Monday, 11 April 2011

Build a rocket boys

How appropriate that I should be writing my Research Student Day presentation while Elbow's 'Lippy Kids' with its excellent refrain 'Build a rocket boys' fills the background with a bit of tuneful (prog) rock.

After several months of a fairly isolated student existence, I'm feeling a bit more part of the research community at the moment. I began to get a bit more momentum into the work as a deadline approached for my revised hypothesis/structure and literature review and I started playing my hypothesis past a few of the big players - the likes of Logsdon, Launius, Hansen and McCurdy and McDougall while asking for their views on what a Nixon presidency in 1961 might have looked like in terms of space policy.

My current working hypothesis (based on my growing realisation that I don't think there was a direct causal effect of the media on Executive decision making) states: More than 50 years on from President Kennedy’s inauguration, a myth persists that the USA’s triumph in landing a man on the moon expanded the nation’s frontiers into the heavens – and that this expansion owes its success to the policy-making of Kennedy. In recent years, this established wisdom has been reinforced by anniversary-driven hagiography, popular television rehash and, most of all, through the lionising of JFK.

This thesis will take an evidential approach in debunking the myth by presenting Kennedy as the master of political expediency, and re-evaluating Eisenhower’s role in developing effective space policy that was not limited by a race to the moon. The thesis will show how Eisenhower, from his inheritance of competing armed forces rocket programs, through the International Geophysical Year’s satellite development to his response to the Sputnik Autumn of 1957 set in track a process that enabled the creation of an agency that could deliver a space programme that, step-by-step, would open space in its widest sense to the American spirit of exploration. Using primary evidence from NASA’s Historical Collection and the Eisenhower Presidential Library, primary evidence from the Kennedy Presidential papers and recordings, and by extrapolating what a Nixon Presidency in 1961 might have meant for space policy, the thesis demonstrates that far from stretching America’s frontier to the heavens, Kennedy’s space policy was little more than an expedient reaction to the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the first earth orbit of Yuri Gagarin. Source material from both Eisenhower and Kennedy’s White House circles shows that Kennedy hijacked Eisenhower and NASA’s systematic and logical plan for space exploration, replacing it with a single-focus event: high on symbolic achievement, but entirely limiting in terms of truly extending America’s frontier into space.

The thesis will add to the discourse on the politics of the early years of space endeavour by making a first attempt to compare and contrast directly Eisenhower and Kennedy’s space policy decision making, highlighting Eisenhower’s low-key response to the Soviet ‘smoke and mirrors’; preference for unmanned space missions; and desire to separate scientific and military uses of space, with Kennedy’s direct challenge to Khrushchev which coalesced all NASA’s focus into the race for the moon. It also speculates on what might have been different had Nixon triumphed in the 1960 Presidential election.

In using space policy as the case study for Presidential decision making, this paper applies another contextual layer: the changing role of the media as the 1950s gave way to the 1960s and ushered in a new era of television news and debate; a new breed of space-enthralled journalist, and a new passion for all aspects of popular media: space as conquered by its ‘all American Boys’.

In summary, this paper re-evaluates Eisenhower’s contribution to the United States’ journey into space and, in so doing, places Kennedy’s mass-appeal rhetoric and policy making in true perspective: not as the champion of Apollo, but as the limiting factor that caused America to lose its way as it sought to push its frontier to the heavens.

None of the greats have knocked back my hypothesis and the general response has been positive. Now it sits with my supervisors for their comment - and it'll be open to the scrutiny of the Brunel research community on May 4 (may the fourth be with me!).

I've just been through a Saturday school where I had the chance to try out a shortened version of my presentation which drew precisely no questions.....probably not good - but the audience was made up of economists, organisational learning experts, educators and IT pros, with only one other historian in attendance. Still, I would have liked to elicit at least some reaction - but it was a long day and everyone was rather more concerned with their own presentation.

Anyway, it was just good to get together with other PhD students and have the kind of nerdy conversation that you just can't have at home - although why my kids aren't more interested in the US separation of government, I'll never know. 

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