Among former presidents, both John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson have space centers named for them.
Dwight Eisenhower doesn’t.
Yet he signed the legislation establishing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and authorized Project Mercury, the country’s first human spaceflight program.
It doesn’t seem fair. But maybe Eisenhower’s reaction to Sputnik had something to do with it.
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The October 1957 launch of the world’s first artificial satellite by the Soviet Union proved a Cold War propaganda coup and seemed to render the same man who conquered the Nazis slow on the uptake regarding all things orbital.
But Eisenhower responded in his own measured way, said Yanek Mieczkowski, author of “Eisenhower’s Sputnik Moment: The Race for Space and World Prestige.”
Mieczkowski, history professor at Dowling College on Long Island, N.Y., could find little historical evidence of an alleged public panic over Sputnik. Politicians and publishers, however, saw opportunity.
“Newspaper publishers loved Sputnik because it was good copy,” said Mieczkowski. “It was doom and gloom.”
U.S. Sen. Henry Jackson of Washington, meanwhile, declared that Sputnik made plain the need for greater American investment in aerospace technology. Never mind that he also represented the home state of Boeing, the aircraft manufacturer.
Eisenhower signed the NASA legislation in 1958, about nine months after Sputnik’s launch.
Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign, taking a cue from columnist Joseph Alsop, made much of a “missile gap,” a perceived notion that the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union in the development of intercontinental range ballistic missiles.
All this suggested an Eisenhower administration that had grown complacent.
“Being accused of being lax or supine really made Eisenhower angry,” said Mieczkowski. But the idea didn’t seem a stretch, for several reasons.
“Eisenhower’s style of leadership was very low-key; he didn’t like a bombastic style,” Mieczkowski said. “He also liked to keep a tight rein on federal spending.”
Eisenhower also declined to frame the American space efforts as a “race” against the Soviets and dismissed then-President Kennedy’s 1961 call to land a man on the moon.
“He thought it was wasteful and distorted the true meaning of the country’s space endeavors,” Mieczkowski said.
There also was no national security component to the mission, Eisenhower said.
“He once said at a meeting, ‘We don’t have an enemy on the moon,’” Mieczkowski said.
“That was his way of looking at it.”
For the record: the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs is home to the Eisenhower Center for Space and Defense Studies.
Mieczkowski speaks at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St. His presentation is part of the Eisenhower 125 series presented by the Eisenhower Library and the W.T. Kemper Foundation.
Rick Perlstein on Reagan at KU
Would Ronald Reagan be welcome in the contemporary Republican Party?
“That’s the question I get most regularly,” said Rick Perlstein, author of “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.” He’ll speak at the University of Kansas in Lawrence on Wednesday and Thursday, as part of the Hall Center for the Humanities’ lecture series.
“Many of the bills Reagan signed as both governor of California and president are pretty much unimaginable today,” Perlstein said.
“As governor, he signed one of the most liberal abortion laws in the country, as well as a pioneering gun law. But politicians, especially presidents, don’t always get to pick their politics out of a catalog.
“They come out of the context of their times.”
Both as governor and president, Reagan had to work with comparatively liberal legislatures, Perlstein said.
“So, as a realistic politician, if he wanted to be able to point to accomplishments, he really didn’t have any choice,” Perlstein said.
“Reagan was often right-ring in his rhetoric, but when it came down to governing, he knew how to negotiate and get half a loaf.”
Perlstein speaks at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Woodruff Auditorium in the Kansas Union, as well as at 10 a.m. Thursday in the Hall Center Conference Hall.
For more info, go to HallCenter.KU.edu.
Poets featured in Wilson Series
The September installment of the Thomas Zvi Wilson Reading Series will feature poets Tina Hacker and Gary Lechliter.
The program begins at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Oak Park Library, 9500 Bluejacket St., in Overland Park. The Johnson County Central Library and The Writers Place serve as co-sponsors.