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The Space Program and American Foreign Policy: Case Studies

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The litmus test for legitimate space activity for the United States was always whether the activity was peaceful or aggressive. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, argued that actions should be classified as military or non-military. Both approaches are unworkable in the international setting. The logic of the United States requires the motives of the state to be known. The political realist argues that this is impossible. Only the actions of a state/its leaders can be truly known. Motives are fluid and subject to intense bias. According to the United States, all of its actions were peaceful, even when they were carried out by the military, because the United States never intended any harm. The Soviet Union would not believe the United States; however, the Soviet Union’s method of designation was technically impossible, because nearly all space activities grew directly or indirectly out of military activities and had military applications.

The front page of the October 5, 1957 New York Times was filled with a streaming headline: “SOVIET FIRES EARTH SATELLITE INTO SPACE; IT IS CIRCLING THE GLOBE AT 18,000 MPH; SPHERE TRACKED IN 4 CROSSINGS OVER U.S.” To many, the launch of Sputnik seemed to be a disaster for the United States; however, it actually solved an interesting foreign policy problem.

Sputnik was launched during the International Geophysical Year (IGY), a spin-off of the International Polar Years of 1882 and 1932, which had been successful in promoting advanced scientific understanding of the Arctic and Antarctic regions. By 1954, both the United States and the Soviet Union had secretly planned to launch satellites during the IGY; however, the United States feared that the Soviet Union would object to a foreign object flying over its borders. Eisenhower hoped that the notion of innocent passage, which usually referred to the right to pass through the seas near coastal states so long as the action is peaceful and does not threaten or offend nearby coastal states, would be applied to space instead of the stricter rules for airspace set by the 1919 Paris Convention and confirmed in 1944 at the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation that “every state has complete and exclusive sovereignty over the airspace above its territory.” Because the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, it would not object to its own object flying over its borders, and, thus, could not object to American satellites without declaring their own actions illegitimate. It has been argued that Wernher Von Braun was ordered not to launch his Explorer 1 when it was ready in 1956 exactly for this reason.

 

On May 25, 1961, a few weeks after Alan Shepard became the first American in space, President Kennedy addressed a join session of Congress:

“If we are to win the battle that is going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, if we are to win the battle for men’s minds, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made it clear to us all, as did the sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take.”

Unlike Eisenhower, Kennedy fully bought into the idea of the space race, and, in the above quote, acknowledged that international perception was one of, if not the, most important prize. Most non-aligned countries had been colonies, and greatly resented Western states for this treatment. The socialist ideology of Moscow represented a break from their historic oppressors, and the Soviet lead in the space race strongly suggested that the adoption of communism would lead to a vibrant, advanced society. It was essential for the United States to engage so-called “third-world” countries in the American space program.

One way was through the building of Operations Support bases. As a satellite orbits the Earth, it must be tracked and its data gathered at stations on the ground. The Soviet Union did not have any based outside of its borders; thus, it would lose track of its satellites for over half of their orbit. The United States had stations throughout the world. The general location of these stations was identified by scientists, but their exact locations were dictated by politics.

Ideally, these stations would stimulate interest in space exploration in the country in which they are located, and promote identification with the American space program. Whenever possible, the United States would hire nationals to build and run the stations, sometimes even bringing individuals to the United States for training. In the 1960s, Nigeria was chosen as the location for a new Mercury tracking station. NASA was looking to build a station on the west coast of Africa, and the State Department wanted to engage a “black” African country. The Nigerian government welcomed the station, even though local Nigerians would have very little to do with its operation, because it gave the illusion of great scientific development alongside the United States.