The Spaceflight Revolution

by William Sims Bainbridge

Pages 1-11 of
The Spaceflight Revolution
(New York: Wiley-Interscience, 1976).

Revolutionary Consequences
Revolutionary Causes
Revolutionary Technological Change


Spaceflight has been achieved despite the world's indifference and without compelling economic, military, or scientific reasons for its accomplishment. Not the public will, but private fanaticism drove men to the moon. When Neil Armstrong called his "small step" on the lunar surface a "great leap for mankind," he spoke as the partisan member of a revolutionary social movement, eager to convert the unbelieving majority to his faith. This book is a sociological analysis of that movement and its astonishing success in bringing about the Spaceflight Revolution.

Revolution might seem to be too strong a word, but the scale and manner of the achievement demand powerful language. Approximately $100,000,000,000 has been spent on space technology; the exact figure is debatable, but the order of magnitude is not. I use the word revolution as a scientifically descriptive term, not a metaphor. The development of spaceflight could be a revolution in two ways: its consequences or its causes.

Revolutionary Consequences

Wernher von Braun declared that the first moon landing was "... equal in importance to that moment in evolution when aquatic life came crawling up on the land."[1] Carried away by the enthusiasm of the moment, Richard M. Nixon said of the flight of Apollo 11, "This is the greatest week in the history of the world since the Creation."[2] Wags noted that Nixon had counted the moon landing as more important than the birth of Christ or even his own election to the presidency.

More sober minds have also believed spaceflight might be a breakthrough of such importance that its effects would be revolutionary. M.I.T. political scientist Lincoln P. Bloomfield wrote on "the Space Revolution," calling it "one of the physical transformations in the way men have lived, thought, and acted."[3] J. G. Crowther wrote a piece for New Scientist in 1969, saying:

The exploration of space is potentially of absolutely major importance. Its beginning marks the emergence of Man from the confines of the Earth, and can be compared with the original emergence of life from the primordial ocean; it sets a new stage for evolution.[4]
In the history of human technology several revolutions have already taken place -- relatively brief periods of rapid development in which man made "a fundamental change in his attitude to external Nature."[5] As V. Gordon Childe explains, the Neolithic Revolution was marked by the development of agriculture. "It was only after the first revolution ... that our species really began to multiply at all fast."[6] Today the world faces the prospect of an end to population growth, and the view has been argued that only the colonization of other planets could allow the human population to expand further and continue the trend begun with the Neolithic Revolution.

Freeman Dyson of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton has even suggested that the further development of spaceflight may partly undo the social consequences of the Neolithic Revolution. When agriculture first made large cities possible, men ceased to live in the small groups that Dyson believes are our natural and most culturally productive units.

I believe the real future of man in space lies far away from planets, in isolated city-states floating in the void, perhaps attached to an inconspicuous asteroid or perhaps to a comet .... the ultimate benefit of space travel to man will be to make it possible for him once again to live as he lived throughout prehistoric time, in isolated small units. Once again his human qualities of clannish loyalty and exclusiveness will serve a constructive role, instead of being the chief dangers to his survival.[7]
G. Harry Stine has argued that the development of spaceflight and the consequent "exploitation of the space environment" will have the impact of a Third Industrial Revolution. The First Industrial Revolution, familiar to us all, "introduced powered machinery to replace human and animal muscle power."[8] The Second Industrial Revolution is happening today and is marked by the introduction of electronic computers and control devices to replace the human brain. In the Third Industrial Revolution, man's world itself will be supplemented or replaced by the resources and environments of outer space.

If space will in fact be used as the site for industrial plants is still very doubtful, and whether raw materials can be brought back profitably from the moon or asteroids is not yet clear. But, if successful, this Third Industrial Revolution might have at least two important positive results: The removal of mining and manufacturing enterprises from our planet would improve the terrestrial environment, perhaps making Earth a vast residential park; and as spaceflight proponents have argued for nearly 50 years, expansion of man's industrial base into the universe would circumvent the limits to growth imposed by the natural boundaries of our world.

