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Lesson 6 Space: Science, Technology, and the Frontier (Walter McDougall, The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age)

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The Heavens and the Earth -Walter A. McDougal


About the Author:

Walter A. McDougall is an American historian and a Pulitzer Prize winner. He is Professor of History and the Alloy-Ansin Professor of International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania. McDougall completed his PhD at the University of Chicago in 1974. He was a professor at the University of California, Berkeley for 13 years, before moving to Pennsylvania. He is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and also an editor of Orbis, quarterly journal of world affairs published by the institute.


Synopsis:

McDougall tells the story of the space race by examining the events that led up to the development of space technology and the events that characterized its development throughout the Cold War. He weaves into the space story a larger story of the clash of ideologies between the Soviet Union and the United States and the morality and consequences of the development of technocracy as "the institutionalization of technological change for state purpose."



Main argument:

He argues technocracy was an outgrowth of the space race and suggests it is a state of affairs we no longer control…but instead in many ways controls us. He doesn’t really suggest an end state, but calls into question the connection between American politics and economics…forcing the reader to question the “goodness” or benefit of the way we do business. Larger implications include the creation of a massive military-industry-academic complex that forces us to continue to feed it with no particular end in sight.



Evidence used:

He mostly uses macroeconomic statistics, US/USSR rhetoric, defense figures, technology developments, and statements by the main players to construct his argument.



Strengths/weaknesses:

This is an extremely effective book that takes several “boring” topics and weaves them together into an interesting story about something bigger than the overt subject matter. McDougall uses the space race as a metaphor for man’s attempt to control his environment. What makes his technique so effective is the fact that he doesn’t necessarily spell out his conclusion to the basic question…”can we ever get there from here.” The only weaknesses I noted were the length of the book and the occasionally flowery language and story structure he uses to make his points. While they don’t detract from the story, they do make it more difficult to get to the heart of the matter in short order.



Synthesis:

For me, this book built on the Korean War’s discussion of air superiority in that it forces us to ask the question…”how much is enough?” How much air superiority do we need to have to accomplish our objectives? How much technological superiority do we need to have to feel safe? How much debt are we willing to take on in order to pursue objectives with uncertain outcomes? Further, the patience and let’s “do what we can” approach of the Berlin Airlift meets its match in the “do everything the best” attitude forwarded by our national defense machine.



Overall impression:

Outstanding book. Chapter 8 is a key chapter on strategy according to Dr. Hughes. This book is worth another read.



Value:

The value of this book lies in its ties to US economic policy and the foreign policy goals we purport to achieve through our actions. Several concrete examples of errant assumptions about the enemy, the desire to forward a domestic political agenda, and the basic perspective of America’s place in the world order combine to form a not-so-flattering and secure vision of the USA. Unfortunately, McDougall does little to answer the question in a pragmatic way. He simply leaves others to develop their own ideas for dealing with the reality we’ve created. There is further value in knowing the history outlined in this book. .


Class Notes:

Chapter 8 = key chapter. See first sentence in chapter (p. 177) for relationship of strategy with economy.

This isn't really a book about space, it is about economics, politics, and strategy.

US strategy isn't based on sufficiency, but on what's best. Consider the implications of this.

Command economies (e.g. the USSR) are great for sprints, but not for marathons.

Eisenhower thinks we can win a space race but doesn't want to run it because he believes doing so will force us to no longer live as Americans...we'll have to be more like the USSR.

This book highlights a broadening of the people/groups involved in national strategy (think tanks, civilians, contractors, etc.).

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