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 — a 23-inch aluminum ball with a single radio transmitter that orbited the Earth once every 96 minutes. On October 5, 1957, the day after it launched, the Soviet newspaper Pravda ran a short, dry account 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 Newspeak 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.”

In Washington, the initial reaction was tepid. President Eisenhower knew from reconnaissance photos that the Soviets were developing rockets that could hurl a small satellite into space, and responded to the news of Sputnik’s launch with characteristic restraint. Eisenhower told his staff, “There’s no reason for hand wringing, just because the Russians got up there first.” He maintained this view in a press conference a few days later, saying, “Now, so far as the satellite itself is concerned, that does not raise my apprehensions, not one iota.”

At first, Americans largely shared Eisenhower’s view. “Most of the people, at that point in time — this is two or three days after the launch — were not scared by it,” said former NASA chief historian Roger Launius, describing public opinion research from that time. “They were sort of excited by it. A new age had begun — the Space Age, if you will.”

Cover of The New York Times announcing the launch of Sputnik.
Cover of The New York Times announcing the launch of Sputnik. The New York Times

Not everyone was so sanguine. The New York Times ran a big front-page story on the first “man-made moon,” which noted the launch “could provide valuable information that might be applied to flight studies for intercontinental ballistic missiles.” If the Soviets could send a satellite into space, the thinking went, they might also be able to deliver a nuclear weapon to American shores. The New York Times made the stakes clear to readers. Following its lead, Pravda devoted the next day’s front page to Sputnik with the headline, “The world’s first artificial earth satellite was created in the Soviet country!”

Democrats in Congress jumped on Sputnik as an opportunity to score political points while pushing for more funding for research, education, and space exploration. Republicans had used fears of communism to win public support and hostility toward racial integration to divide Democrats. Democratic congressional aide Charles Brewton said Sputnik was the weapon they needed to fight back, an issue that could “first of all, clobber the Republicans, secondly, lead to tremendous advances and, third, elect Lyndon Johnson as president.”

Sputnik. NASA

Lyndon Johnson, then majority leader in the Senate, used Sputnik to earn a national following on his way to a presidential run. He offered a fantastical — and implausible — vision of a future where the country that dominated space “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.”

To Johnson’s credit, Sputnik represented a grave threat to U.S. national security, and its looming presence in the night sky was a blow to American prestige. The senator rightly argued for “full wartime mobilization” to catch up to the Soviet Union, saying, “If more money is needed, let’s spend it. If more resources are needed, let’s use them. If more hours are needed, let’s work them. Let us do what ever it takes.” Johnson wasted no time launching a congressional investigation into the state of the U.S. space program.

Space race cartoon.
Space race cartoon. Thomas Flannery, Baltimore Sun

“As we’re all aware, hearings are not about fact-finding. They’re about theater,” Launius said. Johnson and fellow Democrats in Congress sent the message, he said, that “Republicans and, specifically, Eisenhower had fallen down on the job.” Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey mocked Eisenhower’s “pseudo-optimism.” Michigan governor G. Mennen Williams wrote a poem lampooning the golf-loving president for his muted response to Sputnik.

Oh little Sputnik, flying high With made-in-Moscow beep, You tell the world it’s a Commie sky and Uncle Sam’s asleep.

You say on fairway and on rough The Kremlin knows it all, We hope our golfer knows enough To get us on the ball.

Eisenhower dismissed critics, saying, “Lyndon Johnson can keep his head in the stars if he wants. I’m going to keep my feet on the ground.” But Democratic efforts succeeded in shifting public opinion, as Americans came to see the satellite as a symbol of the Soviet threat. “It’s after it’s made into a political issue that people start to attach fear to it,” Launius said.

Making the situation worse, a month after Sputnik, the Soviets successfully launched a small spacecraft carrying a stray dog. The following month, the United States tried launching its own satellite, but the rocket blew up on the launch pad. Together, these events made it seem like the Soviet Union had finally pulled ahead in the race for technological supremacy.

