Friday, 15 May 2009

Grounding my hypothesis

The scales are just about beginning to fall away from my eyes in terms of what a disso is all about. I've spent the last couple of weeks thinking about the structure and form of the piece - approaching it, unsurprisingly, in a rather journalistic way, rather than engaging with what my hypothesis actually is.

So, while I've always had said hypothesis running around my head, my tutor has advised getting it down on paper...and the structure's more likely to run from the conclusion backwards than to flow from the germ of an idea forwards.

So, here's where I stand:

The Space Race was a media construct. The prestige of the United States was materially damaged by the failure to put the first satellite in space. While Eisenhower was comfortable for the Soviets to be the first nation in space, and had no plans to create a 'race', public perception, fanned by radio broadcasts and printed media was very different, and worked against Eisenhower and his chosen stance.

Khrushchev exploited America's slow start in rocket and satellite development, propagandising the Soviet space programme as a means of creating a false impression of the relative power of the Superpowers. In the US, Johnson, first through his position in Congress and then as VP to Kennedy grabbed the space mantle and politicised NASA's efforts as a weapon to fight back against he Soviet threat to US power. He, through lobbying from Werner Von Braun, prompted Kennedy's '61 speech to Congress which put the moon landing as the centre piece (and perception-wise, end point) to the space race, since even in '61, there was sufficient evidence to suggest the was a race that only the US could win.

While NASA was the enabler for Armstrong et al to reach the moon, it was also the victim of an implicit political/media alliance that was focused solely on beating the Soviets by reaching the moon and thus ensuring US prestige was restored. This was an end-game, and further space exploration was not in the reckoning. So, NASA’s campaign to market the Apollo program as a world endeavour ('for all mankind') focused on uniting science and technology in the pursuit of discovery paradoxically created a dynamic that brought the premature termination of the program. Laudable in its aims, its actual efforts were focused on creating a means to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth, and that was the expectation created through NASA's own communication machine and fanned by a compliant media. The goal was limited. Only far too late in the day (when governmental money was being diverted elsewhere) did NASA wake up to the fact that their goal was tactical, and that there was no grand strategy for opening the heavens (as Von Braun had envisaged), and no saleable vision to engage a sceptical media and increasingly disinterested public.

This mistake was a consequence of tunnel vision that could not see beyond a moon landing and a failure in NASA's own communication that saw it excellent in its ability to respond to the needs of the media, which grew increasingly news-hungry through the '60s, but abject in its ability to set the agenda for true space exploration. This was largely down to:

  • A limited appetite for space exploration from 1966 onwards resulting in lukewarm support among the political classes

  • A single-objective program that was an end in itself rather than a means to a greater end

  • A media increasingly focused on the new and the different (not on repeats of what had been done before)

  • Weak leadership in NASA (especially post-Webb)

  • A communication culture that was inward looking, focused on engineering achievement rather than presenting an inspiring vision

  • Risk-averse, unchallenging and skill-limited communications personnel within NASA.

The result was a cul de sac - from which NASA has never truly escaped subsequently. The media created the race, then ultimately turned upon itself and ate the edifice it had created.

That's where I am now, but likely more thoughts as I ponder on this in days to come.

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