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The Space Race encapsulates both the best and the worst of aspects of U.S. history. On the one hand, there is humanity’s drive to learn and explore. All space programs have no choice but to celebrate the wonders of mathematics, physics, and engineering. (To put this into ’80s film terms: no matter how jock-ish an image an astronaut wants to put forth, it’s still nerds who get us into space.) Space exploration doesn’t just raise the possibility that humanity will find new homes across the galaxy, but it also leaves technological innovation in its wake.
But there’s still that other hand. The Space Race of the 1950s and 60s was the result of intense hatred and fear between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Many of the early aims of the program were baldly militaristic rather than scientific. At least one of the leading engineers was a ...