Friday, July 15, 2011

The Shuttle Program and Re-Internationalization of Science

With the last shuttle mission half over, it is interesting to think about the results of the space shuttle program.

During the first half of the 20th century, science was political. There was a reason why the Nazis were decrying the theory of relativity as "Jewish science." One of the cultural meanings of "Jewish" at the time was internationalist. Just as those on the right side of the political spectrum were and are strong nationalists, so those on the left had/have a strong impulse to unite across boundaries, a pluralistic instinct. Science was seen not only as moving human knowledge forward, but also as providing a template for a general approach to being. Science knew no boundaries. The great advances were the combined efforts of French and German scientists, cooperation that would seem unfathomable in other endeavors. Liberals, socialists, and communists looked to science to show new ways of crossing old boundaries. Nationalists who insisted that the boundaries were real and necessary because they are part of explaining why we (whether the we turned out to be the Germans, Americans, French, British,...) are superior to others, were thereby hostile to science, its results and practices.

But the Cold War changed this. After the Manhattan Project, science took on a new light. When Kennedy inaugurated the space race, it was not just military hardware, but general scientific pursuits that became nationalized. This is not say that science stopped being international in scope or method, but what the moon shot did was to make the scientific image into one of national pride and patriotism. Every rocket, every space suit of every astronaut had the flag prominently emblazoned on it. NASA's pursuit turned science from a symbol of international cooperation into one of exclusion and national superiority.

The shuttle program was the move beyond rockets. By making a reusable spacecraft that landed like a plane, it was meant to make spaceflight more accessible and common...and hopefully cheaper. But what it really made possible was a space station, a station that stopped the nationalist claims to space. The shuttle allowed for the possibility of an International Space Station, a platform designed, built, and for the use of nations across the globe. What the shuttles did was to re-internationalize the part of science that had become captured by the nationalists. It helped bring about the post-Cold War world, a world with a healthier view of science.