The Politics of Space Exploration
The simple commanding beauty of the moments before lift-off—thrusters ignited as dazzling shades of fire and smoke shatter the dreams of the sleeping rocket, contrasted by a flawlessly infinite blue sky and heightened by an almost surreal apprehension—depict the dramatic perfection that is space exploration. This image frozen in time, however captivating and serene, often overshadows the hidden agendas and secret dealings that go on behind the scenes. In reality, the probing of space has just as much to do with politics as with mankind’s actual zest for knowledge. From promoting national status through international competition, to dealing with internal and organizational issues, to improving public relations, the policy of space exploration is modeled after the politics of the day.
First restricted to military purposes, space travel was an unattainable aspiration of dreamers. During World War II, while Wernher Von Braun was designing V-2 rockets for the Germans, he privately yearned to transform Jules Verne’s fiction of space travel into fact. Outer space, however, did not fit into the Führer’s master plans; Hitler’s singular desire was to produce an “annihilating effect” through the V-2's capability for mass destruction. Even after the war, when Von Braun was working for the Americans, his plans to put a human into space were thwarted—again he was required to design rockets for the military and was forced to place interplanetary travel on a back burner.
Another visionary whose galactic ambitions were overshadowed by the practicality of the day was the Russian Sergei Pavlovich Korolev. He developed the Soviet Union’s first liquid-fuel rocket, the .09, but like Von Braun was ordered to use the projectile for developing intercontinental ballistic weapons (ICBMs) and other such “armaments, not space travel” (Walter 53-76). Not until the advent of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-58, when all nations were invited to launch an Earth-orbiting satellite, did the world’s war-oriented governments even consider launching a significant space effort.
After World War II, Russia lusted for a way to assert its military and political dominance, and eventually utilized space exploration to achieve this objective (Walter 75). Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s plan was to launch a satellite in the forthcoming IGY using Russia’s ICBMs—rockets powerful enough to carry bombs to targets as far away as the United States (Osman 38). Khrushchev’s approach served as a means not only to affirm Russian preeminence in the nuclear arms race with America, which had recently accepted the IGY challenge, but also to provide a means to bolster communism through propaganda. Thus Korolev finally realized his dream, for in 1955 the Soviet Union undertook the task of launching an artificial moon into space. The “Space Race” was officially underway primarily because a satellite was thought to have political...