Title: From the Moon to the Earth: Making Space Technology “Relevant” to Social Problems in the 1970s
As NASA’s Apollo moon landing program came to an end in the early 1970s, the agency faced a dynamic that I have dubbed “existential success.” That is, because NASA had succeeded in completing a highly visible project, other organizations were eager to tap into its engineers’ evident expertise. And without a new existential mission to keep them busy, those engineers had little recourse to refuse such solicitations. Indeed, in a period of declining NASA budgets and public demands that scientists and engineers turn their attention toward problems of social “relevance,” NASA saw such collaborations as a way to improve its funding and legitimacy. Thus, unusual partnerships flourished at NASA in this era, such as the Johnson Space Center’s Urban Studies Projects Office and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Four Cities Program – neither of which had anything to do with cities on the moon, but rather aimed to apply space age expertise to the problems of America’s cities. I offer NASA’s experience as a synecdoche for broader changes in American science and technology in 1970s as high-tech “races” with the Soviets abated and new missions (e.g., economic competitiveness) gradually came to the fore. The American R&D enterprise inflated dramatically in the early Cold War, largely in order to best the Soviets on the literal or figurative battlefield. Once that existential mission receded – temporarily in the ‘70s and permanently in the ‘90s – what was left of American R&D, and who could make use of it?