- Historical Studies in the Societal Impact of Spaceflight ed. by Steven J. Dick
Edited by Steven J. Dick. Washington, DC: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2015. Pp. ix+664. $59.99.
This third volume in NASA History’s Societal Impact series, a series that emerged from a 2006 conference and the subsequent publication Societal Impact of Spaceflight (2007), focuses mostly on the Agency’s impact on technologies beyond the usual rockets, planes, and space capsules. This brings space history out of its niche and into conversation with the histories of atomic batteries, integrated circuits, medical devices, miniature accelerometers, and communications technologies.
However, despite editor Steven J. Dick’s hope in his brief introduction that these studies will address “the mutual interaction of space exploration and society” (p. vii), many remain focused on scientists, engineers, and machines, leaving one wondering when “society” will show up. Historians of technology may also be unsatisfied with the impact model, a limitation flagged at the initial conference by Glen Asner, who noted that “the concept of societal impact is problematic” and called for assessments of “the influence of society on spaceflight.”*
The tome’s nine chapters are organized into three sections: “Opinion,” “Spinoff?” and “The World At Large.” “Opinion” contains just one chapter, sociologist William Sims Bainbridge’s analysis of polls tracking Americans’ evolving attitudes about the prospects and inherent value of space-flight from the late 1940s to the near present.
Bainbridge also leads off “Spinoff”—the volume’s most valuable and cohesive section—busting the myth that space exploration greatly benefits society through the transfer of technologies to the public for non-aerospace uses. Through an examination of a handful of obscure medical technologies (a bone density analyzer, anti-shock garments, memory foam, and a braille reader) promoted in the Agency’s annual Spinoff report, Bainbridge finds that nearly every case fails to meet a strict definition of the term, with NASA acting not as sole origin of groundbreaking tech, but as one of many interrelated supportive conduits in the military-academic-industrial-complex that innovations of varying significance pass through.
In the next two chapters, Andrew Butrica tackles additional cases of [End Page 183] purported NASA spinoff: the famed integrated circuit, which he argues has become something of an “urban legend” thanks to their use in the Apollo guidance and navigation computer, and the lesser-known case of micro-electromechanical systems (MEMs), tiny accelerometers now ubiquitous in smartphones. Both chapters border on book-length (100 and 71 pages, respectively), and despite an accidentally repeated quote (p. 184), they reveal the complexity of engineering and funding networks inside and outside NASA that the tidy concept of spinoff obfuscates. Butrica concludes that isolating NASA’s contributions here is difficult, as critical data has been lost or merged with other “defense” entities like the Central Intelligence Agency, Department of Defense, and Atomic Energy Commission. He laments that determining the extent to which NASA’s sizable purchases of integrated circuits and internal work on their reliability really drove their massive proliferation is like “trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.” (p. 244)
In Chapter 5, Roger Launius offers a history of the radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), the controversial nuclear power source NASA has used in many high-profile robotic spacecraft like Mars Pathfinder, Cassini, and the Voyager probes. Launius finally brings in “society,” explaining how atomic batteries debuted in space in 1961 but only became a touchstone for anti-nuclear and environmental protests in the late 1970s, following the uncontrolled reentry of the Soviet Kosmos 954 satellite, which scattered radioactive debris across northern Canada, and the Three Mile Island accident.
Continuing the theme of planetary stewardship, W. Henry Lambright’s more general survey of space and environmentalism has only increased in importance since publication. He shows how NASA’s Earth Science program—now facing elimination by the Trump administration for conducting climate research—stemmed from astronaut Sally Ride’s 1987 recommendation for a “Mission to Planet Earth” (MTPE).
The final three chapters include David J. Walen’s round-up of various types of commercial applications satellites (he argues communications satellites have the...