A Heinlein Meme Started the Space Race

… according to the excellent Washington Post podcast Moonrise.  It’s an account of what led up to the Apollo 11 moon landing, starting with Robert Goddard, John W. Campbell, Sergei Korolev, and Wernher von Braun in the 1920s and 30s, and leading up to July 1969.  It’s hosted by the journalist Lillian Cunningham, who says up front that she’s not an SF or space person, but was startled to find out just how weird and dark the origins of the program were.

The Space Review: Heinlein’s ghost (part 2)

Virginia and Bob Heinlein on the set of “Destination Moon”, 1950

In 1947 Heinlein wrote the first of his YA novels, Rocket Ship Galileo, wherein a scientist and a couple of teens build a rocket in their neighborhood. They power it with a thorium reactor, fly off to the moon, and tangle with Nazis at a secret base there. You know, as one does. The novel then got reworked into the script for a big Hollywood movie, Destination Moon, with Heinlein as a contributor. It was a great success, and contained the pitch:

We are not the only ones who know that the moon can be reached. We are not the only ones who are planning to go there. The race is on, and we better win it, because there is absolutely no way to stop an attack from outer space. The first country that can use the moon for the launching of missiles will control the Earth. That, gentlemen, is the most important military fact of this century.

This was in 1950, way before anyone had a hope of even getting into orbit.  Heinlein was the best SF writer of the period, and he was saying what most fans believed.  All through the 1950s they hammered home the idea that the nation that controls space will control the world.

But someone who didn’t believe it was Dwight D. Eisenhower.   When the first request for an orbital rocket program came to his desk in 1955, he was reluctant.   Orbital rockets had almost no military value.   Missiles do, sure, but they only had to go a few thousand miles, and not get up to the five miles per second needed for orbit.   This stuff was crazily expensive and unreliable.   He knew how the V-2 had been a disaster for the Nazis, so much so that it may have shortened the war.

What convinced him was the prospect of spy satellites.  Cameras that could not be shot down and could see the whole of an enemy’s country were a great idea. If the principle of unrestricted overflights by satellites could be established by having civilian, scientific satellites, then all the better. The committee behind the International Geophysical Year wanted to do an orbital mission, so the US could slip their spy satellite work in as part of their program.

But then came Sputnik in 1957. The US knew that the Soviets were also planning an orbital launch, but had no idea that it would be that soon or that big.  Eisenhower systematically downplayed its importance, but Lyndon B Johnson, who was then the Majority Leader of the Senate, saw a political opportunity. He convened hearings in Congress, and speaker after speaker repeated Heinlein’s theme – we were behind and they were going to overwhelm us from this new high ground.   Johnson concluded the hearings with a big speech:

Control of space means control of the world. From space, the masters of infinity would have the power to control the Earth’s weather, to cause drought and flood, to change the tides and raise the levels of the sea, to divert the Gulf stream and change temperate climates to frigid.

This is ridiculous, and should have been known to be ridiculous at the time.  “Masters of infinity” indeed; that’s an SF story title.  Yet there was the huge and intimidating LBJ saying this to all the country. He was saying it partly to just attack Republicans, but he also believed it. He had been primed for it by a systematic campaign by SF writers like Heinlein and polemicists like Campbell and von Braun.

That kicked off the vast and unproductive Space Race.  Kennedy also saw the political advantages of the Missile Gap, and the propaganda value of a moon landing. When he was killed, it had to be finished as part of his legacy. A few landings were done, but then its PR value was exhausted, and no one ever bothered to go back.

In the end, Eisenhower was proven right. There has been military value in space reconnaissance, but that’s it. There has never been any military, commercial, or scientific value to having people in space. It really has been amazingly expensive.   NASA has more than twice the budget of the actual US science agency, the NSF, ~$20B vs ~$8B, and has spent ~$1.3T total in current dollars.

Yet he was wrong as well – space matters as a symbol. That’s why SF fans latched on to it early, and why people of genius like Goddard, von Braun, and  Korolev spent their lives on it.   It really was inspiring to both Soviets and Americans, and to the two dozen other countries that now do their own launches. Heinlein may have thought that space was important for military control, but its actual importance was in control of the imagination.

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