Space exploration involves business and government – and courage – Chicago Tribune


“The Eagle has landed.”

Astronaut Neil Armstrong transmitted this striking statement to Earth on July 20, 1969 from the surface of the moon.

President John F. Kennedy made the dramatic promise in 1961 to land a man on the moon before the end of this decade – and return him safely to Earth, the president has always added cautiously.

Armstrong and fellow Apollo program astronauts Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins delivered on that pledge, a dramatic victory of profound political and scientific significance during the Cold War.

On the morning of June 4, 2022, the company Blue Origin transported a group of five passengers 100 kilometers above the Earth, to the farthest reaches of space. Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin and Amazon, is one of many entrepreneurs pursuing projects in space, once the exclusive province of governments.

Among the passengers was Katya Echazarreta, a scientist and engineer from Mexico. Space for Humanity, a non-profit organization, selected her for the trip from many applicants. Others paid undisclosed fees for the trip.

Space activity is growing rapidly. In April 2021, NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) announced the selection of Elon Musk’s SpaceX Corporation to build a lander to take astronauts to the Moon for the first time since the last Apollo mission in 1972.

President Kennedy fostered a solid foundation for a business-government partnership in space exploration through his 1962 communications satellite legislation.

We automatically recognize JFK’s role in initiating the Mammoth Moon project. Collectively, we are almost universally unaware of his leadership in creating the global satellite communications network that is vital to the way we communicate, work and live today.

President Dwight Eisenhower launched the satellite communications effort. Predictably, he focused on established communications companies. This reflected his fundamental faith in corporate leadership, as well as Republican Party, philosophical and practical preferences.

The Kennedy administration largely continued along this path. The proposed new COMSAT (Communications Satellite) Corporation was privately chartered and not a government agency.

Intense controversy ensued, with angry protests within the president’s Democratic Party over big business aid and welfare. Reflecting the party dynamics of the time, conservative but populist Democrats in the South and West were among the most outraged.

Nevertheless, Congress overwhelmingly approved the legislation creating COMSAT. This then facilitated growing collaboration between major communications companies and a wide range of other businesses in creating today’s ubiquitous global satellite systems.

For example, in 1973, a consortium of major commercial banks agreed to transfer funds electronically, opening the door to today’s massive, rapidly evolving global banking system.

The original SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) system, launched in 1973, has been in operation since 1977. Over the decades, satellites and terrestrial systems have become integral parts of vast voice and data communications of all kinds.

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Musk and his associates are continuing the transportation revolution. Bezos and associates are building stratospheric levels of e-commerce. They personify the historic entrepreneurial audacity of our country.

Beyond personalities, sustained space exploration reflects our history of business-government partnerships. Give JFK credit for appreciating that by launching us into space, long term.

On Earth, Naleah Boys, while a high school student in Janesville Wisconsin, published a book with illustrations about the history of NASA. She hopes to become an engineer for the agency.

The International Space Station involves Russia and the United States, as well as Canada, Europe and Japan. Outer space impacts the Earth in various ways.

Learn more: Walter McDougall, “The Heavens and the Earth — A Political History of the Space Age” (Johns Hopkins University).

Arthur I. Cyr is the author of “After the Cold War” (NYU and Palgrave/Macmillan) and other books.

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