The role of the state in the space race
by Mark Rahman
Tue 20th Jan 2015
On June 23, 1905, Orville Wright became the first person to successfully fly a powered aircraft. Just 56 years later, in April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space, when Vostok 1 made a successful orbit of the Earth. Flight, and later space travel, were viewed as an indication of humanity’s progress and ability to overcome even the most enormous of obstacles, in this case, the Earth’s gravitational pull. But the explosion of Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares rocket on October 28 2014, and the explosion of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo just a few days later, seem to highlight the primary obstacle in the way of humanity’s development today: the private ownership of the means of production.
Since the last Apollo mission in 1973, funding for NASA has continually declined from 1.35% to less than 0.6% of the federal budget. Without competition in this field from the now-defunct USSR, and in this age of capitalist austerity and decline, more than $1 billion has been cut from the NASA budget in recent years. This not only threatens future projects, but also the continuation of existing projects.
The Solitary Inventor
The American mythology speaks of all technological innovation as having come from the toil of a solitary inventor. So pervasive is this idea that even an article on the NASA website highlighting the benefits of the space program quotes Eisenhower’s lament in his farewell address: “the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop [is being] overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields.”
The memory foam mattress you sleep on, the cordless vacuum you clean with, the running shoes you exercise with, the scratch-resistant eyeglasses you read with, the satellite television you watch the game on, the bathing suit you swim in, and so much more, are spin-off technologies of state-funded NASA programs—not the result of individuals tinkering in a basement.
There is a constant buzz in the capitalist media about the supposed “genius” of individuals like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, but a recent book by Mariana Mazzucato, The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs Private Sector Myths, argues that state agencies and public funding have played the central role in the latest technological innovations. From the algorithm of the Google search engine to the research and development of pharmaceuticals, the US Government funds nearly 60% of all research.
NASA is also responsible for the monitoring of global climate change and has a number of ongoing projects involving satellites launched into the solar system including Voyager, Pioneer, Mariner, Cassini, Dawn, andMagellan; the Curiosity Mars rover; the Spitzer Space Telescope; and add the Hubble Telescope to that long list and you have a $17.6 billion agency employing nearly 18,000 workers—a surprisingly small number considering the enormity of NASA’s projects. Future plans included a mission to bring an asteroid into the moon’s orbit, not only to study the asteroid itself but to develop the technology to redirect objects that might threaten impacts with Earth.
But with the plug being pulled on NASA, these projects may just have to cease in the years to come, and we will have millions of dollars worth of technology “lost in space.” As explained by the Washington Post, “NASA currently lacks the money and the technology to do what it has long dreamed of doing, which is to send astronauts to Mars and bring them safely back to Earth. It has resorted to fallback plans, and to fallbacks to the fallbacks.”
In an attempt to fill the growing void, various private companies have stepped in. One example is Orbital Sciences Corporation, which has a $1.9 billion contract with NASA to transport equipment to the international space station. Their attempt at cutting corners (and thereby raising profits) by using refurbished rockets from the 1970s seems to have backfired with the recent explosion of the Antares rocket.
Others attempting to gain a foothold in space travel are Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which aims to offer space tourism for the world’s rich. Their program experienced a major setback when their SpaceShipTwo exploded in midair, killing one of the pilots.
The Origins of Space Travel
As has been the case throughout the history of class society, it is often war that spurs some of the most important technological advances. Rocket propulsion and space travel are no different, with roots in World War II and the development of the V-2 rocket by the German state. Having only been developed toward the end of the war, the V-2 killed over 9,000 people in strikes on London, Antwerp, and Liége. Had the rocket been developed sooner, the imperialist war could have been prolonged and the toll on human lives even greater.
The space race had its embryonic beginning as the Allies made their way through Germany, uncovering the atrocities committed by the Nazis, but also uncovering the facilities, blueprints, and—most importantly—scientists behind the V-2 rocket program. Through the US’s Operation Paperclip, there was a scramble to scoop up as many of these scientists as possible to prevent the information from getting into the hands of the US's wartime allies, Britain and especially the USSR.
The Nazi rocket program employed slave labor in which up to 20,000 prisoners were worked to death through torture and slow motion starvation using a carefully planned caloric deficit. At Mittelwerk, the underground factory used to assemble the V-2 rockets, it was reportedly common for the SS overseers to hang the dead bodies of prisoners as a warning to the others whose fate was near. Many of those responsible for these despicable crimes were secretly granted immunity and had their employment history and political affiliations retroactively altered by the US Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency, as they were now powerful assets to US imperialism.
