Popular Science

NASA almost never came to be. Its creation is a lesson in political power.

The battle over America’s space program shows how to turn science into a winning issue.

A space shuttle launch.

A space shuttle launch.

NASA

President Trump’s proposed 2019 budget calls for deep cuts to research, and while it is unlikely to gain traction in Congress, it is a troubling statement of the administration’s priorities. As Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted, “The fastest way to Make a America Weak Again: Cut science funds to our agencies that support it.”

Though it’s impossible to imagine today, NASA almost never existed. Even at the height of the Cold War, space exploration was a contentious political issue. The creation of the space agency is a triumph of political gamesmanship and public pressure, and a vital lesson to lawmakers fighting for science.

Astronaut in space.

Astronaut in space.

NASA

The launch of the first human-made satellite, Sputnik, spurred fears of an ascendant Soviet Union, triggering broad support in the United States for the creation for a civilian space agency. The only problem with that narrative is that it’s more than a little ahistorical.

Initially, many in Washington and Moscow disagreed on the significance of Sputnik ran a of the launch on the righthand column of the front page. The only reference to the nascent space race came in a few words of garbled at the end of the story, promising the West would “witness how the freed and conscientious labor of the people of the new socialist society makes the most daring dreams of mankind a reality.”

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