The Space Age is too young for us to know for sure what its consequences will be. Although there is much room for argument, spaceflight may indeed have revolutionary consequences. If we forget for a moment the tremendous cost of further advance and guess that many new scientific and technical breakthroughs will permit an endless expansion into space, a grand vision of a future Interplanetary Civilization can rise in our imaginations. Will the economic production of the other planets exceed that of Earth? Will the population of a flourishing Earth be but an infinitesimal fraction of the total human population of the galaxy? Will future archaeologists search the universe for that lost planet on which the species arose millions of years before? Perhaps these are vain science fiction dreams. Were the Apollo 17 astronauts the last men who will ever visit the Moon? Were the Apollo missions a frivolous "moondoggle" better forgotten? Is there no future beyond this small planet?

In a way, these last questions suggest that spaceflight is a revolution, even if it has no ultimate positive results. Either spaceflight will be proven a successful revolution that opened the heavens to human use and habitation, or it will be proven an unsuccessful revolution that demonstrated in its failure the limits of technological advance. Considering the technological optimism of many industrialists and government leaders, to learn that the sky imprisons us and that we must give up all hope of endless growth would be a major change. If spaceflight does fail, its abandonment will represent a technological counterrevolution of great consequence, symbolizing the end of progress as it is understood today.

Revolutionary Causes

In The Sources of Invention, Jewkes, Sawers, and Stillerman classify a number of major inventions according to whether they were made by individual inventors or by teams working in research laboratories. They found that "some cases seem to defy classification"[9] and one of these anomalous cases was the long-range rocket:
Early interest in the long-range rocket, both on the practical and theoretical side, came from individual inventors, and enthusiasm was maintained by amateurs; but it was not until the German military authorities took up the subject during the Second World War that reliable rockets were built.[10]
To Jewkes and his colleagues, the development of long-range rockets looked like a mixture of individual and group invention. Really, it was an example of something quite different -- invention and technological development by a social movement.

The importance of social movements in generating social and ideological change has long been recognized. Social movements reasonably ought also to be able to generate change in other spheres of culture, such as technology. While Jewkes and his associates say that "the German military authorities took up" the rocket, we find that almost the opposite was true. The Spaceflight Movement caused the German military to be taken up by the rocket. Germany, like the Soviet Union and United States later on, was exploited by members of the social movement for its own purposes.

This spaceflight movement was carried on by an extremely small dedicated network of men and was sometimes led by single individuals. Unlike some political revolutionary movements, it did not draw on general support from the population at large. Because its success was often in doubt and because major events turned on the actions of individuals, the development of spaceflight was not rigidly determined by the general advance of technology. It was a revolution that need not have happened. It was a revolution based on romantic idealism, not on practical rational considerations. Yuri Gagarin, first man to orbit Earth, wrote shortly before his death:

Man's breakthrough into outer space, like other great accomplishments of mankind, must not be regarded only in the light of daily interests and routine practices. If throughout history people had been guided only by the satisfaction of their daily needs, mankind would still be living in caves.[11]
The motives of the handful of men who constituted the Spaceflight Movement are difficult to define exactly, but that they were not simple economic ambitions is certain. In 1946 Arthur C. Clarke urged fellow members of the British Interplanetary Society...
[to] be honest with ourselves. Any "reasons" we may give for wanting to cross space are afterthoughts, excuses tacked on because we feel we ought, rationally, to have them. They are true but superfluous -- except for the practical value they may have when we try to enlist the support of those who may not share our particular enthusiasm for astronautics yet can appreciate the benefits which it may bring, and the repercussions these will have upon the causes for which they, too, feel deeply.

The urge to explore, to discover, to "follow knowledge like a sinking star," is a primary human impulse which needs and can receive no further justification than its own existence. The search for knowledge, said a modern Chinese philosopher, is a form of play. Very well: we want to play with spaceships.[12]

Perhaps the most difficult step for the Movement was its evolution from a loose collection of amateur clubs who wanted "to play with spaceships" to major government programs actually building spacecraft and launch vehicles. In 1950 the editors of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society summarized the history of spaceflight and identified the turning point as the German missile program of World War II: " man was chiefly responsible for a sweeping advance which at once moved the whole subject into the realms of practical engineering. That advance was the A.4 (or V.2) rocket, and the man was Wernher von Braun." [13]

Jonathon Leonard, science editor of Time magazine, has called von Braun "something of a prophet and something of a mystic," comparing him with Saint Frances of Assisi and Peter the Hermit. Von Braun does not disagree: "Enthusiasm and faith are necessary ingredients of every great project. Prophets have always been laughed at, deplored, and opposed, but some prophets have proved to be following the true course of history."[14]

Von Braun did not follow the true course of history; he made it. In Chapter 4 we dismiss the idea that military necessity gave him the millions he spent in developing the V-2 rocket. That the impetus behind spaceflight came from the general public or from scientists also is not true.

