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Book Review: One Giant Leap for Geopolitics – Undark Magazine



Most idealistic American kids watching the Apollo missions on TV back in the 1960s were quite content to believe that they were witnessing the opening of a grand new age of peaceful scientific exploration. Soon we’d be living on the moon, then going to Mars and beyond. After all, hadn’t we just gone from sending men up in dinky capsules for 15-minute suborbital joyrides to landing on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility in less than a decade?

Of course, that’s not how things worked out. After the triumph of Apollo 11, three Apollo missions were canceled, and NASA’s budget continued to fall. President John F. Kennedy’s goal of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth” had been achieved. The point had been proven, and there were other things, such as the Vietnam War, that needed the money.

BOOK REVIEW“Operation Moonglow: A Political History of Project Apollo,” by Teasel Muir-Harmony (Basic Books, 384 pages).

But as Smithsonian Apollo historian Teasel Muir-Harmony explains in her new book, “Operation Moonglow: A Political History of Project Apollo,” science and exploration were never the point of NASA’s manned space program. “It was not science, the innate human thirst for exploration, or economic incentive that drove the human spaceflight program; instead, it was politics, or more precisely, the particular geopolitical moment, where global superpowers competed for global leadership through demonstrations of technological superiority,” she writes.

It started with Sputnik in Oct. 1957. The beeping basketball orbiting over the United States every hour and a half may have alarmed political leaders and the public, but most scientists were nonplussed. Both the U.S. and the USSR had already publicly announced their plans to launch an Earth satellite as part of the then-ongoing International Geophysical Year program, and the fact that the Soviet Union had managed to do it first made no difference to science.

Yet even if both sides publicly hailed it as a scientific breakthrough, the most profound repercussions were political and military. Sputnik 1, and the much heavier Sputnik 2 craft that followed it a month later, were clear demonstrations of Soviet technological strength — especially in the existentially vital area of missile technology. America was behind, its assumed global dominance had been challenged in the eyes of the world, and something had to be done. The perception that Soviets were stronger and more advanced than Americans had to be countered somehow.

Not everyone agreed. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, for one, wasn’t panicking, and his successor, Kennedy, had other priorities. “At the end of 1960, neither the outgoing president nor the one assuming the post saw human spaceflight as a national priority,” notes Muir-Harmony.

When Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space on April 12, 1961 — just before the new U.S. administration launched the Bay of Pigs fiasco — Kennedy began to change his mind about the importance of space, imploring his advisers to find something “which promises dramatic results in which we could win.”

It started with Sputnik in Oct. 1957. The beeping basketball orbiting over the U.S. every hour and a half may have alarmed political leaders and the public, but most scientists were nonplussed.

Space had clearly become a crucial new arena for superpower competition. “It was the one-two punch of Gagarin’s flight boosting Soviet prestige followed in quick succession by the loss of U.S. prestige because of the Bay of Pigs invasion that laid the groundwork for Project Apollo,” says Muir-Harmony.

She points out that although Kennedy’s subsequent address to Congress is most famous for setting the goal of the moon landing, such an interpretation overlooks the full context of that goal and the president’s motivations for setting it forth. The May 25, 1961 speech, she writes, was considered an unofficial “second State of the Union,” laying out “urgent national needs,” mostly focusing on America reaffirming its international standing as the “leader in freedom’s cause.” Putting an American on the moon offered a clear objective that was peaceful in essence yet clearly demonstrated U.S. strength. “The president recognized that lunar exploration had the potential to restore America’s geopolitical standing,” she observes.

Muir-Harmony’s book traces just how the U.S. set out to do that, using the achievements of the space program as the basis of an ambitious campaign to promote American values and virtues around the world through the “soft power” of cultural and political persuasion. For the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), a State Department body formed under Eisenhower to counter Soviet propaganda through its own brand of propaganda and psychological warfare, space spectaculars served as a new form of diplomacy.

Overwhelming international enthusiasm for John Glenn’s orbital Friendship 7 mission in February 1962 gave the USIA its first chance at “space diplomacy.” The agency sent Glenn’s Mercury capsule on an international tour of more than 20 cities as the center of a carefully crafted exhibit tailored to each nation’s culture. Alluding to the three Earth orbits the capsule had flown with Glenn at the controls, Friendship 7’s tour was dubbed the “Fourth Orbit,” and proved a smashing success, with millions of people waiting in long lines for hours to see and touch the craft.

