Historical Studies in the Societal Impact of Spaceflight

  • Published
Historical Studies in the Societal Impact of Spaceflight edited by Steven J. Dick. National Aeronautics and Space Administration History Program Office, 2015, 664 pp. Available as a free download from http://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/historical-studies-societal-impact-spaceflight-ebook_tagged.pdf.

The prospect and inherent awe of spaceflight have captivated society since the beginning of the twentieth century. Authors like H. G. Wells, writing of concepts before their time, exposed the common man to the possibility of space travel—well before Sputnik was even conceived. Sixty-three years after publication of The War of the Worlds, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to enter outer space. From there, the spaceflight capability of various world powers’ space programs has brought controversy and innovation, frustration and wonder. In Historical Studies in the Societal Impact of Spaceflight, historian and editor Dr. Steven J. Dick compiles the third volume in a NASA history series on the impact that spaceflight has had on the global population, both past and present. This volume is divided into three major parts: “Opinion,” “Spinoff?,” and “The World at Large.”

In “Opinion,” Dr. Dick presents a study by William Sims Bainbridge entitled “The Impact of Space Exploration on Public Opinions, Attitudes, and Beliefs” in which he asserts that public opinion can be, for the most part, quantified based on how the public understands the concept of space exploration. Bainbridge argues for the necessity of polling and gauging public opinion to determine the direction politicians must tread in developing space programs. He devotes a large portion of this study to the reliability—and flaws—in public opinion, presenting legitimate mathematical insights into the benefit of polling. Conversely, Bainbridge wisely concedes that “polls are not referendums, however much journalists and some politicians might want them to be” (p. 73). In acknowledging both the pros and cons of measuring public attitudes in regard to spaceflight, he develops a concrete argument concerning the necessity of the poll, finally determining that “the American public is willing to continue the voyage of discovery and achievement into outer space” (p. 74).

Part 2, “Spinoff?,” includes three case studies that question the claims NASA often makes regarding technological “spinoffs” from its own scientific studies. The title of part 2 is posed in such a manner to reflect NASA’s annual spinoff reports. It seeks to examine fully whether or not advancements can definitively be attributed to the original work of NASA scientists—or whether that organization is making a leap in assertion by claiming these spinoffs, which include NASA’s effect on medical technology, integrated circuits, and microelectromechanical systems (MEMS). Part 2 delves into explaining what constitutes a spinoff, stating that it is “a kind of horizontal diffusion, in which an intact innovation moves from one application to another” (pp. 79–80). Once again, Bainbridge offers his expertise in examining the legitimacy of NASA’s unintended, albeit beneficial, contributions to medicine. He considers, for example, bone density analysis, antishock garments, and pacemakers in determining his overall thesis: while actual spinoff status is debatable for some medical advancements, the overarching public curiosity derived from such claims far outweighs the semantics of what constitutes a spinoff. This study provides excellent insight into medical advancement resulting from NASA’s work, but it would have been more beneficial had Bainbridge separated it into two different works: an explanation of spinoff criteria and a focused examination of NASA’s medical spinoffs.

The next chapter in part 2 addresses the realm of integrated circuits—those “tiny electronic devices . . . that contain at least two electronic components . . . and the connections required to form a circuit” (p. 155). Author Andrew J. Butrica addresses NASA’s role in these circuits’ procurement and overall manufacture during the Apollo years. Though not blatantly stated, his work implies that NASA’s use of integrated circuits, although still in their infancy, created a gateway for their mass production and procurement. Even though NASA was not the first entity to send integrated circuitry into outer space (that distinction belongs to the Goddard Interplanetary Monitoring Platform), Butrica’s study suggests that NASA’s work paved the way for using circuits in future space program endeavors, with the impact outside NASA open to debate. The author’s follow-on study in chapter 4 on MEMS has a structure and conclusions similar to his work on integrated circuits. Butrica thoroughly examines NASA’s role in MEMS development, determining that “NASA’s investment was still insufficient to realize the full potential of the research” (p. 324). A decent comprehension of MEMS and integrated circuits past and present is highly encouraged in order to fully grasp the concepts in Butrica’s work.

Part 3 uses broad strokes to quantify what NASA has meant to the global “greater good,” examining, for example, its impact on the advancement of nuclear power, humanity’s effect on the environment, and satellite applications. Although this part of the book is worthwhile as a whole, for today’s Air Force, Jim Pass’s “An Astrosociological Perspective on the Societal Impact of Spaceflight” is its most relevant chapter (9). Pass concentrates more on how societies develop space travel policy and the inherent societal reactions—information that is valuable for present-day Air Force operations as we continue to expand our capabilities to include outer space. Civilian space travel is a possibility in the future—thanks to people like Sir Richard Branson—but arguably the US Air Force, working in concert with NASA, will take the greatest strides toward making space more accessible to humanity.

As a whole, Historical Studies in the Societal Impact of Spaceflight is well developed and thoughtfully presented. Steven Dick’s editorial work is impeccable, ensuring that each study in this volume reflects the overall intent: to explain how spaceflight affects us all, even in ways we may not realize. The chapters offer a thorough background and develop the thesis in a manner that supports the anthology’s overall purpose: providing a history of spaceflight. This book is recommended both for readers who desire graduate-level understanding of the effects of spaceflight and for Air Force personnel who wish to acquire a baseline of understanding for future air-space endeavors.

Capt Haley Shea B. Hicks, USAF
Mountain Home AFB, Idaho

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."