Wernher von Braun, who became the head engineer of the American rocket program after World War II, and the inspiration for Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s classic film, was the main director of the Nazi rocket program. Hailed as a hero in the United States, regularly published in major newspapers and magazines, and appearing on television alongside Walt Disney, von Braun claimed ignorance of the slave labor camps and claimed that his membership in the Nazi SS was something which he was unwillingly compelled to accept. Von Braun and thousands of other scientists and engineers were taken to the US to assist in the further development of its rocket program.
In the Soviet Union, it required the freeing of Sergei Korolev from a Stalinist slave labor camp to investigate the development of the V-2. Prior to his imprisonment, Korolev had played a key role in developing an automated gyroscope for rocket guidance. Although not political, Korolev was swept up in the Great Purge in 1938 along with many others, as bureaucrats found scapegoats as a way of eliminating personal foes or of saving themselves in the face of the Stalinist political counterrevolution.
Sergei Korolev subsequently became the main architect of the Soviet space program. However, he was only ever publicly referred to as “The Chief Designer” in the press, his identity not being released until his death in 1966, for fear of an assassination attempt by the US, and the embarrassment it would cause the Stalinists had it been public knowledge that the key figure in the Soviet space program was a former gulag prisoner.
Only around 150 lower-level German scientists and engineers who had worked only on the assembly of the V-2 were brought to the USSR, leaving the Soviets at a disadvantage when compared to the resources acquired by the US. But the USSR had something the United States did not: a nationalized planned economy.
As a result of the October Revolution, the decrepit tsarist regime and the social foundations that propped it up were overturned and replaced with workers’ democracy. While that political democracy was destroyed by the Stalinist counterrevolution, the nationalized planned economy remained, albeit in a distorted, bureaucratic form. On this basis, the productive forces leapt far beyond what anyone could have predicted. In Russia: From Revolution to Counterrevolution, Ted Grant highlights some examples that illustrate this fact:
“In the 50 year period from 1913 to 1963, the growth of productivity of labor in industry, the key index of economic development, advanced by 73 percent in Britain and by 332% in the USA. In the USSR, labor productivity rose in the same period by 1,310%, although from a very low base. The periods of tremendous economic advance in Russia largely coincided with periods of crisis or stagnation in the capitalist West. The strides forward of Soviet industry in the 1930s coincided with the great slump and Depression in the capitalist world, accompanied by mass unemployment and chronic poverty. Between 1929 and 1933 American industrial production dropped 48.7%. The American National Research League estimated the number of jobless in March 1933 was 17,920,000. In Germany, there were more than six million unemployed. These comparisons alone show graphically the superiority of a planned economy over the anarchy of capitalist production.
“In the former USSR, out of a population that grew by 15 per cent, the number of technicians had grown by 55 times; the numbers in full-time education by over six times; the number of books published by 13 times; hospital beds nearly ten times; children at nurseries 1,385 times. The number of doctors per 100,000 people was 205, as compared to 170 in Italy and Austria, 150 in America, 144 in West Germany, 110 in Britain, France and Netherlands, and 101 in Sweden. Life expectancy more than doubled and child mortality fell by nine times. Between 1955 and 1959, urban housing space (state and cooperative) more than doubled, while private space more than tripled in size. By 1970, the number of doctors had increased from 135,000 to 484,000 and the number of hospital beds from 791,000 to 2,224,000.”
Universal free education also gave access to millions whose intellectual potential would never have been realized under capitalism. Despite the bureaucracy, which complicated and stifled scientific development, the centralization of research and the readily accessible resources for the rocket program gave the USSR an enormous advantage over the US, whose program was also plagued by bureaucratic infighting within and between different branches of the military.
Neither the American nor the Soviet military bureaucracy had any inkling of the possibility of rocket programs developing into programs geared towards space travel. Their primary interest was long range ballistic missiles, which in their narrow outlook excluded the need for breaking through the Earth’s atmosphere.
However, both Wernher von Braun and Sergei Korolev shared a fascination with space travel from an early age, and throughout their careers had faced ridicule from many who considered the idea of space travel to be little more than boyish fantasy. The development of rockets with enough thrust to escape Earth’s gravity gave a more tangible impulse towards this fascination.
