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The Long Space Age: The Economic Origins of Space Exploration from Colonial America to the Cold War

Author(s):MacDonald, Alexander
Reviewer(s):Salter, Alexander

Published by EH.Net (June 2017)

Alexander MacDonald, The Long Space Age: The Economic Origins of Space Exploration from Colonial America to the Cold War.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017. xi + 258 pp. $35 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-300-21932-6.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Alexander Salter, Rawls College of Business, Texas Tech University.

Alexander MacDonald, an economic historian trained at Oxford currently working as an economist for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and as Senior Economic Advisor with NASA, has written an exciting account of the development of space capability in the United States.  MacDonald’s scholarship is both readable and precise, and this thesis — that private initiative in space has historically been much greater than recognized — certainly challenges conventional interpretations in the literature on the economics of space policy.

In the Introduction, MacDonald makes clear he is undertaking an ambitious project.  The conventional wisdom holds that space exploration was primarily driven by governments, and in particular by competition between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.  The U.S.’s victory with the Apollo 11 landing, and eventual triumph with the waning and collapse of the Soviet Union, saw public activity in space shrink during the latter decades of the twentieth century, with private activity (privately funded commercial and exploratory ventures) just picking up in the first decades of the twenty-first.  MacDonald seeks to turn this narrative on its head.  Instead of government being the senior partner in space exploration and private initiative the junior, MacDonald shows how “if we look at the history of America space exploration on a longer timescale, a very different history emerges — one in which personal initiative and private funding is the dominant trend and government funding a recent one” (p. 3).  This justifies the author’s chosen title: the Space Age is “Long” because it cannot be fully understood without reference to private initiative in funding observatories, the major space exploration technology to precede spacecraft, dating back to the late eighteenth century.

MacDonald begins by surveying the history of celestial observation in America, from colonial days until the mid-nineteenth century.  He does an excellent job of detailing the rise of civic (community-funded) observatories, as well as the subtle shifts in public motives behind celestial exploration.  Most surprising, however, is the statistical information presented in the beginning of the chapter (pp. 15-19).  By adjusting the expenditures on observatories to capture changes in purchasing power (using an index more relevant to large capital outlays, rather than consumer expenditures), and then showing what the equivalent expenditure today would have to be in order for observatory expenditures to remain a constant share of GDP, MacDonald shows that private initiative was capable of mobilizing vast resources.  For example, expenditures on the Lick Observatory, finished in 1876, totaled $188 million in adjusted dollars.  The equivalent expenditure in 2015, as a percentage of GDP, would be over $1.5 billion, making this expenditure larger than many major NASA missions (pp. 14-16).  Altogether, MacDonald shows that expenditure on space-related observational activities from 1820 to 1940 was overwhelmingly private: 96.6% of funds were supplied by the private sector.  The picture that emerges from these statistics, and the narrative to follow, portrays the dominance of private (individual and community-led) initiative in celestial observation.

The second chapter continues the narrative of the development of American observatories, going up until the 1940’s.  One theme of this chapter is the changing means by which observatories were financed, beginning with community-based, and widely-purchased, subscription options, and later moving predominantly to large grants from wealthy philanthropists.  Others include the tensions between community members and professional astronomers in how observatories were used, and the public motives of politicians, astronomers, and the ordinary public in seeing these projects to fruition.

Chapter 3 focuses on the fundraising strategies of aerospace and rocketing pioneer Robert Goddard.  This is the narrowest of the chapters in terms of focus, and perhaps the one least easy to square with MacDonald’s thesis of private initiative in space exploration.  This is because a good deal of Goddard’s funding came from military contracts during and after the First World War.  However, it’s important to note — as MacDonald does — that most funding for Goddard’s projects did come from private sources, most notably the personal fortune of mining magnate Daniel Guggenheim, and later the Guggenheim Foundation (p. 155).

The final chapter brings us to the popular conception of the Space Age: 1957 (Sputnik) and beyond.  MacDonald analyzes national space programs, focusing on that of the United States, as driven by signaling, rather than national prestige per se (pp. 161-163).  MacDonald presents a simple model of two nations competing for allies.  Potential allies want to ally with the stronger of the two nations, but this information is incomplete and asymmetrically distributed.  The two courter nations can signal power by investing in a successful space program.  A successful space program is a good signal because, as the saying goes, such a program is “costly to make and costly to fake.”  MacDonald also analyzes late- and post-Cold War space activities in terms of signaling, although for obvious reasons the precise information to be signaled, and the goals for signaling in the first place, differed from the periods of fiercest competition with the U.S.S.R.