“The United States explodes an atomic bomb in 1945,” Launius said. “In 1949, the Soviet Union explodes their first atomic bomb, so four years later. In 1952, the Americans explode a hydrogen bomb. In 1953, the Soviets do it. It looks like they’re catching up. And now, in 1957, they’re ahead. And if you start looking at this trajectory, then you can be concerned.”

In 1958, a plurality of Americans believed the Russians led the United States in long-range missile capability, and it hurt Eisenhower in the polls. Ike watched his approval rating drop to a career-low of 49 percent in the months after Sputnik, after peaking at 79 percent only a year prior. In the face of declining public support and sustained political pressure, he capitulated to Democrats.

Lyndon Johnson (left) and Dwight D. Eisenhower (right) in 1965.
Lyndon Johnson (left) and Dwight D. Eisenhower (right) in 1965. Yoichi Robert Okamoto

In 1958, Eisenhower would acknowledge that “the USSR has surpassed the United States and the free world in scientific and technological accomplishments in outer space” and called for the “development and exploitation of U.S. outer space capabilities.” That same year, he also worked with Congress to pass a slate of policies to accelerate U.S. scientific and technological progress, including:

  • The creation of NASA, which brought a small collection of agencies already invested in space exploration under one roof. NASA was radically scaled up under President Kennedy. (For comparison, Trump wants to cut funding for NASA to an all-time low.)

  • The creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, which researched advanced military technologies. The agency would eventually produce ARPANET, the forerunner of the internet. (Trump wants to get rid of the Advanced Research Projects Agency.)

  • The passage of the National Defense Education Act, which bolstered science education by, among other things, providing student loans for those who excelled in math, science or engineering. (Trump has called for significant cuts to science education.)

Johnson and his allies succeeded in passing these measures despite initial objections from the White House. “In Eisenhower’s mind, he had a reasonable space program before Sputnik, and at some level, he did. He was spending a not insignificant amount of money, but it was all for national security-type things: rockets, ballistic missiles, and a spy satellite,” said Launius. “The creation of a new bureaucracy was something he didn’t think was necessary. He was sort of forced to do it.”

Astronaut David R. Scott on the Moon, 1971.
Astronaut David R. Scott on the Moon, 1971. NASA

Asked if NASA would have been created without political pressure from Johnson and his allies, Launius said, “No, probably not. Were we going to do space activities? Of course. Would it have been the purview of a separate civilian agency that has no military role? Probably not — at least not yet.”

Launius said Sputnik is an example of punctuated equilibrium. “Things roll along on an even keel for a while, and then something happens that changes the dynamic, and you seize that,” he said. “There are people who had been wanting to do the things that came to pass in the aftermath of Sputnik, but they never had the capability before, because there was too much inertia in the political system. And now they had the opportunity to do that.”

There are lessons in this story for lawmakers working to ramp up funding, say, for clean energy research. Rather than working toward consensus, they might take a lesson from Lyndon Johnson circa 1957.

Wind turbines.
Wind turbines. Pexels

Just as Democrats once warned of Soviet technological supremacy, lawmakers today might invoke the rise of China, which is well on its way to becoming a clean-energy superpower in a century that will be defined by the shift away from fossil fuels. China is currently on track to double funding for clean-energy research. To stay competitive, the United States must do the same.

Already, a majority of Americans are worried about losing jobs to China, while eight in 10 want more funding for clean energy research. Politicians working to dramatically increase research funding needn’t wait for consensus in Congress. Rather, they might, like Lyndon Johnson, use an urgent issue with broad public support to bludgeon their political opponents.

They might argue that Trump is asleep at the wheel, letting U.S. research flounder while China positions itself as the next great economic power. Or they might point out that China is exporting its solar panels all over the world, while U.S. manufacturers are struggling to keep up. Or they might clamor for the federal government to restore American prestige by investing in the programs that made the United States the world’s only superpower.

Saving science might mean slinging mud. But sometimes that’s what it takes to get the job done. As Johnson once said, “While you’re saving your face, you’re losing your ass.”

Jeremy Deaton writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. You can follow him @deaton_jeremy .