Six months before the first Sputnik, a national sample of Americans responded to a pollster's question on how much they were aware of plans to "launch a space satellite, sometimes called a manmade moon."[15] There had been a good deal of publicity in the mass media for months, spreading the news that the United States intended to put up such a satellite with the Vanguard rocket. But 54% had never heard of this plan at all! Despite 30 years of activity by the Spaceflight Movement and 30 years of extensive science fiction publishing in the country, only 20% could mention "at least some nontechnical ideas about the purposes of satellites."[16]

Raymond A. Bauer has conducted polls of public attitudes toward spaceflight and summarized the results of polls conducted by other social scientists. He reports: "At no point have any poll data indicated strong general support for the space program."[17] In a poll by the Opinion Research Corporation in 1966, respondents were asked: "If some of the federal government programs had to be cut, which of the programs listed on this postcard would you cut first?" The space program was chosen by 48%. In 1962 and 1963 the same research organization gave respondents a list of 26 issues and asked which required urgent action. "Developing rockets that land an American astronaut on the moon," came in next to last, just ahead of "financial support for artists and art activities."[18]

Support for crash programs to develop manned spacecraft has never been great among scientists either. This fact did not hold the program back in the mid-1960s simply because scientists participated very little in making the great decisions of the decade. Dr. Philip Abelson, editor of Science and a respected scientist in his own right, conducted a poll among scientists not personally connected with NASA. Of 113 he asked, 110 were opposed to the Apollo program, and three were in favor.[19] In May 1963 a group of 25 Nobel Prize winners announced themselves opposed to a crash program, without totally opposing the idea of space exploration.[20]

In 1964 Science mailed a questionnaire on space to 2000 members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Replies were received from 1134, including 548 with Ph.D. degrees. Only 20% of the whole sample and a mere 16% of the Ph.D.s felt that "a reasonable objective would be a lunar landing by... 1970", the target President Kennedy had set three years earlier. Sixty-two percent of the whole sample and 64% of the Ph.D.s disagreed that "the vital national interests of the United States require that a high priority be given to landing a man on the moon by 1970."[21]

If von Braun had not succeeded in building the V-2 rocket for Hitler, the Spaceflight Revolution would probably have failed. A later attempt might have worked, but it is not likely. A delay of even a few months in the deployment of the V-2 would have prevented von Braun from demonstrating it in combat and thereby impressing the Russians and Americans with the capabilities of the long-range liquid-fuel rocket. In the 1950s a delay of perhaps five years would have reduced the chances for success of the movement by a tremendous margin. The Spaceflight Movement was racing against the rate of development of other branches of advanced technology. For example, the first ICBMs were all very large liquid-fuel rockets. They had to be large because the atomic warheads they carried were big and heavy. By the late 1950s atomic engineers had learned to build their bombs more efficiently and produced warheads that needed only relatively small rockets to deliver them. The largest ICBMs made sense for only a short time, and at that time bomber aircraft or pilotless winged missiles could deliver the atomic explosives quite effectively. If the Spaceflight Movement had not been ready and able to sell huge liquid-fuel boosters to the military in the early 1950s, it would not have enjoyed a second chance.

Not only was the Spaceflight Revolution achieved against the opposition or indifference of the majority of people, but like many political revolutions, it cost a number of human lives. About 4000 American soldiers were killed in the American Revolution. A similar number of citizens of London, Norwich, and Antwerp were killed in the V-2 bombardments. In April 1945 advancing American troops discovered 8000 corpses at the concentration camp associated with the Nordhausen V-2 factory.[22] Both the American Revolution and the Spaceflight Revolution may have been highly desirable, but both were carried forth over the bodies of dead and injured human beings.

With considerably irony, Young, Silcock, and Dunn have written of the language with which von Braun's colleague, German General Dornberger minimized the bloodshed caused by the V-2 rocket he had helped develop:

In postwar speeches he liked to call his rockets "flying laboratories," including, no doubt, the one that fell on a block of flats in Stepney on March 27, 1945 killing 130 people. "Altogether," Dornberger told an American audience in 1963, "3745 of these flying laboratories were successfully launched between September 6, 1944 and March 27, 1945. Some 1115 fell on England, 2050 on targets on the continent."[23]
Wernher von Braun's success in exploiting military and government leaders was certainly not an expression of popular will channeled through a revolution. It might be compared to a coup d'etat or a palace revolution in which power is seized suddenly by a small band of conspirators. Like such poorly supported political rebellions, the Spaceflight Revolution required exact timing, good strategy, and great luck to succeed.

