On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 into orbit, ushering in a space race that threatened to break out since the start of Cold War tensions. American reactions to this Soviet breakthrough were mixed. Politicians under the Eisenhower administration frantically attempted to play down Sputnik’s significance. Various reports and press releases argued that the satellite was “without military significance,” “a neat technical trick,” and a “hunk of iron that almost anyone could launch.”  The American media reported on the satellite within the contemporary geopolitical context. Russia had beaten the United States into space, and at the same time proven that the American mainland was not immune to military attack. 

As much as the United States government downplayed the threat posed by Sputnik, the American public understood the satellite as evidence of Communist progress that threatened both America’s global political power and, potentially, the safety of its people.

Image of Sputnik 1 satellite.
Image of Sputnik 1 satellite.


Sputnik forced the United States to accelerate its entry into space exploration and aeronautics. Historians and political commentators agree that Cold War politics and security regulations were the primary motivations for new federal policies. Moreover, national cultural norms shaped the language and public perspective of American engagements with space. Pervasive ideas of national exceptionalism in the United States, as well as the romanticized use of historical images of the brave, pioneering frontiersman, facilitated widespread support for radical strategies of scientific development.

The United States Enters the Space Race

In the year after Sputnik’s launch, the United States government enacted legislation officially marking the start of the nation’s space policy. The wording of the earliest legislation – The “National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958” – exhibited the complex mutual existence of geopolitical and cultural issues. American “space activities” were at once devoted “to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind” and devoted to the “general welfare and security of the United States.” Legislators achieved this by making conspicuous references to cultural trends and ideological perspectives on national identity. Designed to prevent Soviet hegemony of the skies, the 1958 act allowed for “The preservation of the role of the United States as a leader in aeronautical and space science and technology and in the application thereof to the conduct of peaceful activities within and outside the atmosphere.”

With mid-twentieth century scientific improvements, a new frontier became available for exploration and exploitation – activities that had strong historical precedents for the United States and its people.

Frederick Jackson Turner, in the late nineteenth century, observed the unique American definition of a “frontier.” In Europe, it had described a boundary between nations, a political divide. In contrast, frontiers for Americans were demarcation lines between man and nature. The pioneers of westward expansion across the continent were heroic explorers, civilizing and democratizing great swaths of land, and providing a basis for American exceptionalism. Culturally, then, the frontier of space became a desirable national icon of uniquely American inventiveness and cultivation. Instead of looking across the world, Americans could now look upwards, at the night sky, for evidence of their national identity.

The application (or abuse) of the frontier metaphor – however accurate – to space exploration has profoundly shaped the cultural relationship between the United States and space.

The Moon

By all accounts, the Soviet Union was ‘winning’ the early Space Race. Russia sent the first satellite into earth orbit, sent the first man and the first woman into space, and oversaw the first moonwalk. In 1959, NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Association, formed as part of the 1958 legislation) released a list of long-term aims for the following decade. The last entry read, “Beyond 1970: Manned flight to the Moon …” [ef]NASA Office of Program Planning and Evaluation, “Long Range Plan of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration,” December 16, 1959; available in NASA Historical Reference Collection, History Office, NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C. [/ref] This final, ultimate goal redefined the Space Race. Satellites and orbits became somewhat irrelevant; if the first person to set foot on the moon was an American citizen, then the U.S. could categorically claim victory over the Soviet Union.

President Kennedy epitomized the importance of placing a man on the moon in a speech given at Rice University in 1961. The careful choice of language alluded to both political and cultural motivations. Kennedy repeatedly stressed that space was a frontier of peace, one that would lead to radical new scientific discoveries for the furthering of the human species. Although the Soviet Union was only briefly (and derogatorily) mentioned, Cold War tensions were strongly implied:

“I do not say the we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.”

Equally, issues of national identity and the unique pioneering spirit of the United States littered Kennedy’s prose. The President redefined the Moon as a new frontier to be conquered. More than this, only American desire and will to break boundaries could achieve this: “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” The race to the moon was both a race to defeat the Soviet Union and, simultaneously, a race to embed a national cultural identity of pioneering, creativity, and inventiveness.


Looking Back to Move Forward: Space and Memory

Photographs and film have embedded the iconic images and words of Neil Armstrong into the American collective memory. “One giant leap for mankind” of course had radical repercussions for the global community; the moonwalkers, though all American men, were “emissaries” of the human species, not of a single nation or political ideology.  Yet, the United States perhaps gained the most from the famous events of 1969. Space, at that moment, entered into the definition of American history and culture. It is no wonder that The National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. has been the most popular museum in the twenty first century.  The artifacts are examples of an exceptionally American will to explore.

The Cold War prerogatives for space exploration have gradually disappeared from public memory, replaced by cultural motivations concerning the pioneering of a new frontier. The counter-factual question of whether America would have put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s (or ever) in the absence of Cold War tensions requires a comparison of the geopolitical and cultural principles upon which space exploration was founded. As the astrophysicist and public scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson has suggested, if China announced that were going to put a man on Mars by 2020, NASA’s budget would increase radically in order to put an American man there first. However much it might contrast with the public legacy and memory of the initial forays into space, geopolitics and economics played a necessary role in facilitating and shaping U.S. policy.

However, there might not always be geopolitical push-factors. Perhaps framing space exploration in cultural terms – with implicit economic conditions – would best facilitate America’s recovery of a frontier that the nation initially helped to pioneer. The 1960s was a period in which politics and global tensions held more sway than the ideology of discovery. In order to facilitate the same far-reaching developments in space exploration today, policy makers must recover the underlying yet pervasive cultural patterns that shaped public opinion and support for these efforts. As a recent article has noted, “America needs a space program whose greatest accomplishments are celebrated in newspapers, not in museums.”

View a Neil deGrasse Tyson speech from 2012, below.

Below, a Neil deGrasse Tyson lecture from 2013.

For more information:


  1. Matthew Brezezinski, Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age (New York: Times Books, 2007), 171. 
  2. ibid, 172
  3. “National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958,” Public Law #85-568, 72 Stat., 426. Signed by the President on July 29, 1958, Record Group 255, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. 
  4. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012), 5. 
  5. ibid, 23 
  6. Robert Zubrin, “Manifest Destiny in outer space,” Washington Times, July 1, 2003 

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