Harnessing the Heavens: National Defense through Space

  • Published

Harnessing the Heavens: National Defense through Space edited by Paul G. Gillespie and Grant T. Weller. Imprint Publications, 2008, 235 pp.

Harnessing the Heavens, an edited compilation of presentations delivered at the US Air Force Academy’s 21st Military History Symposium, addresses the early history of and roles played by various organizations—both military and civilian—in the exploration and exploitation of the newest medium of military competition—space. (Some might argue that cyber is an emerging one as well.) Written by several acknowledged experts in the field, the articles chronicle events familiar to readers with a developed knowledge of the history of military space, but even they will benefit from the numerous anecdotes that lend richness to the general story lines. The volume covers numerous efforts—American, Soviet, and Chinese—designed to capitalize on the emerging potentialities of space as envisioned by members of the Eisenhower administration and elsewhere in the early part of the Cold War and beyond. The heady years preceding Sputnik and the frantic activity that followed dominate the pages of this informative addition to scholarship on the history of military space. What comes across loud and clear in Harnessing the Heavens is the fact that space exploration was driven largely by national security concerns, not the often trumpeted rationale of extending the horizons of human knowledge. In short, realpolitik trumped idealism—a fact as true today as it was then. The political, technological, and societal challenges of the day (or some combination thereof) serve as the canvas upon which some fascinating aspects of the space race are painted. A sampling of the contributions follows.

In “National Security, Space, and the Course of Recent U.S. History,” Roger Launius tracks the evolution of American thinking about space from the Eisenhower era to that of George W. Bush, highlighting the fact that in the near term, difficult, thorny issues surrounding the establishment of a workable space regime will percolate to the top of the national security debate and have serious implications for terrestrial geopolitics if no consensus emerges. In staking out the current debate regarding whether or not to weaponize space, Launius invokes RAND analyst Karl Mueller’s useful identification of six distinct perspectives spanning the gamut from genuine space sanctuary to outright hegemony, as espoused by thinkers like Everett Dolman.

Howard McCurdy (“The Race to the Moon: Imagination and Politics as Shaping Forces in Space Policy”) and P. Myles Smith (“Starting the Space Race: The Early Development of the Soviet Space Program”) deliver thoroughly interesting pieces filled with little-known insights regarding the enthusiastic, naïve, and sometimes hegemonic aspirations of pioneering military and civilian visionaries. Piled atop these aspirations were fears, tragedies, and accidents that culminated in awe-inspiring technological progress and epic failures. McCurdy points out what made the moon effort possible: “impossible-to-replicate series of planned and unanticipated public events rooted in a war [the Cold War] that no longer exists. That is the great lesson of the race to the moon” (p. 46). This observation contrasts sharply with the often depicted programmatic and measured evolution from Mercury to Gemini to Apollo.

Regrettably, three articles seem strangely out of place in the volume. Amy Foster’s “Coping with Celebrity: Women as Astronauts and Heroes” examines the complexities attached to women who enter the astronaut program seeking acceptance as equals with their male counterparts while simultaneously seeing their groundbreaking roles leveraged by leaders of the gender equality movement in society at large. Foster details how each woman coped with the dual demands in different ways. Though historical, the essay represents a sort of thematic speed bump in the otherwise smooth transition between the other pieces. “Giving Voice to Global Reach, Global Power: Satellite Communications in U.S. Military Affairs, 1966–2007” by Rick Sturdevant is rather technical and brimming with acronyms. To someone unaccustomed to considerable technical jargon, the article is a tough read. Finally, Dolman’s contribution, “Astropolitics and Astropolitik: Strategy and Space Deployment,” though well presented, is a theoretical argument in favor of space weaponization and American leadership regarding future control of space. As such, it is at variance with the historical bent of the other articles in this collection. Undeniably, his arguments have gained significant traction with a notable minority in the weaponization debate who advocate a more muscular and assertive US space policy; however, his theoretical posturing remains somewhat out of step with the theme of this monograph. These three ill-fitting—albeit interesting—contributions could well be stand-alone pieces or complementary additions to alternatively themed volumes; nevertheless, in this reviewer’s opinion, they are incongruous with the overarching theme of Harnessing the Heavens.

“The Long March Upward: A Review of China’s Space Program” by Dean Cheng is quite good but underdeveloped (likely due to the publisher’s requirements). The evolution of the Chinese space program is a study in innovation, not so much in terms of technology per se (much of it given to China or obtained via espionage) but in terms of China’s doing as much as it did with what little it had. Granted, the Chinese space program did in fact enjoy patronage from the People’s Liberation Army and protection from many of the most egregious aspects of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution (as well as the chaos and suffering wrought by those tumultuous and incredibly destructive events) due the centrality of nuclear, ballistic missile, and space efforts within Mao’s grand geopolitical scheme. However, budgetary and resource constraints proved severe compared to those confronting scientists and strategists of the superpowers—a fact often overlooked by casual observers.

On balance, Harnessing the Heavens is relevant and worthwhile to the Air Force community. Of course, for readers already well versed in the challenges faced by decision makers during the time frame examined, the book is not all that earth shattering. It does, however, offer some new threads that add to the context of these times and further explain why certain events played out the way they did. For service members relatively unfamiliar with the history of military space, this addition to the scholarship represents a handy reference and stepping-stone to more in-depth coverage of the specific facets that it examines.

Lt Col John H. Modinger, PhD, USAF

US Air Force Academy

"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."