Muir-Harmony shows how the USIA carefully honed and evolved its strategies with subsequent NASA successes, such as the Gemini flights and especially the landmark mission of Apollo 8 in December 1968, which for both the U.S. and the world provided a hopeful and inspiring coda to a year wracked by war, assassinations, and political upheavals.

All the experience went into the meticulous planning for managing the reception of Apollo 11, the first lunar landing. NASA and the State Department wanted to ensure that the mission wouldn’t be represented parochially as another demonstration of American supremacy but as an achievement truly to be shared “for all mankind,” as the plaque mounted on the lunar lander declared. “When public opinion polls and feedback from foreign posts revealed that international audiences did not respond well to the heralding of American greatness and technological strength,” she writes, “this message was dampened and subsequently replaced with one emphasizing global unity and international participation.”

While Kennedy never lived to see his goal ultimately achieved, his successors didn’t hesitate to reap the political capital of the space program. For Lyndon B. Johnson, Muir-Harmony writes, “space became an even more multifaceted political instrument,” providing a model for his liberal social programs. If we could send a man to the moon, he claimed, we should be able to feed the poor and care for our citizens.

For Richard M. Nixon, Apollo was a perfectly timed, conveniently exploitable opportunity. “Although it had been proposed by one of his fiercest rivals — John F. Kennedy — Nixon shrewdly co-opted Project Apollo in support of his foreign relations agenda,” Muir-Harmony writes. Nixon timed his first international trip as president to follow immediately after a European tour by Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman, soaking up the residual good will, and set off on another important trip to Asia and Europe right after welcoming home the Apollo 11 astronauts in late summer 1969. As if to drive home the message that Nixon was touring the world as the president of the nation that had just achieved the first human moon landing, the trip was dubbed “Operation Moonglow.”

NASA and the State Department wanted to ensure that the mission wouldn’t be represented parochially as another demonstration of American supremacy but as an achievement truly to be shared “for all mankind.”

As the most visible part of the U.S. space program, the astronauts were indispensable to media efforts, something that NASA and the USIA realized from the beginning. Some of the astronauts chafed at their public relations duties, but others, such as Glenn, Frank Borman, and Neil Armstrong, turned out to excel as public figures and diplomatic envoys, and some went on to later careers as senators or ambassadors. A certain degree of charisma, political savvy, and articulate stage presence may even have boosted some astronauts’ professional status while they were with NASA. Muir-Harmony observes that according to Armstrong’s biographer James Hansen, Armstrong’s performance on a 1966 tour of South America “may have been influential in 1969 when Armstrong was selected to be the first man on the moon.”

Muir-Harmony’s book is not the first work to focus on the political dimensions of Apollo; Walter A. McDougall’s 1985 “…The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age” is generally considered the most comprehensive treatment, although much further work using new sources has appeared since then. “Operation Moonglow ” is a significant addition to that literature, not just from the perspective of space history but also as a detailed examination of the carefully crafted use of soft power — or, as some might prefer to call it, propaganda — in the service of effective diplomacy and international relations. Muir-Harmony, the curator of the Apollo collection at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, draws on State Department, NASA, and USIA archives along with personal interviews with Apollo astronauts to portray how their courageous exploits in space were spun into political bounty on Earth.

“Operation Moonglow” ends after Apollo 11 in 1969, but the last flight of an Apollo spacecraft was in 1975 with the joint U.S.-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz project, perhaps the most blatantly politically-motivated mission of all as an elaborate exercise in geopolitical detente. Yet it also served as a legitimate test of orbital rendezvous and rescue techniques and laid the foundations for the U.S.-Russian cooperation in space that would come much later. Now, Apollo’s achievements are paving the way for a return to the moon. Perhaps Apollo was born out of politics, but it’s continuing to pay political, scientific, and even cultural dividends well into the 21st century. Sometimes, it seems, even propaganda can be a positive thing.

