Thesis ID: CBB499322594

Outer Space in a Western Place: How Environmental Perceptions of the American West Shaped the Space Race (2018)


This thesis analyzes how environmental perceptions of the American West at the intersections of nature and technology shaped vital decisions regarding the space race. The analysis is first contextualized by pervasive political ideologies of the Cold War, which elucidates how these firmly held beliefs turned into political actions and transformed the post-World War II arms race into the space race. The author next examines the technological sublime, an awe-inspiring experience arising in people when they view impressive feats of massive, powerful, human-built machines, in this case nuclear bombs, and rockets. Where the nuclear bomb’s destructive capabilities eventually turned many Americans away from the sublime, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) rockets offered an exciting expansion of space, allowing the US to conceive of the Moon as a future new territory. These technologies developed in the American West and the author analyzes how NASA used one site in particular, the Nevada Test Site (NTS) to develop nuclear thermal rockets at the Nuclear Rocket Development Station (NRDS) and train Apollo astronauts in nuclear craters. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) controlled NTS perpetuated popular misconceptions of the desert as barren and lifeless, and thus only useful for testing new, potentially destructive forces of energy, and further ingrained the space race with the American West frontier mythology. Finally, this thesis examines how the western frontier mythology and environmental perceptions also influenced decisions in the East, particularly the one to choose Florida’s Merritt Island as the launch site for the Apollo program. Cape Canaveral contained vast open, oceanic spaces and was relatively little populated. The ability to use each of these sites, the NTS and the KSC, in the manner the US wanted required the same thing that the American West did: massive, innovative, and powerful technology with the ability to reshape the landscape.

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Authors & Contributors
Burke, David Allen
Higuchi, Toshihiro
Bruno, Laura A.
Burgess, Colin
Ciancone, Michael L.
Gainor, Christopher
Environmental History
Historia Scientiarum: International Journal of the History of Science Society of Japan
Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences
Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences
Journal of Geophysical Research
Social Science History
University of Nevada Press
University of Kansas
University of South Carolina
Cornell University Press
Johns Hopkins University Press
Nuclear testing
Nuclear weapons; atomic weapons
Space programs
Rockets; rocketry
Cold War
Space travel; space flight
Von Braun, Wernher
Bonestell, Chesley
Christofilos, Nicholas Constantine
Ley, Willy
Time Periods
20th century, late
21st century
20th century
United States
Soviet Union
Nevada (U.S.)
Great Britain
Mississippi (U.S.)
East Germany
United States Air Force (USAF)
Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; Partial Test Ban Treaty; Limited Test Ban Treaty (1963)
University of Arizona
U.S. Atomic Energy Commission
International Geophysical Year (IGY)
United States. Atomic Energy Commission

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