'The Long Space Age' Takes Flight
Elon Musk. SpaceX. Jeff Bezos. We think of private space exploration as an exotic new playground for superthinkers with the funds and ambition to pursue travel and life beyond Earth. But in his new book, The Long Space Age (Yale University Press, 2017), Alexander MacDonald, a senior adviser at NASA, turns that narrative on its head. He spins a riveting nonfiction yarn documenting the private “piety, pioneers and patriots” who launch the earliest exploration efforts starting the Space Age. Megafunding from the government is actually an afterthought, the more recent story, MacDonald says.
MacDonald steers away from the “’personality’ trap that has swallowed up some historians of American space exploration.” Instead, he follows the money, tracking the dollars that have fueled the journey into space. But this greatest of human endeavors is historically not motivated by money, MacDonald says. “The journey into space has been a journey of self-actualization for the individuals involved – some would argue for humankind as a whole – and one in which motivations have often been divorced from immediate pecuniary returns. This journey has been driven by individuals following their intrinsic personal reward, and reveling in the sense of adventure and challenge.”
The book, whose publishing was supported by the foundation established in memory of James Wesley Cooper, a minister who graduated with the Yale Class of 1865, draws connections between religious pursuit and space exploration.
Take the Astronomical Observatory at what would become Georgetown University. “It was part of a larger trend of religious sentiment providing significant support for astronomy,” MacDonald writes. “Astronomy was an integral part of the natural theology of the period, with the immensity and order of the universe, as revealed by astronomy, being widely interpreted as a sign of God’s handiwork.”
Long before the first steps on the moon, Ben Franklin was thinking about space – and our relative insignificance in its context. His religious views, MacDonald writes, were shaped by his fascination with the cosmos. In “Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion,” in 1728 Frankin writes: “When I stretch my Imagination through and beyond our system of planets, beyond the visible fixed stars themselves, into that space that is every way infinite, and conceive it filled with suns like ours, each with a chorus of worlds forever moving round him, then this little ball on which we move, seems, even in my narrow imagination, to be almost nothing and my self less than nothing, and of no sort of consequence.”
Later, practical motivations for exploration come into view. President Lyndon B. Johnson considered U.S. dominance in space a necessary element in America’s Cold War strategy. “One can predict with confidence that failure to master space means being second-best in the crucial arena of our Cold War world,” Johnson said. “In the eyes of the world, first in space means first, period; second in space is second in everything.”
Whether Musk and Bezos see their endeavors in space as practical, like LBJ, or spiritual, like Ben Franklin, The Long Space Age provides excellent context on a sparkling flight into space – exploration, that is.
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