Thursday, 22 July 2010

One year down, how many to go?

I've completed one academic year as a PhD student - and have been officially signed-off to continue into year two. As a part-timer, my target is to complete the PhD in five years, though secretly, I'd love to nail it inside four.

Yesterday was my Masters graduation - a nice morning in Uxbridge where, fittingly, Helen Sharman, Britain's first cosmonaut, received an honorary Doctorate for her services to science. She was based at Brunel before her trip to Mir, and I now have a research office in her old project building.....I wonder if she popped back for a nostalgic look round yesterday? The graduation marks a milestone for me: I can now firmly put the MA behind me and move forward much more deeply into the PhD research.

The high point of the first year of study was undoubtedly my visit to the US, both to NASA in Washington DC and perhaps more surprisingly, to Abilene in Kansas. I'd been working on the hypothesis that there was a direct formative effect of the media on US policy making at the beginning of the space race. But working through Eisenhower's presidential papers and the collections that surround these, it has become ever clearer that the process of presidential decision making was much more nuanced - though there were times when Ike's policy decisions really did appear to be made on the fly as he updated draft speeches and memos in the hours before meeting the NSC, briefing the press or meeting the leaders on the Hill.

So, I've moved my position somewhat. I'm still fascinated by the space race and the respective roles of the President, NASA, Congress and the media in shaping US policy. But my focus now is on the contrasts in presidential decision making between Eisenhower and Kennedy and the role the different strands of the media played in flavouring the audit trail towards decisions. I have about 1,000 pages of Eisenhower documents that I'm slowly working through, and am already thinking about a trip to Boston to put Kennedy's role in space policy under the same microscope.
Aside from getting my photographed documents into some kind of order, I'm still working through those papers and books that delve into my area of interest. I'm currently reading Harlen Makemson's 'Media, NASA and America's quest for the moon'. As to what I make of it? Well, for once I'm reading it professionally for a commissioned review piece for Spaceflight magazine. So for the moment, my thoughts remain my own.