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Eye on the Sky... and Eye on Politics

how astronomy and politics really have a history together

Leafing through the Sunday edition of the Naples Daily News (09/30/97), I saw in the Perspectives section I saw an article titled “Stumbling into the Space Age,” by Ben Rova (who worked on the American satellite program, Vanguard). He mentioned the 50th anniversary of the Space Age (starting 10/01/57), but he brought up in more details some of the things I already knew, about how the dawning of space exploration in the United States coincides with great political changes and addition political ties.
Now, we know that the U.S. was in a bit of a race with the USSR to land a man on the moon and prove they mastered space travel first (you know, we had to beat those Godless Communists...). I’ve even watched a fair share of shows on the History Channel about the USSR’s often failed attempts to orbit men in space and get the leg up on the United States. But ere is how we can learn how it all started...
Ben Rova explained that “in the early 1950s, both the United States and the USSR agreed to participate in the International Geophysical Year, [which was] an 18-month-long international scientific study in which geophysicists from all over the world would study our planet in all its aspects, including its relationship with the sun.” And “both the U.S. and the USSR announced intentions to launch one or more artificial satellites to help the IGY studies.” And during this time, Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, and he and the White House stated to the program for the Vanguard that this was a “peaceful” program, and (according to Ben Rova) “Vanguard would not be allowed to use the rockets the armed services were developing for military use, even though the Vanguard program would be managed by the Office of Navy Research (ONR), a scientific offshoot of the U.S. Navy.”
So at the beginning the U.S. and the USSR were not necessarily in competition, but as the Cold War was looming, people decided to turn to our previous enemy — Nazi scientists who later were able to work with the United States to avoid further prosecution. I had learned of this before, but I’ll use Ben Rova’s words: “Wernher Von Braun, architect of Nazi Germany’s V-2 rocket, which bombarded London during World War II, was now working for the U.S. Army at Redstone Arsenal, in Alabama.” According to accounts I have seen about Wernher Von Braun (yes, from the History Channel), Von Braun was not that interested in military when he decided to work with the Reich, but he was actually interested in getting rockets to outer space — especially to the moon, but his colleagues thought he was insane. When he had the opportunity to work as a Nazi with the Reich, he thought this would be a chance for him to develop his skill at building satellites that could go to outer space. From accounts I had seen, he would do this work, hoping it was a means to his more selfish end. An after the collapse of Germany in the Second World War and when he saw the opportunity to work with the United States, he thought this was his greatest chance to be able to use his knowledge and his technology to do the work he always wanted to do.
At this time (according to Rova), “his team had developed the Jupiter rocket, a medium-rang ballistic missile, and wanted to use it as a satellite launcher.” The White didn’t want to use this (probably for some reason along the lines of wanting the Vanguard to be a “peaceful” program), so Von Braun and his tam launched a variation to the Jupiter to show that they could place something with weight into orbit (even thought they were specifically told that they were not to actually put anything into orbit to prove this to the U.S. government).
But back at the Vanguard program... the Martin Co. won the bid for working on the Vanguard program — and “Martin still built flying boats in those days. Today the company is part of Lockheed Martin, and aerospace industry giant.” Their contract with the Navy said to use a GE engine, which barely produced enough energy for the payload to go into space. Although there were other companies that produced more power, the GE scientist was also an advisor for the White House when working with the IGY (I guess this is another way that politics plays a role in astronomical decisions, although in this case it is only a small connection).
Now let’s get to the connection with the USSR: it was at this point in the testing phase of the Vanguard,, October 4, 1957 was the date that the USSR launched sputnik I. Ergo the beginning of the Space age.
From what I had seen from History Channel reports on progress the USSR made in the space race, it looked like they didn’t have that great of a chance of getting ahead. But when the USSR was the first to get something into space, the race suddenly became very heated, and the U.S. had to get working — and quickly — to get ahead in the race. ONR officials did not say they were in a race, but I think every American probably felt that we were.
Then Von Braun and his team stepped in and said they could put something in space in 90 days if they had the go-ahead. And because of the USSR, the Von Braun team was able to start moving to get us into space.
Now, this caused military problems in the United States, because Von Braun worked for the Army, and the Navy was in charge of the Vanguard project to get an American satellite out there. As Bova put it, “Interservice rivalry meant more to the Navy than the cold war.” So ONR told Vanguard to get a mini-satellite in orbit, so they got a 3-pound satellite to Cape Canaveral and it was supposed to launch 12/06/57, but after “TV-3 for 4 feet off the pad... the GE engine exploded.” So after this catastrophe, GE was finally pushed out of the rocket—building business. It was 03/17/58 when the Vanguard got into orbit.
But even Ben Rova makes it clear that even in this first project for outer space for America, dealing into astronomy meant needing funding — and lots of it — which means needing help from the government. And when the government dips its hand into the mix, there are bound to be political problems, from the people you need to use to help build things, to the people you need as your scientists and engineers.
And if Kennedy roused a country to wanting to go to the moon, I feel bad that President Bush didn’t try to do the same (although he might not have had the same pull that President Kennedy did, I don’t know...) But when President Bush called for our country to get man back to the moon not by the end of this decade, but the end of next decade, and only make allusions to getting more work done one eventually getting someone to Mars, I thought of all of the science (and even history) shows I’ve seen about how we could have bases on the moon for people to live, and we could even pull off a station for life on Mars, and I thought well, maybe I shouldn’t expect our current President to rouse the country to travel farther and faster across our solar system. If President Bush had never even been to Europe before he was president (he actually had to ask advisors about different styles and customs of some European countries before he went there for the first time...), maybe we shouldn’t expect him to entice us to other planets.
Or maybe he could mention it, because I think that after the Bush regime for the past two terms, we’re ready for exploring placed he’s never touched...

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