The US Space Program is in peril. As the government deals with its spiraling economic crisis, many are questioning the value of space exploration, and the new administration may consider scaling back NASA’s Ares and Orion programs. But a recent report from NASA reminds us that the Space Program has had a profound effect not only on our imaginations, but on the technological, economic, and social development of American culture.
NASA Chief Historian Steven Dick and Roger Launius of the National Air and Space Museum preface the report “Societal Impact of Spaceflight” by acknowledging that, for the program to continue, the citizens of the US must see its value:
It is time to take up the challenge once again. Multidecade programs to explore the planets, build and operate large space telescopes and space stations, or take humans to the moon and mars, require that the public have a vested interest. The same is true of the space activities now spread around the world. But whether or not the ambitious space visions of the United States and other countries are fulfilled, the question of societal impact over the past 50 years remains urgent and may in fact help fulfill current visions or at least raise the
level of debate.
To that end, they have collected 33 essays evaluating the Space Program’s impact on American and world culture. Several essays look at the political and cultural significance of spaceflight in the Soviet Union and China, including taikonaut Yang Liwei’s transformation into a Chinese cultural icon. One essay illuminates how food safety standards for astronauts in space radically changed food safety standards on the ground. Another examines critically the dual-use technologies that developed from the Space Program and their effect on government policy. Historical essays explore racial and gender diversity within NASA and the effect the Space Agency has had on regional development in Texas and California. And a few essays look at the way space has captured the human imagination, and one even explores the notion of space activism as a potentially “epiphanic belief system.”
The report is meant to be more a framework for exploring NASA’s value rather than a laundry list extolling the program’s cultural virtues, but the result is a fascinating history of the Space Agency and space exploration, and is sure to provide plenty of fodder for debates over the future of spaceflight in the US.