The Wrong Road to Space


The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, by Walter A. McDougall, New York: Basic Books, 576 pp., $25.95

In an interview with Walter Cronkite during the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, Lyndon Johnson praised the space program as a source of progress. Until the USSR had launched its Sputnik, he said:

we didn't have any Federal aid for education.…So we started passing education bills, we made a national effort in elementary education, a national effort in higher education, where two million students were brought into our colleges. And they said, "Well, if you do that for space and send a man to the Moon, why can't we do something for grandma with medicare?" And so we passed the Medicare Act, and we passed forty other measures.…And I think that's the great significance that the space program has had. I think it was the beginning of the revolution of the '60s.

Why did the challenge of space chiefly invigorate the federal government? This question is central to Walter McDougall's The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age. But he covers far more than just the US space program—his true topic is the relationship among technology, politics, and foreign affairs in "an age of perpetual technological revolution."

McDougall traces the rise of centrally directed research and development (or "command technology") to the pressures of 20th-century warfare and, in particular, World War II. The atomic bomb, the ballistic missile, radar, and the electronic computer all were credited to command technology. And these successes made central planning more credible.

Later, the Soviet example loomed large. The Soviet state made technology and central planning its emblems, and Sputnik blazed them across the heavens. McDougall traces the causes of the Sputnik surprise, from the long Soviet tradition in rocketry to the US army inspectors sent to keep Werner von Braun, working on the development of military missiles, from "accidentally" orbiting a US satellite with the technology he was developing (since US policymakers preferred that the first satellite be a civilian one). He then describes the media uproar, Soviet propaganda, and global confusion that followed the Soviet Sputnik success. In the minds of the ignorant, a limited technical achievement became a great victory for the Soviet system as a whole.

To defend American virtues, America aped Soviet methods, turning to "five year plans and national mobilization under federal bureaucracies." With this came a fresh wave of enthusiasm for grand federal programs. If we could reach the moon by central planning, what couldn't we achieve? Success at organizing employees to plan and build rockets was seen as proof that new management methods would enable government to plan and rebuild society itself. And so the '60s and '70s were churned by a federal activism unheard of in the Eisenhower years.

McDougall tells a story that reaches from Stalinist views of technology to congressional views of the Atomic Energy Commission to the decisions that led to the present US strategic posture. Throughout, he focuses on the dilemmas faced by a free society forced into a technology-based military competition with a mobilized, totalitarian adversary.

Yet in arguing his thesis about technology, international competition, and centralization, McDougall downplays other centralizing forces and the example of the New Deal era. The book also contains errors of technological, scientific, and historic fact—hydrogen bombs are not "more compact" than fission bombs, the earth is not merely "2.8 billion years" old, J.D. Bernal was a Marxist physicist (not a "Marxist sociologist"), and so forth. Finally, in the last two chapters the book plunges nose-down into a murky discussion of systems analysis, humanism, theology, and the need for G.O.D.—a Guarantor of Decisions.

These final chapters clearly betray what earlier chapters suggest: McDougall suffers from attitudes characteristic of what Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek calls "constructivist rationalism." That is, he overestimates our ability to control or plan outcomes of economic and social interactions. Though McDougall clearly cherishes the spontaneous order of a free society, he does so from the stance of a conservative—he seems to believe that order requires orders and that trustworthy knowledge requires a trustworthy source. This leads him to accept the arguments of central-planning advocates too readily. He speaks of the historical US pattern of research as a "luxury" permitted by our isolation, wealth, and established competence. This luxury, he says, vanished in 1941. He sees the alternative as the "centralized mobilization of intellectual resources"—a development that, though he sincerely regrets, he finds inevitable.

In this, McDougall has fallen into the historian's natural trap. He slips from describing historical decisions in terms of the then-considered options to describing present decisions in terms of those same options. In short, he neglects the possibility of new alternatives to old dilemmas.

The dilemmas are real: in today's world, the free nations—to remain free and at peace—need massive military strength based on rapidly advancing technology. But this has been sought through central planning, funding, and management, directed by bureaucratic federal monopolies. Even if there is a need for federal funding and control of defense, however, entrepreneurship and competition could surely play an expanded role. Why should the planning and management of defense be the province of a bloated monopoly? Why not seek a way to apply the principle of free competition under law to this vast and vital enterprise? If history is any guide, the result would be greater efficiency and innovation.

A historian need not suggest new options, but neither should a historian imply that old options are all we have. For example, under the Eisenhower administration, talk about communications satellite (comsat) technology began to surface. At the time, decisionmakers in both the public and private sectors simply presumed that the public sector would have to play a large role in subsidizing the development of comsat technology and in operating such a satellite system. The battle was over precisely what role government should play, rather than whether it should have any role at all in the development and operation of comsat technology.

McDougall writes that "one can only guess at the consequences had a free market in comsat technology…prevailed." In fact, one can make rather well-informed guesses, but he does not do so. Someone else must write the story of how federal policy blocked the emergence of private space industries, encumbering free-world space efforts with high costs and clumsy bureaucracies.

It is ironic that the Apollo program stands in the public mind as a monument to effective federal action. The slogan, "If we can send a man to the moon, why can't we…?" really meant "If a federal program can send a man to the moon, then why can't a federal program…?" But as McDougall reminds us, the Apollo program was a failure.

Before Apollo, informed opinion favored building orbital spacecraft and a space station and then assembling a moonship in orbit. It was a political decision to aim at the moon immediately, not even pausing to learn to piece together a moonship in Earth orbit. An alliance of bureaucrats and politicians favored the giant Saturn V rocket and a system for separating and joining spacecraft in lunar orbit—an approach that the President's Science Advisory Committee, even at the outset, described as a "technological dead end." And so we reached the moon in a special-purpose stunt machine, and then quit.

The federal program to open the space frontier collapsed, and the Apollo hardware was soon scrapped. Today, as NASA begs subsidies for its costly Space Shuttle and begins to beat the drums for a stunt-flight to Mars, space advocates would do well to remember this history.

The chief virtue of McDougall's book is that it places technology—the most dynamic force of the modern world—at the center of the historical stage. As we approach a time when computer-aided engineering will floor the accelerator of technological progress, the relationship among liberty, politics, and technology must become a central concern. The Heavens and the Earth holds few answers, but it can help us shape better questions.

K. Eric Drexler is a research affiliate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a director of the L-5 Society. His book on technology and the future, Engines of Creation, will be published this spring.