Joseph N. Tatarewicz: American Spaceflight's Murky Future

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Joseph N. Tatarewicz is associate professor of history at University of Maryland, Baltimore County and director of the Human Context of Science & Technology Program. His e-mail is]

For the first time, a U.S. president has canceled the main future human spaceflight program, leaving NASA without a direction, soon without a vehicle to fly people in space, and with its role as world space leader in doubt.

How did we get into this predicament, and is there a path toward regaining the kind of space eminence Americans have taken for granted?...

The shock of the Soviets' first satellite, Sputnik goaded a reluctant President Dwight Eisenhower into establishing a small civilian space program. With the Cold War in full swing, President John F. Kennedy established the moon landing as a way to compete safely with the Soviets and grew the fledgling NASA into a huge and well-funded enterprise.

This rising tide carried a number of other boats with it, and satellites and space probes multiplied and became more sophisticated. However, the human spaceflight program always dominated the NASA budget, itself a tiny percentage of the national budget....

President Barack Obama, despite canceling the future human spaceflight program, has proposed increasing NASA's budget and has promised (without revealing the details) a new and exciting program.

Presidents have always used space as an instrument for their broader programs and agendas, but usually without much public debate or even notice. This is different. The old, well-worn paradigms and plans are probably off the table, but the new ones are just emerging, in piecemeal fashion....

comments powered by Disqus