The Conclusion summarizes the arguments and reasserts MacDonald’s chief contribution: showing that private initiative was massively more important, relative to politically-led signaling efforts during the Space Race, to developing space capability than previously thought.  MacDonald also comments on the implications of his arguments for twenty-first century space policy.  Examples include resisting the temptation to rebuild existing organizations, such as NASA, on lines identical to those that existed in these organizations’ heyday, and instead embrace organizational novelty in the development of space capability, as well as recognizing that the private sector can play a much larger role than previously appreciated.

Overall, MacDonald succeeds in his arguments.  He convincingly shows that early astronomical observation was not a separate phenomenon from the later Space Age, but a necessary precursor that should be seen as contiguous with it.  I have only two quibbles with the book.  The first has to do with the discontinuity, for lack of a better word, between the first two chapters and the remaining chapters.  Chapters one and two form a single coherent narrative, whereas the transition to Goddard’s work and the Space Race can sometimes feel like add-ons.  However, this is probably an unavoidable result of a work that has the courage to be eclectic and wide-ranging in scope, and it does not distract from the thesis.  The second quibble has to do with MacDonald’s analysis of signaling and intrinsic motivation, especially in chapter four.  MacDonald introduces these concepts in the Introduction, seemingly indicating that they will be doing substantial work throughout.  But the heaviest lifting has to wait until his analysis of the Space Race.  I agree with MacDonald that these economic tools can shed vital light on the episodes in question; I only wish they had been as extensively applied in chapters one through three as in chapter four.

In conclusion, I strongly recommend MacDonald’s work to any scholars who are interested in issues at the intersection of political economy, economic history, and space issues.  In conjunction with the literature on the feasibility of private legal orders in space (e.g., Buxton 2004; Coffey 2009; Cooper 2003; Hertzfeld and von der Dunk 2005; Hudgins 2002; Salter, 2016, 2017; Salter and Leeson 2014; Simberg 2012a, 2012b; White 2003), MacDonald’s work can and should be used to make the case that private initiative will continue to be an invaluable component of space policy and engagement in the twenty-first century.


Buxton, Carol R.  2004.  Property in Outer Space: The Common Heritage of Mankind Principle vs. the First in Time, First in Right, Rule of Property. Journal of Air Law and Commerce 69: 689-708.

Coffey, Sarah. 2009. Establishing a Legal Framework for Property Rights to Natural Resources in Outer Space. Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law 41(1): 119-147.

Cooper, Lawrence A. 2003. Encouraging Space Exploration through a New Application of Space Property Rights. Space Policy 19(2): 111-118.

Hertzfeld, Henry R., and Frans G. von der Dunk.  2005.  Bringing Space Law into the Commercial World: Property Rights without Sovereignty. Chicago Journal of  International Law 6: 81-100.

Hudgins, Edward L., eds.  2002.  Space: The Free Market Frontier.  Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute.

Salter, Alexander W.  2016.  Space Debris: A Law and Economics Analysis of the Orbital Commons. Stanford Technology Law Review 19(2): 221-238.

Salter, Alexander W.  2017.  Ordering the Cosmos: Private Law and Celestial Property Rights.  Journal of Air Law and Commerce, forthcoming.

Salter, Alexander W. and Leeson, Peter T. 2014. Celestial Anarchy: A Threat to Outer Space Commerce? Cato Journal 34(3): 581-596.

Simberg, Rand. 2012a. Homesteading the Final Frontier: A Practical Proposal for Securing Property Rights in Space. Competitive Enterprise Institute, Issue Analysis No. 3.

Simberg, Rand.  2012b. Property Rights in Space. The New Atlantis: 20-31.

White, W. N. Jr. 2003.  Interpreting Article II of the Outer Space Treaty.  Paper presented at the 54th International Astronautical Conference.

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Subject(s):History of Technology, including Technological Change
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII