The Space Race! How Consumers powered the American Space Industry

The American space program was a key part of the Cold War, especially after the Soviet Union propelled a human into space before the U.S. did. The U.S. government initially hugely supported the industry, and here Jeneane Piseno explains the role of the American consumer in supporting the space industry – and how the industry has evolved since the end of the Cold War.

Cold War Consumerism

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union propelled humanity into outer space via Sputnik, launching a national purpose for the United States aimed at preeminence on several fronts including military, technology, ideology, and culture.[i]  Space, the new battleground in the Cold War, mandated the necessity of a national organization to deliver international superiority. Thus, on July 29, 1958, President Eisenhower signed into law the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Act, establishing a government-supported civilian agency responsible for peaceful enterprises in outer space.

NASA’s mission to thrust Americans to the forefront of global leadership also ignited one of its most important assets, the consumer market. The space-age consumer provided momentum to policies produced by the convergence of the Cold War and technological developments in both government and corporate sectors. The objective to form a national identity through legislation, innovation, and mass advertising transported American leadership to outer space from the 1950s through the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Free Market Culture

Thus, Cold War consumerism impacted the onset of the “space race” by shaping modern cultural attitudes towards spending based on political superiority.  Post World War Two spending focused on the perception of power presented to the public by capitalizing on selling a free market ideology.[ii]  For example, at the height of the Cold War, consumer advertisers unleashed a barrage of technological prospects aimed at securing freedom from the evils of Communism.

Products that materialized in the 1950s and 1960s captured the emotions of “ordinary American families” as a result of post-World War Two geopolitical and economic technological development.[iii]  Rocket design, nuclear fusion production, and fear of Communism reinforced policy and legislation aimed at the “space race”, which in turn influenced the economy through the production of consumer goods. Influence in this sphere resulted in accelerated research in science, technology, and defense intended to provide Americans with the biggest and best of everything, including the vehicle that propelled them to the Moon. The Cold War marketed the idea that “a thrill would come from fascinating new products” inspired by space-age technology.[iv]

The Space Industry

At the height of the Apollo program, government spending on space reached unprecedented levels, causing Congress and media representatives to take a closer look at the reasons for U.S. domination of the space environment. Escalating costs reinforced delays in mission operations, which in turn drove up costs. As the threat of global Communism slowly ebbed in the late 1980s, once staunch advocates of the American space leadership model abdicated their support in favor of more private sector participation.  Although the private sector characteristically supported space exploration initiatives, reliance on commercial capabilities rose in the field of robotics and aeronautics, grounding any notion of manned space-flight activities beyond low Earth orbits, thus minimizing the exhibition of space in popular culture.

While more commercial involvement, such as the development of launch technologies; the construction of the international space station; and scientific and medical research enhanced production capabilities, the consumer attraction to “space race” related merchandise eventually declined. However, with help from Hollywood films like Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, this market emerged as a subset of popular culture and helped keep space interests alive. Consumer goods continued to display alien fascination through the marketing efforts of the entertainment industry.  Furthermore, American innovation, NASA, and the space transportation system (STS) created a symbolic American icon that represented global supremacy which helped foster consumer interest in outer space.

National Identity

Presidents from Kennedy to Bush ‘43 further recognized the importance of an American presence in outer space and the necessity of commercial expansion and support of this endeavor. Interests outlined in their respective space policies sanctioned private sector contributions as part of the national mission.  Each president recognized the vital importance of continuing research into aeronautical development and environmental science, areas of research application resulting from the national space program.  With the end of the STS, a vision for future transportation and space-oriented goals evolved in the Orion spacecraft development and Constellation human spaceflight program defined in the Vision for Outer Space Exploration and the NASA Authorization Act of 2005. This act specifically called for expanded private-sector contribution toward outer-space exploration.

Thus, in 2010 the U.S. space program reduced its responsibility concerning the management of space exploration in favor of commercial leadership in human outer-space endeavors. The impact of diminished American global importance as the intrepid helmsman signified a reduced geopolitical dominance, but also created opportunities to lead on multiple platforms in the private sector.

Ascertaining the connection between the reduction in authority of the national symbol and the expanded industrial complex seems simple: in a market economy the private-sector acknowledges the burden of responsibility for seemingly discretional government spending.  But this shift in fiscal responsibility possibly surrenders influence of the future American presence in space. Maneuvering from the “national identity” posture towards a solely business infrastructure also begs the question of who will pilot commercial ventures in outer-space, establish ethical responsibility and government, or even organize any type of social structure for the people of Earth in a more universal context.

The Space Consumer

Just how did the United States government rely upon the modern consumer market and commercial entities to promote an American presence in outer space in order to achieve global preeminence?  The answer: the birth of the space consumer. The story of this interstellar customer reveals a strategy of commercial transition in American space endeavors through an apparent magnitude of policy, technology, and media.

Research in the field on the Cold War, the nuclear arms race, the space race, and consumerism reveal that many factors played a role in the promotion of American leadership in the latter half of the twentieth century, but the most prominent strategy for American success appeared in mass consumption. For example, in the 1950s and 1960s homes displayed modern kitchens and appliances, through the deployment of communications satellites, millions of people witnessed television, heard more radio broadcasts; and ordinary people enjoyed overall economic improvement over their Soviet counterparts, enticing them to purchase products.[v] Additionally, Americans purchased toys, automobiles with rocket-shaped fins and cruise control, space food sticks, and energy drinks and snacks.

Pop Culture

Initially, the American image arguably made the greatest contribution to space program because it became synonymous with freedom and success. Later, as the “space race” fervor subsided, an atmosphere of cooperation drove consumer interests into space, reflecting a greater commercial involvement with the general public through a subset of space consumerism primarily through the entertainment industry. The commercialization of space through media occurred well before Star Wars entered the market place. Movies dating back to the beginning of the “space race” often included themes related to the Cold War and the possibility of either invasion by aliens, or unification of Earth against other terrestrial forces, or of human manifest destiny to conquer space. Movies such as Destination Moon (1950), The Day the Earth Stood Still, and When Worlds Collide (1951), Invaders From Mars, It Came From Outer Space, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, War of the Worlds (1953), Spaceflight IC-1(1965), all tapped into the alien-contact market.[vi] The outer space ethos allowed Hollywood producers to capitalize on associated cultural influences through the medium of film creating an explosive subculture in outer-space entertainment. Additionally, Hollywood movies served as glamorous and alluring advertisements for the possibility of a Western or American standard of living through the continued expansion of space-related endeavors, one of the primary foundations supporting the exceptional position of the United States existed in consumerism.

The transition in private-sector involvement that resulted in a heavy reliance on consumer power to market its position in the world presented the realization that glamorizing the American image at home and abroad was a key factor to a successful space program. The U.S. government accomplished this task through purchasing power, media advertising, technological exhibitionism and commercialism. Commerce established early on between government and civilian entities, including the military and corporate organizations, contributed to the ongoing technological advances well into the twenty-first century.

By 2010, the nearly total reliance of commercial organizations to facilitate the continued American presence in outer-space exploration represented another perspective from which to examine future activities space. Though the onset of the space program was born out of a military mission, consumerism played a key role in its continued existence. Today, government participation reflects the growth of the commercial sector as it takes on the majority of the responsibility for building, operating, and possibly eventually deciding upon what future goals to strive for, what challenges and risks to accept, and in what form established space structures will exist. This exceptional journey will no doubt continue advancing at light speed with the space spender at the helm.

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