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New species of crested dinosaur identified in Mexico



A team of palaeontologists in Mexico have identified a new species of dinosaur after finding its 72 million-year-old fossilized remains almost a decade ago, Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) said on Thursday.

The new species, named Tlatolophus galorum, was identified as a crested dinosaur after 80% of its skull was recovered, allowing experts to compare it to other dinosaurs of that type, INAH said.

The investigation, which also included specialists from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, began in 2013 with the discovery of an articulated tail in the north-central Mexican state of Coahuila, where other discoveries have been made.

“Once we recovered the tail, we continued digging below where it was located. The surprise was that we began to find bones such as the femur, the scapula and other elements,” said Alejandro Ramírez, a scientist involved in the discovery.

Later, the scientists were able to collect, clean and analyze other bone fragments from the front part of the dinosaur’s body.

The palaeontologists had in their possession the crest of the dinosaur, which was 1.32 meters long, as well as other parts of the skull: lower and upper jaws, palate and even a part known as the neurocranium, where the brain was housed, INAH said.

The Mexican anthropology body also explained the meaning of the name – Tlatolophus galorum – for the new species of dinosaur.

Tlatolophus is a mixture of two words, putting together a term from the indigenous Mexican language of Nahuatl that means “word” with the Greek term meaning “crest”. Galorum refers to the people linked to the research, INAH said.


(Reporting by Abraham Gonzalez; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Ana Nicolaci da Costa)

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Alberta family searches for answers in teen's sudden death after COVID exposure, negative tests –



A southern Alberta mother and father are grappling with the sudden, unexplained death of their 17-year-old daughter, and with few answers, they’re left wondering if she could be the province’s youngest victim of COVID-19.

Sarah Strate — a healthy, active Grade 12 student at Magrath High School who loved singing, dancing and being outdoors — died on Monday, less than a week after being notified she’d been exposed to COVID-19.

While two tests came back negative, her parents say other signs point to the coronavirus, and they’re waiting for more answers. 

“It was so fast. It’s all still such a shock,” said Sarah’s mother, Kristine Strate. “She never even coughed. She had a sore throat and her ears were sore for a while, and [she had] swollen neck glands.”

Kristine said Sarah developed mild symptoms shortly after her older sister — who later tested positive for COVID-19 —  visited from Lethbridge, one of Alberta’s current hot spots for the virus.

The family went into isolation at their home in Magrath on Tuesday, April 20. They were swabbed the next day and the results were negative.

‘Everything went south, super-fast’

By Friday night, Sarah had developed fever and chills. On Saturday, she started vomiting and Kristine, a public health nurse, tried to keep her hydrated.

“She woke up feeling a bit more off on Monday morning,” Kristine said. “And everything went south, super-fast.”

Sarah had grown very weak and her parents decided to call 911 when she appeared to become delirious.

“She had her blanket on and I was talking to her and, in an instant, she was unresponsive,” said Kristine, who immediately started performing CPR on her daughter.

When paramedics arrived 20 minutes later, they were able to restore a heartbeat and rushed Sarah to hospital in Lethbridge, where she died.

“I thought there was hope once we got her heart rate back. I really did,” recalled Sarah’s father, Ron.

“He was praying for a miracle, and sometimes miracles don’t come,” said Kristine.

Strate’s parents say her health deteriorated quickly after being exposed to COVID-19. She died at Chinook Regional Hospital in Lethbridge on Monday. (Ron Strate)

Searching for answers

At the hospital, the family was told Sarah’s lungs were severely infected and that she may have ended up with blood clots in both her heart and lungs, a condition that can be a complication of COVID-19.

But a second test at the hospital came back negative for COVID-19.

“There really is no other answer,” Ron said. “When a healthy 17-year-old girl, who was sitting up in her bed and was able to talk, and within 10 minutes is unconscious on our floor — there was no reason [for it].”

The province currently has no record of any Albertans under the age of 20 who have died of COVID-19.

According to the Strate family, the medical examiner is running additional blood and tissue tests, in an effort to uncover the cause of Sarah’s death.

‘Unusual but not impossible’

University of Alberta infectious disease specialist Dr. Lynora Saxinger, who was not involved in Sarah’s treatment, says it is conceivable that further testing could uncover evidence of a COVID-19 infection, despite two negative test results.