Wernher von Braun worked with Walt Disney in the creation of three television programs geared towards popularizing space exploration. The programs were a hit and after many interviews and articles in popular publications, the American public had come to be enthusiastic supporters of ideas that only weeks earlier seemed impossible. In the aftermath of Stalin’s death, Korolev’s continued lobbying of party leaders to consider the launching of a satellite into space finally got a serious hearing—but only after the announcement in 1955 of the US’s intent to launch a “second moon” into space for the International Geophysical Year (July 1, 1957, to December 31, 1958)—a kind of world olympics of science and research. The space race was on in earnest, as the US and the Soviets jockeyed for the military advantages of ever-more advanced rockets, satellites, and other potential weaponry and communications possibilities.
Sputnik and the Founding of NASA
Coming from behind, leaping ahead of the Americans, the USSR launched Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957. In the USSR, eyes that only a generation earlier had looked to the heavens in search of the God of the Orthodox Church, were now looking up in search of Sputnik, which became a symbol of the superiority of the nationalized planned economy. Khrushchev boasted that “America sleeps under a Soviet moon.”
The launching of the first successful artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, and a month later, the launching of Sputnik 2—comically referred to as “muttnik” in the West—which launched the dog Laika into space, caused a growing feeling of technological inferiority throughout the US, which has come to be referred to as the Sputnik Crisis.
Facing the Sputnik embarrassment and recognizing the need to create a centralized government agency in charge of research and development projects, the Department of Defense created the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in February, 1958. By July, Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, giving birth to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA was created through the merging of various government agencies, such as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, the United States Naval Research Laboratory, and others, including whole research facilities. It also took control of some private entities such as CalTech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This massive government reshuffle illustrates clearly the key role played by the state in America’s “catching up” to the USSR in the space race.
On April 12, 1961, when the USSR’s Vostok 1 went into orbit around the Earth, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. Three weeks later, in the shadows ofVostok 1, on May 5, Mercury-Redstone 3 brought Alan Shepard into space. Later that month, President Kennedy declared the goal of landing a human on the moon by the end of the 1960s.
After several more flights of Project Mercury, Project Gemini launched several missions to practice in-space docking and space walks as a stepping stone to the Apollo program. At the same time, for its Zond program to the moon, the USSR had developed the Soyuz spacecraft which is still in use today.
Both sides were scrambling to get ahead, and as a result, many security precautions were overlooked. What was intended to be the US’s first manned flight to the moon, Apollo 1, was cancelled when three crew members were killed in a fire during a ground test on January 7, 1967. After a whole period of bureaucratic power struggles in the Soviet space program and Korolev’s death, Soyuz 1 was finally launched on April 24, 1967. After a series of major malfunctions, Soyuz 1,resulted in the death of its sole crew member due to parachute failure on reentry.
Through enormous effort and allocation of resources to NASA, the United States pulled ahead and successfully made the first moon landing on July 20, 1969. The USSR, having experienced years of setbacks, cancelled their Zond moon landing program. In the years to come, NASA was responsible for the space shuttle program and the international space station, along with dozens of other unmanned space projects. However, after the final Apollo program, funding towards NASA has been on a steady decline.
In a relatively short period of time, what seemed something only found in science fiction novels became reality. Humanity has left footprints on the moon, has satellites orbiting nearly every planet in the solar system, has a rover on Mars, and very recently the European Space Agency put a lander on the surface of a comet. However, as the capitalist crisis unfolds, it seems we will have to abandon hopeful plans for the exploration of space and the further development of technologies associated with it.
The astronomer Fred Hoyle once said, “once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the outside, is available . . . a new idea as powerful as any will be let loose.” Astronauts and cosmonauts who have had the opportunity to view the Earth from space have all experienced something called the “overview effect.” Viewing the Earth for the first time from the outside reveals how fragile our “pale blue dot” is. It is the only planet we have yet discovered capable of sustaining human life. It has just the right amount of water, it is just the right distance from our Sun, and it has an atmosphere to protect us from the hostility of space. Inherent in the "overview effect" is a sense of internationalism—after all, when viewed from above, the Earth has no visible borders.
The Earth has been described as being our one space ship, with only one crew. And unless we overthrow the capitalist system, our spaceship is in jeopardy. Capitalism threatens the environment through pollution and unplanned usage of natural resources. It threatens human culture through the destruction of public education and cuts in funding for the arts and sciences, not to mention the destruction caused by wars and the shuttering of the means of production .
The Marxist James Connolly, speaking of the starry plow banner of the Irish Citizen Army, said that its significance was that a free, socialist Ireland would control its own destiny from the plow to the stars. Only international socialism, free from the constraints of capitalism and private ownership of the means of production, with universal, quality education for every human on the planet, and free exchange of all technology and research, can usher in a new age in which humanity can look to conquer our own destiny, from the Earth to the stars.
This article was originally published on In Defence of Marxism