Tag Archives: Space Race

Grand gestures work in science but not always with society

Big speeches and big ideas may motivate liberal Democrats and have propelled Bernie Sanders to be a legitimate presidential candidate. However, pragmatists and incrementalists are actually the ones who get bills passed.  The presence of an opposition party usually requires compromise.  This has not always been the case with technology in the 20th century.

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced before a special joint session of Congress the dramatic and ambitious goal of sending an American safely to the Moon before the end of the decade. A number of political factors affected Kennedy’s decision and the timing of it. In general, Kennedy felt great pressure to have the United States “catch up to and overtake” the Soviet Union in the “space race.” Four years after the Sputnik shock of 1957, the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had become the first human in space on April 12, 1961, greatly embarrassing the U.S. While Alan Shepard became the first American in space on May 5, he only flew on a short suborbital flight instead of orbiting the Earth, as Gagarin had done. In addition, the Bay of Pigs fiasco in mid-April put unquantifiable pressure on Kennedy. He wanted to announce a program that the U.S. had a strong chance at achieving before the Soviet Union. After consulting with Vice President Johnson, NASA Administrator James Webb, and other officials, he concluded that landing an American on the Moon would be a very challenging technological feat, but an area of space exploration in which the U.S. actually had a potential lead. Thus the cold war is the primary contextual lens through which many historians now view Kennedy’s speech.

Science succeeds when society cannot.  There are no opposition parties in science.  Regardless of competition and profit, scientific discovery has always been defined by sharing and collaboration.  Maybe, that’s why collaboration is such an important 21st century skill, because mankind has succeeded when collaboration takes place.