Revolutionary Technological Change

Thomas Kuhn has drawn a distinction between normal science and revolutionary science. Normal science "means research firmly based upon one or more past scientific achievements, achievements that some particular scientific community acknowledges as supplying the foundation for its further practice."[24] Normal science is research building upon and following a paradigm, a tradition of accepted practice and of the proper questions for study. It builds step by step upon previous work. "Scientific revolutions are ... those noncumulative developmental episodes in which an older paradigm is replaced in whole or in part by an incompatible one."[25] Without necessarily subscribing to Kuhn's model of the development of science, we can apply a similar distinction to technological development.

Normal technological change happens gradually, in response to conventional market pressures and in rational financial exploitation of new technological possibilities made available by other technological and scientific advances. Progress in some fields such as medicine may seem independent of what we usually call market factors or economic considerations, but still it is made in rational pursuit of benefit for human beings. S. C. Gilfillan has described the evolution of technology as resembling a biological process, happening in a natural inevitable way through the accretion of little details. He asserts, "There is no indication that any individual's genius has been necessary to any invention that has had any importance. To the historian and social scientist the progress of invention appears impersonal."[26]

Gilfillan himself studied the development of sailing technology and other examples of gradual evolution. What he says may well be true of normal technological change; I argue that it is not true of revolutionary technological change. Two factors might be responsible for the apparent impersonality of invention. First, the physical world makes only some inventions possible; inventors, in a sense, discover what can be done and how it can be done within the limits set by Nature. Second, if invention serves economic motives and the needs and wishes of society are taken for granted, the individual's influence is overpowered by the encompassing social order. These assumptions are often made by economic and technological determinists. Summarizing a number of studies, James M. Utterback reports:

Market factors appear to be the primary influence on innovation. From 60 to 80 percent of important innovations in a large number of fields have been made in response to market demands and needs. The remainder have originated in response to new scientific or technological advances and opportunities.[27]
Economist Jacob Schmookler argues that "invention is largely an economic activity which, like other economic activities, is pursued for gain."[28] He believes that both categories mentioned by Utterback must be analyzed in economic terms:
...even when the idea for the invention is suggested by scientific discovery, the commitment to make it is generally an investment decision. This implies that even in such cases the invention is not an automatic outgrowth of the discovery. It is made only after estimating its value in the context of the times.[29]
While stressing economic factors, Schmookler dismisses any "thoroughly deterministic theory of history" on the grounds that some revolutionary innovations may be so difficult, so unlikely, that the role of chance or of the individual is decisive.[30] However impersonal and rigidly determined many kinds of invention may be, a few special cases have a great and unpredictable impact on human history.

In his study of German weapons research in World War II, General Leslie Simon considers "research due to commercial competition" and concludes: "Competition fosters refinements and the development of minor improvements, but it falls short of the stimulus generally required to bring out improvements which result in a whole order of increased effectiveness."[31] The V-2 long-range liquid-fuel rocket is one of the examples that inspired Simon's observation. It was not the result of normal technological change.

Revolutionary technological change is brought about through social processes that operate outside the conventional market mechanisms. Some important cases may have such unusual or obscure causes that they appear to be utterly indeterminate and inexplicable. Almost by definition, conventional social mechanisms are embodied in standard societal institutions, and revolutions of all kinds take place outside and in opposition to them. Therefore, revolutionary technological change should often emanate from social movements, forms of social action that transcend the purposes of standard society and operate outside its structures.

The greatest strides toward space were taken under the irrational dictatorships of Hitler and Stalin, and the American program was not instigated by big business interests. No corporation president would ever consider investing in an enterprise that promised to serve conventional needs only slightly better than already existing means and would require an investment of tens of billions of dollars and a delay of three decades or more between the initial investment and the first returns. Yet this was the case for spaceflight.

