write some. Other factors helped prepare the way. Von Braun’s vision was strengthened by its association with “Big Science,” which became the preferred method for tackling technological challenges in the aftermath of World War II, when it appeared that organized large-scale efforts such as the Manhattan Project could resolve virtually any problem.4 Indeed, the immediate postwar era found the application of wartime mobilization models for science applied to numerous peacetime problems. Building on more than five centuries of terrestrial activities, Big Science seemingly offered a path to the next stage of human exploration. Supporters of human flight effectively argued that a complex set of actions would be needed to fulfill all of the purposes assigned to space travel. Those subscribing to an aggressive approach to space exploration embraced the concept of Big Science and organized their efforts accordingly. It worked with spectacular results during the Apollo program; virtually everyone has seen it as a triumph of management in meeting the enormously difficult systems engineering and technological integration requirements. The management of the program was recognized as critical to Apollo’s success in November 1968, when Science magazine, the publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, observed: In terms of numbers of dollars or of men, NASA has not been our largest national undertaking, but in terms of complexity, rate of growth, and technological sophistication it has been unique. . . . It may turn out that [the space program’s] most valuable spin-off of all will be human rather than technological: better knowledge of how to plan, coordinate, and monitor the multitudinous and varied activities of the organizations required to accomplish great social undertakings.5 Apollo, no question about it, represented the high-water mark of Big Science in the context of space exploration. Much of this would change in the half-century to come. Big Science lost its sheen. What once had been viewed as a virtue became ossified and bureaucratized , representative of all that was wrong with government.6 Astronauts became essentially anonymous with only a handful recognizable to the public during the space shuttle era. This was quite different from the earlier heroic age of promoting the human dimension 63 human space travel when John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Neil Armstrong, and others were household names. At the same time, exploration methods diversified. Of the major rationales supporting space...