Lowenthal on MacDonald, 'The Long Space Age: The Economic Origins of Space Exploration from Colonial America to the Cold War'

Alexander MacDonald
Kristi Lowenthal

Alexander MacDonald. The Long Space Age: The Economic Origins of Space Exploration from Colonial America to the Cold War. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017. 272 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-21932-6.

Reviewed by Kristi Lowenthal (School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, Air University) Published on H-War (April, 2019) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53482

Historians generally date the start of the Space Age to October 4, 1957, the day the Soviet Union launched the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, into low-Earth orbit on Sergei Korolev’s R-7 rocket. Some might back that date up to June 20, 1944, the date Nazi Germany launched Wehrner von Braun’s V-2 guided ballistic missile against Britain. True zealots would go back even further to March 16, 1926, the day American scientist Robert Goddard successfully launched the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket. Until now, nobody has suggested that the Space Age started before the twentieth century, much less in the American colonial period. MacDonald’s book takes a long view and argues that economics is the real story of space exploration.

In keeping with his training as an economic historian, MacDonald follows the money to explore who pushed these fabulously expensive ventures over time, how different entities raised needed funds, and why. Surprisingly, it has not always been governments operating with public funds; in fact, MacDonald asserts that private individuals have a far longer history of supporting exploration of the heavens with their own fortunes. Today’s proliferation of billionaires entering the “NewSpace” market as commercial entities represents not a revolution in funding, but a return to a tradition of amateurs and their patrons advancing science for their own purposes.

Extending the term “space exploration” beyond the first physical objects to travel into space, MacDonald first investigates visual exploration of celestial bodies from Earth as the financial precursor to rocket development. Like scientists of the Space Race in the 1960s, observatory builders of the early American republic competed to have the biggest and best telescopes manned by the most prestigious scientists money could buy. Although MacDonald traces American interest in building observatories to the early eighteenth century in what he calls the Long Space Age, his scant four-page discussion of the colonial period is hardly exhaustive. Instead, his discussion takes off in the early nineteenth century with John Quincy Adams’s advocacy of a major national observatory to rival those under construction in Europe. The desire to showcase American ingenuity as different from and perhaps even better than the decadent societies from which it sprang propelled numerous fundraising ventures for early monuments.

Next, MacDonald tackles Goddard as a case study of the intrinsically motivated scientist in search of funding. Von Braun and Korolev, monomaniacs devoted to the advancement of rocketry, worked within the apparatus of the state. In von Braun’s case, his affiliation with the Nazi SS damned his early work with the V-2 and haunted him for the rest of his life, which he spent in the United States pursuing first the US Army’s, then NASA’s rocketry programs. Korolev, accused of deliberately slowing the work of his fellow scientists, was tortured and sent to the gulag. His release and reinstatement as the Soviet Union’s chief designer came with a price: the rest of his life was spent working under intense government pressure in tandem with the engineer who denounced him.

Goddard, however, fared differently. Older than the other two men by nearly three decades, his greatest achievements occurred before the Cold War and were, at first, of limited interest to the military or the civilian government. Instead, he hustled funding for liquid-fueled rocketry through his connection with Charles Lindbergh and eventually raised much-needed capital from the Smithsonian Institute and Harry Guggenheim, the millionaire businessman later responsible for creating the Jet Propulsion Lab at Caltech. Unable to secure military dollars for rocket development despite two world wars, Goddard contributed nonetheless by developing the bazooka and an early version of an aircraft rocket engine.

Finally, MacDonald turns to space funding during the Cold War. After Sputnik, American interest in space grew to a nearly hysterical level. As the fear of creeping communism posed an existential threat to Western society, every Soviet advance in space portended the end of the American way of life. As von Braun watched helplessly, his Army rocket cancelled, Sputnik I and II launched without a response. When the United States did finally manage to bring a rocket to the pad, it exploded cataclysmically on live TV. The Redstone rocket, which von Braun and his Army handlers had secretly stashed, would be the one to bring the first American satellite to space. The one-upmanship continued to its apotheosis when the vastly expensive Apollo program delivered astronauts to the moon and America declared victory in the midst of already declining domestic interest. The government budget for space would never again return to Cold War levels, despite howls of protest from former astronauts and NASA scientists.

In his analysis, MacDonald dispenses with the consumer price index as unhelpful in assessing the economic impact of large capital expenditures and instead relies on two standards by which to measure relative historic economics: GDP-ratio equivalent value, which demonstrates space-related expenditures as a share of total American activities; and the cost of production worker compensation (PWC), which reflects the relative cost of skilled labor. Unfortunately, this analysis is so inexact as to be unhelpful. For example, he estimates the cost of Lick Observatory, constructed in 1876 for approximately $700,000, to be approximately $188 million in 2015 dollars using the PWC calculus, or $1.51 billion using the GDP ratio method. Based on these wildly divergent numbers, he asserts the cost of premier nineteenth-century observatories was equivalent to the cost of a small unmanned spacecraft program today, which means that privately funded space exploration as represented by observatory building, Goddard’s research, and the excursions of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are all part of a larger private funding trend in which the massive government sums spent on the Mercury, Apollo, and Space Shuttle programs are anomalies.

MacDonald concludes with an examination of what motivations lie beneath the quest for space and settles on two reasons: signaling and intrinsic motivation. Signaling draws on Thorstein Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption and involves prestige, pride, status, and capability. Governments use signaling in international relations—as the United States expended vast resources in the Space Race, it gained relative prestige against the Soviet enemy both domestically and among potential allies. Private individuals also used signaling to gain in prestige—millionaire Charles Tyson Yerkes sought to whitewash his reputation as a scoundrel and opportunist in the 1890s by funding the Yerkes Observatory with the biggest telescope in the world. The gambit worked only temporarily and he soon lost interest and cut funding. Intrinsic motivation, however, drove Goddard, von Braun, and Korolev through nearly unimaginable personal and professional circumstances. Their nearly evangelical interest in space required only patronage from any available source. The temporary confluence of desperate public signaling and intrinsically motivated scientists resulted in the behemoth space programs of the late twentieth century. Today’s lack of international pressure has not ended the Space Age, but simply returned it to the more persistent historical model in which private individuals can fund space exploration for their own purposes.

Citation: Kristi Lowenthal. Review of MacDonald, Alexander, The Long Space Age: The Economic Origins of Space Exploration from Colonial America to the Cold War. H-War, H-Net Reviews. April, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53482

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