Spaceflight might have been a natural stage in the development of aviation. Some spaceflight pioneers, such as Valier[32] and Singer,[33] imagined that aircraft speeds would steadily increase, year by year, until orbital velocity had been achieved. In fact the maximum efficient speed of aircraft appears to be on the order of Mach 3, only one eighth of the speed required to achieve orbit. Certainly, this is not how spaceflight was achieved. Spaceflight might have come about as the natural development of military rocketry. The range and payload of military rockets could have increased gradually, year by year, until orbital velocity had been achieved, and the size could have slowly increased until men could have been carried. Actually, military rocketry advanced in the train of space development. Men like Goddard and the team around von Braun improved military rockets merely as a way of advancing space technology. Had the size of military rockets been increased in a normal way, it would have been done much more slowly. and would have been stopped at the current level of the solid-fuel ICBM, Minuteman, which is almost useless for even the most modest space tasks.

As Kuhn saw it, the structure of a scientific revolution involved a radical shift in intellectual paradigm. Technological revolutions also involve radical shifts of at least two kinds. There can arise a totally new conception of what can be achieved or a strikingly new standard of what it is desirable to achieve. The Spaceflight Revolution is probably an example of both types. The multistage liquid-fuel rocket is certainly a new concept of how people and machinery can be transported! But, perhaps most important, the exploration and conquest of space demand a transformation of values. However many practical justifications may be devised to urge pedestrian people to invest in space, all the early pioneers in space technology described spaceflight as an end in itself, a new value that cannot be reduced to a mere means of satisfying conventional objectives. In its most perfect form, the ideology of the Movement states that it is the purpose of the human species to conquer or enrich the universe; thus, it urges a revolutionary leap in our efforts and aspirations.

(A more complete statment of this analysis and the data that support it are offered in the published book from which this introduction was taken.)


1. Norman Mailer: Of a Fire on the Moon (New York: Signet,1971), p.69.

2. Neil Armstrong et al.: First on the Moon (Boston: Little, Brown, 1970), p. 363.

3. Lincoln P. Bloomfield (ed.): Outer Space-Prospects for Man and Society (New York: Praeger, 1968), Introduction, p. 3.

4. J. G. Crowther: "Beyond the Pillars of Hercules," New Scientist, 17 July 1969, p. 144.

5. V. Gordon Childe: Man Makes Himself (New York: Mentor, 195 1), p. 59.

6. Ibid., p. 63.

7. Freeman Dyson: "Human Consequences of the Exploration of Space." In Eugene Rabinowitch and Richard S. Lewis (eds.): Man on the Moon (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), pp. 26-27.

8. G. Harry Stine: "The Third Industrial Revolution," Spaceflight, September 1974, p. 328.

9. John Jewkes, David Sawers, and Richard Stillerman: The Sources of Invention (New York: Norton, 1969), p. 76.

10. Ibid., p. 77.

11. Spaceflight, October 1969, p. 356.

12. Arthur C. Clarke: "The Challenge of the Spaceship," Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, December 1946, p. 68.

13. Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, March 1950, p. 57.

14. Jonathan Norton Leonard: Flight into Space (New York: Random House, 1957), P. 80.

15. Harold Leland Goodwin: The Images of Space (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1965), p. 26.

16. Ibid., p. 27.

17. Raymond A. Bauer: Second-Order Consequences (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1969), p. 84.

18. Ibid., p. 85.

19. Hugo Young, Bryan Silcock, and Peter Dunn: Journey to Tranquility (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970), p. 162.

20. Goodwin: Op. Cit., p. 139.

21. Science, 24 July 1964, p. 368.

22. Bernd Ruland: Wernher von Braun -- Mein Leben für die Raumfahrt (Offenburg, W. Germany: Burda, 1969), p. 223.

23. Young et al.: Op. Cit., p. 19.

24. Thomas S. Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), p. 10.

25. Ibid., p. 91.

26. S. C. Gilfillan: The Sociology of Invention (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1963), p. 10.

27. James M. Utterback: "Innovation in Industry and the Diffusion of Technology," Science, 15 February 1974, p. 621.

28. Jacob Schmookler: Invention and Economic Growth (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966), p. 206.

29. Ibid., p. 69.

30. Ibid., p. 194.

31. Leslie E. Simon: Secret Weapons of the Third Reich (Old Greenwich, Conn.: WE, Inc., 1971), p. 91.

32. I. Essers: Max Valier, Ein Vorkämpfer der Weltraumfahrt (Diisseldorf. Verein Deutscher Ingenieure, 1968), p. 174.

33. Eugen Sänger: Raumfahrt - Technische Überwindung des Krieges (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1958).