However, she hasn’t seen a similar case in Alberta.

“It would be unusual but not impossible because no test is perfect. We have had cases where an initial test is negative and then if you keep on thinking it’s COVID and you re-test, you then can find COVID,” she said.

According to Saxinger, the rate of false negatives is believed to be very low. But it can happen if there are problems with the testing or specimen collection.

She says people are more likely to test positive after symptoms develop. 

“The best sensitivity of the test is around day four or five of having symptoms,” she said. “So you can miss things if you test very, very early. And with new development of symptoms, it’s always a good time to re-test because then the likelihood of getting a positive test is a little higher. But again, no test is perfect.” 

Sarah deteriorated so quickly — dying five days after she first developed symptoms — she didn’t live long enough to make it to her follow-up COVID-19 test. Instead, it was done at the hospital.

‘An amazing kid’

The Strate family now faces an agonizing wait for answers — one that will likely take months — about what caused Sarah’s death.

But Ron, who teaches at the school where Sarah attended Grade 12, wants his daughter to be remembered for the life she lived, not her death.

Strate, pictured here at three years old, had plans to become a massage therapist. She attended Grade 12 at Magrath High School and was an active, healthy teenager who was involved in sports, music and the school’s suicide prevention group. (Ron Strate)

Sarah was one of five children. Ron says she was strong, active and vibrant and had plans to become a massage therapist after graduating from high school.

She played several sports and loved to sing and dance as part of a show choir. She was a leader in the school’s suicide prevention group and would stand up for other students who were facing bullying.

“She’s one of the leaders in our Hope Squad … which goes out and helps kids to not be scared,” he father said.

“She’s an amazing kid.”

Sarah would often spend hours helping struggling classmates, and her parents hope her kindness is not forgotten.

“She’d done so many good things. Honestly, I’ve got so many messages from parents saying, ‘You have no idea how much your daughter helped our kid,'” said Ron.

“This 17-year-old girl probably lived more of a life in 17 years than most adults will live in their whole lives. She was so special. I love her so much.”

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China launches key module of space station planned for 2022



BEIJING (Reuters) -China launched an unmanned module on Thursday containing what will become living quarters for three crew on a permanent space station that it plans to complete by the end of 2022, state media reported.

The module, named “Tianhe”, or “Harmony of the Heavens”, was launched on the Long March 5B, China’s largest carrier rocket, at 11:23 a.m. (0323 GMT) from the Wenchang Space Launch Centre on the southern island of Hainan.

Tianhe is one of three main components of what would be China’s first self-developed space station, rivalling the only other station in service – the International Space Station (ISS).

The ISS is backed by the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada. China was barred from participating by the United States.

“(Tianhe) is an important pilot project in the building of a powerful nation in both technology and in space,” state media quoted President Xi Jinping as saying in a congratulatory speech.

Tianhe forms the main living quarters for three crew members in the Chinese space station, which will have a life span of at least 10 years.

The Tianhe launch was the first of 11 missions needed to complete the space station, which will orbit Earth at an altitude of 340 to 450 km (211-280 miles).

In the later missions, China will launch the two other core modules, four manned spacecraft and four cargo spacecraft.

Work on the space station programme began a decade ago with the launch of a space lab Tiangong-1 in 2011, and later, Tiangong-2 in 2016.

Both helped China test the programme’s space rendezvous and docking capabilities.

China aims to become a major space power by 2030. It has ramped up its space programme with visits to the moon, the launch of an uncrewed probe to Mars and the construction of its own space station.

In contrast, the fate of the ageing ISS – in orbit for more than two decades – remains uncertain.

The project is set to expire in 2024, barring funding from its partners. Russia said this month that it would quit the project from 2025.

Russia is deepening ties with China in space as tensions with Washington rise.

Moscow has slammed the U.S.-led Artemis moon exploration programme and instead chosen to join Beijing in setting up a lunar research outpost in the coming years.

(Reporting by Ryan Woo and Liangping Gao; Editing by Christian Schmollinger, Simon Cameron-Moore and Lincoln Feast.)

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