We Need to Race for Progress

One of the greatest achievements of science and engineering in the past century has been our transportation of human beings safely into the void of space and back again. This was not driven by necessity but by the pride of the superpowers of the time. The USSR and the United States, in the absence of direct military competition, vied for scientific superiority as a means of proving their ideological superiority, and the space race stood at the forefront of this.

Being in space is a pretty good way to avoid going mainstream.

Both sides were eager to outdo the other, despite the lack of any tangible payout or prize for winning. Their projects more spectacular results were broadcast to hundreds of millions each, capturing the public imagination. It was one of the most captivating and united communications of the results of scientific progress in history. It was prominent, high impact and it drove the nation to invest in industries that would further science, even if they returned no capitol. The works of science fiction existed as a feedback loop with public opinion. The US at one point sank 80% of its substantial defence budget into reaching for space. In hindsight we see the people of that time as being paranoid and obsessed with the concept of attacks by the communist power bloc, so to sacrifice so much defence capitol required some serious resolve on their part.

What drove them to these lengths? Why did the administration of the time get away with it? Because public opinion was with them. It is ideally the opinions of the voting populace that are supported in legislation and spending, and at the time people in general thought space travel was pretty awesome. Why? Because they were being communicated with. The public was unfailingly aware of the progress in this field, and it formed a core part of the lives of many. Science journalism and communication was capturing the imagination and optimism of the entire world, and it was telling the government that winning at science was as good as winning at war.

US R&D Spending as a % GDP vs. Time

The smaller the bars are the less everyone cares.

After a number of incidents such as the focus on orbital facilities which were a frontier already conquered, the Columbia disaster, and indeed the well viewed Challenger disaster which raised a generation who witnessed the risk of space travel in their most impressionable years, exploration of space has been on decline and interest in it has accordingly suffered. Science fiction is no longer designed to be plausible, as stated earlier. And when was the last time you knew someone who wished to grow up to be an astronaut? The space program, having fallen out of the public eye, has fallen out of the public heart. No one is willing to investing in space exploration “because its awesome” anymore.

Space Launches by Decade of All Kinds.

The Obama administration’s cancellation of the NASA “Constellation” program for another moon mission, while hailed his opponents as a sudden killing blow, is in my opinion simply a continuation of its slow decline. The new driving directive given to NASA has been to develop vessels for longer-term space exploration, delaying any new missions even further.

Though India and China both intend to have manned space programs in the immediate future, they intend to simply follow the steps of the earlier superpowers. Perhaps the desire for space exploration is just a phase. If so, how will we reach further, say, to Mars? Or construct a space elevator? Such projects will require a high level of interest and cooperation between economic powers to achieve, that doesn’t seem likely any time soon without intervention. Science communication must stir the same drive to succeed no matter the cost that was tapped in the 60s if we are to see the necessary capitol to shoot for the stars, or any other comparably large scientific endeavour. The public needs to dream big again.


Astronaut picture credits to Deathchuck

Spending graph recut from Karl Tate’s and Stuart Fox’s work at Livescience

Launch data retrieved from spacelaunchreport.com









By lodoubt

7 comments on “We Need to Race for Progress

  1. Interesting view on the history of the space race. I understand that the public may soon dream big again when private enterprises like Richard Branson’s Virgin Group succeed to get the ordinary man in space.
    Unfortunately, suborbital space flights as part of space tourism for the ordinary man (with lots of cash) may not provide the much wanted scientific progress that could be made with more funding to national space programs.

  2. Yes, I would certainly have mentioned the role of the private sector in space development, and in fact there were some interesting graphs I turned up on Private sector R&D spending when compared to government spending on projects like the space program, but I felt it might have made the article less coherent and more rambley to discuss them.

    Suborbital space flights COULD however increase interest and awareness in national space programs, which as I stated, I believe to be a really big factor in the ability of any given government to budget for space exploration.

    • > No one is willing to investing in space exploration “because its awesome” anymore.

      I’m not so sure I agree- I think plenty of people still think space exploration is awesome and would love to go to space. Virgin Galactic is sold out for the first two years of operation already, even with tickets costing $200 000!

      Private sector may be the way of the future here, especially considering the effect of the GFC on government spending.

  3. I can’t help but immediately ask myself, ‘did we ever land on the moon!’ Space exploration is certainly less popular than it used to be, but I wonder if the whole moon landing conspiracy takes away some of the wonder. Its certainly less interesting to think that the whole thing was just fobbed in a studio… Doesn’t inspire me to sink my tax dollars into space exploration!
    There was also recently something about a supply craft for the Hubble Spacecraft exploding. I think it was for the Hubble Spacecraft anyway. Makes this quite topical!

  4. The idea of the public needing to “dream big” is a good one. I question, however, how we should go about this?

    In “days gone by”, people could look out the window, see the stars and dream. But now, with unmanned space probes etc, they can get the information they seek about Mars etc. by simply logging onto a blog. People have little ‘active’ care for what is going on, as they look when they want to.

    Evie’s post this week regarding film is apt to reference here as people now have an interest in elements of science from film and television. Though I am loathe to mention “The CSI Effect” – it has required an increase in forensic evidence and pressure on labs, and hence funding. I wonder if an increase in the amount of interesting science portrayed in film/tv would do similar.

  5. I might argue that the public wasn’t “dreaming big” so much as “living in paranoid fantasy land” during the Space Race; as you said “[t]his was not driven by necessity but by the pride of the superpowers of the time.” My impression of propaganda of the time (ie, communicating to the public) is that it was largely fueled by absolute terror that the other side would win and kill us all with the push of a button.

    Cool Soviet Union Propaganda video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lk3oWSrbEtk
    Protip: Read the info on the video below it for a synopsis in English.

    America and the Soviet Union knew that space was the next frontier to be conquered to obtain greater geopolitical power in the world, just as controlling trade routes in the ocean had made Britain the most powerful country in the world for a while. A great book that discussed the ways in which countries obtain and maintain power (and where that may lead in the future -especially in space!) is “The Next 100 Years” by George Friedman.

    Tangent examples aside, I’m not sure I’d agree that all it’ll take to fire up the space program again is public enthusiasm. While you’re definitely right that the government “[got] away with it… because public opinion was with them”, I think the key point there is that it was the *government* that was pushing the project. And governments hardly ever do anything because it’s cool (despite scientists fervent desires otherwise), but because something is vital to maintaining or gaining geopolitical power to stabilize the country (unless, you know, they’re a dictatorship that’s out for themselves, but that’s a different situation).

    Having watched too many doomsday movies and read too many 1950s sci fi as a kid, I’m convinced the only thing that would unite the human race enough to actually get us seriously into space (or unite us AT ALL), is alien invasion or other eminent destruction of the Earth. (Ender’s Game and Armageddon anyone?)

    By the way, I really liked this topic! It’s timely, as well as of special interest to me, since last I heard, some of the private sector space programs are currently based in New Mexico, where I’m from. 🙂 So thanks!

    • Its interesting that you bring up terror being a better motivator for this sort of thing, I saw a bit of talk in the Gruen Transfer about terror as a mass-motivator vs. incentive, and we sort of touched on this a little in the unit, but the messages have been really conflicting, I’m now struck by curiosity as to whether there is some specific types of actions for which incentive/fear motivators are more effective.

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