Cold War Historian Talks About a New Kind of Space Race

12-Dec-2003 11:00 AM EST

Purdue University

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Newswise — As Americans celebrate 100 years of flight on Dec. 17 and await the president's challenge to return to the moon and beyond, a Purdue University space historian says there couldn't be a better time to rejuvenate the country's interest in space travel.

"John F. Kennedy's inspiring calls in the early 1960s for the United States to reach the moon during the space race with the Soviets were crucial in developing and financing the successful Apollo programs," says Michael Smith, professor of history. "President Bush's father, George H. Bush, similarly attempted to rally American public support for further colonization of the moon, Mars and space in 1989 at the end of the Cold War.

"Bush Sr.'s initiative failed. Times have changed, though, and our current President Bush may very well be able to mobilize public support for some bold space exploration initiatives in the context of the world's present challenging political and military realities, namely the global war on terrorism and projects to transform the technologies and strategies of the U.S. military. Assets in outer space and cyberspace are crucial to both."

As part of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of flight, Bush is expected announce new goals in space flight, including a visit to the moon. The last trip to the moon was in 1972. Purdue is home to 22 astronaut alumni, including the first and last humans on the moon.

American space travel has been at a standstill following the space shuttle Columbia explosion Feb. 1 during re-entry. Meanwhile, China is starting its own space program.

"Military necessities dictated by the nuclear arms race defined so many of Russia's and America's achievements in the first space age of the late 20th century," says Smith, who is writing a book about the space race between America and the former Soviet Union. "But that does not mean the coming space age of the 21st century will take on the same character and sequence. Recent partnerships between the USA and Russia on Mir and the International Space Station prove that peaceful collaboration can work."

The president's expected announcement for a return flight to the moon may stir feelings of nostalgia, but Smith says more will be needed to capture the attention of the younger generations.

"The Apollo missions have a historic and nostalgic allure only," Smith says. "We have the spectacular photographs and films and memories in popular culture. University students show little interest in returning to the moon again simply to return. Colonizing and mining the moon interest them somewhat. Reaching and exploring and colonizing Mars, perfectly achievable, according to present and possible technologies, fascinates them most."

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