Hitting the Books: How NASA helped JFK construct his ‘Nation of Immigrants’

The Apollo 11 moon touchdown was a seminal occasion in American historical past, one etched deeply into our nation’s collective psyche. The occasion ushered in an period of unbridled prospects — the celebs have been lastly coming into attain — and its results have been felt throughout the tradition, from artwork and style to politics and tradition. In After Apollo: Cultural Legacies of the Race to the Moon, a multidisciplinary assortment of historians, researchers and lecturers discover the myriad ways in which placing a person on the moon impacted the American Expertise.

College of Florida Press

Excerpted from “Scientists With out Borders: Immigrants in NASA and the Apollo Program” by Rosanna Perotti from After Apollo: Cultural Legacies of the Race to the Moon, edited by J Bret Bennington and Rodney F. Hill. Gainesville: College of Florida Press, 2023. Reprinted with permission of the College of Florida Press.

House Journey and the Immigrant Expertise

From NASA’s very beginnings, immigrant engineers, scientists, and technicians lent their expertise, labor, and technical expertise to the area program. However area journey itself at all times represented greater than a scientific endeavor. Human spaceflight was one of many “nice desires” of the Sixties, as area historian Valerie Neal reminds us, and as a “huge concept,” spaceflight relied closely on American cultural narratives. The Apollo program (1963–1972) conjured the picture of pioneering the frontier within the Sixties—exploration and discovery have been indispensable to America’s historical past and persevering with redefinition, and People welcomed the frontier as a metaphor for area exploration (Neal 15). The shuttle program (1972–2011) echoed the narrative of People “going to work.” Because the Apollo missions have been changed by the area shuttle, NASA supporters and commentators depicted the shuttle crews with imagery related to blue-collar labor: “astronaut repairmen made service calls in a car typically referred to as an area truck.”

Each of those narratives — “pioneering the frontier” and “getting the job performed” — are intently related to a 3rd narrative that was changing into deeply ingrained in American nationwide id within the Sixties: the parable of the USA as a nation of immigrants and of the immigrant because the spine of America’s egalitarian democracy. This American immigrant fable was not born within the nineteenth and even within the early twentieth century, when immigration was peaking and Congress struggled to impose limitations and quotas. The parable reached vast acceptance solely within the early Sixties. It’s no coincidence that John F. Kennedy offered the immigrant fable most succinctly in his pamphlet, A Nation of Immigrants, in 1963, as Kennedy was getting ready to ask Congress to overtake the nation’s immigration legal guidelines. On the identical time, his administration was urgent furiously to place a person on the Moon by the tip of the last decade, a central purpose of the New Frontier. Apparently, Kennedy’s area proposals have been a much more necessary coverage precedence for the administration than immigration reform (the latter was not achieved till 1965, as we will see later). However his articulation of the “nation of immigrants” narrative supplied highly effective imagery in help of the area program he championed from the beginning of his administration.

Kennedy’s articulation of the advanced immigration fable featured not only a welcoming America, however an idealized immigrant, united with others by little aside from a typical love of freedom. Ours was “a nation of individuals with the contemporary reminiscence of outdated traditions who dared to discover new frontiers, individuals keen to construct lives for themselves in a spacious society that didn’t prohibit their freedom of alternative and motion.” Citing Tocqueville, Kennedy famous that immigrants’ very poverty made them extra inclined towards egalitarian democracy. No enviornment of American life was untouched by the affect of immigrants, and immigrants themselves have been paragons of self-reliance, ingenuity, entrepreneurship, and pioneer spirit. “It was the longer term and never the previous to which he was compelled to handle himself,” Kennedy wrote, describing the motivations of the nineteenth-century immigrant.

Apart from the Negro slave, he might go anyplace and do something his abilities permitted. A sprawling continent lay earlier than him, and he had solely to weld it collectively by canals, by railroads and by roads . . . This has been the inspiration of American inventiveness and ingenuity, of the multiplicity of recent enterprises, and of the success in attaining the best lifestyle anyplace on this planet.

The area program was the subsequent frontier within the pure development towards excellence. It evoked not solely the immigrant’s capability for journey and discovery but additionally his practicality and capability to work arduous and tame his environment. From the time of the English settlers, who “fought a rugged land” within the phrases of Kennedy, immigrants needed to overcome adversity to earn their fortunes and form their atmosphere. That they had labored as artisans, supplied low cost labor for American farms, factories, mills, and mines, and climbed the financial ladder to offer succeeding generations with instructional alternatives. That they had moved ahead to get the job performed. Launched below the motto “Going to Work in House,” the area shuttle was a car that would ship satellites and restore them in orbit, carry industrial payloads, and help a analysis laboratory. Astronauts would perform their work all however rolling up their sleeves as builders and restore technicians, wielding robotic arms and energy hand instruments. Companies might use the shuttle as a workhorse to launch satellites or develop manufacturing capabilities. All of this financial productiveness in area could possibly be anticipated to resonate with a nation whose more and more numerous immigrant workforce was transitioning to a brand new economic system. American society was mirrored not solely symbolically however virtually in NASA’s missions. They produced outcomes that appeared virtually impossibly bold. NASA represented excellence: one of the best work on this planet. House journey additionally mirrored a few of the dangers and hardships of the immigrant expertise. Because the American public started questioning the nation’s funding in area journey by the Nineteen Eighties, advocates harked again to this a part of the immigrant narrative. Within the aftermath of the 1986 Challenger tragedy, the Report of the Advisory Committee on the Way forward for the US House Program (1990) reminded People that acceptance and resilience within the face of failure have been part of America’s pioneer and immigrant legacies:

In a really actual sense, the area program is analogous to the exploration and settlement of the brand new world. On this view, threat and sacrifice are seen to be fixed options of the American expertise. There’s a nationwide heritage of risk-taking handed down from early explorers, immigrants, settlers, and adventurers. It’s this factor of our nationwide character that’s the wellspring of the U.S. area program.

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