Is the End of the Space Shuttle Program More than Mere Symbolism?


Many older Americans can still tell you where they were on July 20, 1969 when Neil Armstrong uttered the famous words, “…one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” This was the Apollo 11 mission and for many Americans the “space race” had been won. Surpassing the Soviet Union in space was an essential ingredient in winning the Cold War. It was symbolic of American technological superiority and power. It was also a visible symbol for America’s youth: almost everyone wanted to grow up to be an astronaut. The final space shuttle flight on July 21, 2011, however, ended America’s space hegemony, leaving many to question who really benefited when the Cold War ended.

The Cold War and the Race for Space

The Cold War space race may have begun with German scientists working for the Third Reich at Peenemunde on the Baltic Sea coast. The “rocket man” behind that first successful launch on October 3, 1942 was Werhner von Braun who, according to Der Spiegel (June 20, 1977) became the strongest promoter of American space travel. Although accused of opportunism, von Braun played a crucial role in the space race for the United States after the war.

The Soviet Union launched Sputnik on October 4, 1957. Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth in 1961. Space became the “final frontier,” as envisioned by American television audiences with the 1966 debut of Star Trek. The promise Americans took from NASA, popular literature, and television shows about space travel was that the possibilities were limitless and that American egalitarianism in terms of promoting and nurturing democracy extended beyond imagination. It was part of an entirely new cosmology.

On a more practical level, the space program improved global knowledge of a universe beyond everyone’s backdoor. Satellites dramatically improved every form of communication and data from weather predictions to military defensive warnings. President Ronald Reagan created further Cold War acrimony when he advocated a space-based missile defense system dubbed “Star Wars” in 1983. Reagan also presided over the 1986 Challenger explosion.

The Final Voyage of the Space Shuttle

With the July 21, 2011 end of the space shuttle program and the closing of Mission Control, thousands will be unemployed and the United States will rely upon Russia to fly American astronauts to the International Space Station. Additionally, space travel has been relegated to private industry. Despite the cost, however (an estimated $200 billion), critics of the decision to end the program believe that the U.S. will be set back for decades. In a period of budget cuts and debt considerations, Republicans in the Congress are seeking even greater defunding of NASA appropriations.

The Space Shuttle Program as a Symbol of Greatness

To what extent does the end of the shuttle program impact the United States as a “great power?” In his 1987 bestseller The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Paul Kennedy explores “national and international power in the…post-Renaissance period.” Although his study extends only to 2000, Kennedy’s analysis might describe the U.S. in 2011: “The triumph of any one Great Power…or the collapse of another, has usually been the consequence of lengthy fighting by its armed forces; but it has also been a consequence of the more or less efficient utilization of the state’s productive economic resources…”

The U.S. space shuttles will be displayed in museums. Like other symbols of past golden ages, they might inspire future generations. The abrogation of the space program, however, may have serious consequences that extend beyond the symbolism of power and technological hegemony. In February 1999, Charles W. Maynes argued in Foreign Affairs that the U.S. had squandered the Cold War victory. Is the U.S. space program the latest casualty of missed opportunities?

Beyond the arms race of the John F. Kennedy administration, the “Camelot” president’s vision focused on a spectacular global symbol that demonstrated not only U.S. technology, but a reinvigorated education system. NASA successes instilled pride and created new challenges for future generations. Much of that ended on July 21, 2011 as the space shuttle Atlantis touched down in Florida.