Half a century ago, humanity was making its mark on the moon. Importantly for the time, Americans were making their mark on the moon. The scientific and cultural battle we now happily refer to as the “Space Race” had wide-reaching implications for the nature of those cultures involved, and the latest competition to conquer the stars will be no less significant in forming our collective identities.
A Race Renewed
The tempo of space-oriented entrepreneurship has heightened with the entrance of companies like Space X and Virgin Galactic, who aim to put humanity in space and on Mars this century. Additionally, countries such as China, Japan, and India, who were non-contenders in the first race have entered into the fray. The Economist’s Bo Franklin commented on the situation, writing “Just like the cold war struggle, this new space race reflects events back on Earth, with firms and individuals becoming increasingly powerful actors. The incipient race to Mars will include companies as well as countries.”
The Cold War’s race to the moon solidified culture’s relationship to science and technology. It was monumental in its influence on popular culture, inter-societal perceptions, and national values. American victory ensured the triumph of capitalism and rugged individualism over the machinations of the then-immense communist bloc.
To understand how momentous the race to the moon was, and how compelling the race to Mars will be, it is important to understand the historical underpinnings of modern civilization’s relationship with the stars. Significant to modern culture both now and then, that most beloved of retro-American heroes, The Space Cowboy, was created to confront a burgeoning cultural nemesis: The New Soviet Man.
The New Soviet Man was a unique product of communist society. Human, but working perfectly in tandem, not with, but as a part of, the machine he was assigned to. The communist cosmonaut was meant to become better at navigating, flying, and calculating than humanity had ever seen. More importantly he was to be an emblem, a living symbol of triumphant communism. The story didn’t quite work out that way, however.
In his article “‘New Soviet Man’ Inside Machine: Human Engineering, Spacecraft Design, and the Construction of Communism,” Slava Gerovitch argued for an understanding of the development of the Soviet space program as a deliberate attempt on behalf of the state to create an ideological construct with which to proliferate the ideals of communism and to develop a coherent national identity amongst the Soviet populace. His argument can be understood more broadly to contain implications concerning the role that science, technology, and the rhetoric thereof, have upon developing our own socio-cultural norms and international relations.
Importantly, American propaganda hit back with the concept of the Space Cowboy to offer an ideological embodiment of a new era of rugged pioneers, taking to new adventures in stellar wagons. The ideological pursuits realized within the institutional frameworks of both the Soviet and American governments, and the development of human engineering as a scholarly and applied discipline, molded the modern identities of each.
Both stances represented differing views of humanity’s role in the future of technology and exploration. The American view extolling the virtues of the individuals who made up the nation, the Soviet view favoring the greater machine of the state, made up of so many little individual gears and cogs.
Within the context of the history of science, these spacebound struggles are intrinsically connected to our modern understanding of the processes through which technology and cultural values are reciprocally related. The Space Race, when viewed through this lens, can be interpreted to be a continuation of the exploratory sciences of previous centuries. As a whole, the American and Soviet spheres of influence in the mid-twentieth century were able to give rise to diverse scientific disciplines, notably Human Engineering, or Engineering Psychology. Disciplines that served not only as a means to “advance” the nations’ technological prowess, but also as an ontological platform for creating an allegory to the nation’s glory.
To Infinity, and also Mars
It is telling that the space race in the twenty-first century is being lead by billionaires and private corporations. Indeed, the New Space Race, in its form and content, is a direct result of the capitalist victory of 1969.
The new race has already begun within the context of rugged individuals defined by titan ambitions with rockets big enough to match. Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Sir Richard Branson have set the tone: a a race to win over popular influence, contracting rights, and of course, profits. Where once a step on the moon was victory, now the colonization of Mars dominates cultural aspirations. Whereas fifty years ago the battle loomed large over nations, the newest incarnation of the race looks set to dictate the next generation of great influencers of nations.
Vitally, this new race will influence our culture to a similar, if not greater, extant as the one that bore it. The Second Space Race will pit company against state, and individual against company. The Cold War saw the fates of communism and capitalism realized. The twenty-first century will do the same for corporatism and venture-based capitalism.