Neil Armstrong's star. Photo: Getty Images
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After Neil Armstrong

What future for space exploration?

To mark the death of Neil Armstrong, we have republished this 2008 assessment of Nasa on its 50th birthday

Fifty years ago this month, President Eisenhower announced he was going to end his nation's space race humiliations. He would be establishing a national aeronautical agency that would control America's civil rocket launches and restore the country's ailing scientific reputation. The Soviet Union was then grabbing world headlines with space spectaculars that included putting the first animal, Laika the dog, into orbit. By contrast, America had little else but explosions and ignition failures on launch pads to show for its efforts in postwar rocketry. A National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) would stop the rot and restore America's faltering space endeavours, Eisenhower told Congress on 2 April 1958.

Thus Nasa, which went on to earn itself a reputation for unfailing technological expertise, was brought into existence primarily to save America from political ignominy. Grand schemes for traversing the heavens and revolutionising space exploration were afterthoughts. And thereby hangs a tale. In coming months, as the agency celebrates its 50th birthday and displays itself as the source of endless technological triumphs, there will be much harking back to glory days: to US flags planted on the Moon and to giant leaps made for mankind.

But behind the bunting and the bombast, it will be hard to avoid the sense of unease hanging over Nasa. Yes, it has achieved great things, but it is also beset by major political and financial worries. This, after all, is one of the world's most lavishly funded scientific organisations, an agency with an annual budget of $16bn (£8bn). American taxpayers who provide that money are entitled to see significant results. The question is: do they get enough of them? After 50 years, has the agency done enough to justify the money that has been pumped into it? What has it done for science and, more importantly, what is it likely to do in the future? Answers to these questions make disturbing reading.

For a start, we should note that Nasa has now less than a dozen flights to make on the space shuttle, the only craft it has for putting human beings into space. In 2010, its shuttle fleet is to be grounded permanently; the risks of another Challenger or Columbia disaster occurring are considered to be too high to be endured. Thus, in a couple of years, Nasa will be unable to send men and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS), even though its $100bn cost has been met principally by US taxpayers. Instead America will be entirely dependent - until 2014 or 2015 when replacement rockets are ready - on Russia to get men and women into space, a situation that Moscow is likely to use, primarily, to extort geopolitical concessions from the US.

But how on Earth has Nasa ended up rocket-less and technologically impotent? Most agency supporters blame politicians. Nasa has certainly been shunted in every possible direction by different White House administrations, many of them deeply suspicious of and unfriendly towards space exploration. The claim is only partially valid, however - for Nasa, right from the start, has tried to control political agendas as much as it has let itself be shaped by them, according to the historian Gerard DeGroot, author of Dark Side of the Moon. In 1960 John F Kennedy used US space failures to attack the Republican Party and win the presidency by claiming America was dangerously exposed to Russian rocket attacks. He exaggerated Soviet space achievements and underplayed America's. Nasa, which might have been expected to defend its reputation, said nothing: it knew it would flourish under Kennedy. "Thus Kennedy was like Nasa," says DeGroot. "On the surface, both were handsome, articulate, bold and brave. Underneath, both were manipulative, mendacious, scheming and untrustworthy."

Later Kennedy found he had inherited an agency that was devouring more cash than any other federal programme. However, the president was assassinated before he got a chance to do something about this haemorrhaging of money. The space programme became a homage to the dead president and therefore untouchable, adds DeGroot.

Then came the Apollo Moon landings, which were Nasa's crowning glories, though it should also be noted that many serious risks - the launching of untested equipment, technical short cuts and use of untried software - were taken, but revealed only decades later. Apollo 8 was originally scheduled for only an Earth orbit mission, for example, but at the last minute was sent to circle the Moon in 1968 to restore Nasa's slipping lunar landing schedule. The world marvelled to hear astronauts reading from the Book of Genesis while in lunar orbit. Yet the mission was "the greatest single gamble in space flight then and since", according to the astronaut Deke Slayton. "We didn't even have the software to fly Apollo in Earth orbit, much less the Moon."

Nevertheless, Nasa pulled through, survived the near destruction of Apollo 13 and flew its last lunar mission, Apollo 17, in 1972. After that it was downhill all the way. The space shuttle, first launched in 1981, was intended to be a space truck that would fly missions every week once its four-craft fleet was in operation. Nasa was going to make space travel commonplace.

But the spaceship - although brilliantly engineered and constructed - possessed a crucial design flaw. Instead of sitting on top of fuel tanks filled with thousands of tonnes of high explosives, the shuttle was strapped to the side of them. There would be no escape should these tanks explode - as they did on 28 January 1986, destroying the shuttle Challenger. And when pieces of insulation fell off the top of fuel tanks during launch, they often hit the shuttle below, as they did on 16 January 2003 when Challenger's sister craft Columbia sustained wing damage that caused it to disintegrate during its re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere 16 days later. Those two accidents claimed the lives of 14 astronauts, a death toll that makes the spaceship one of the least safe forms of transport in existence. Hence the decision to scrap it in 2010.

And finally there is the International Space Station. Conceived in the Reagan era as a Cold War response to the Soviet Union's Mir station, it was remodelled by Bill Clinton's administration as an international orbiting laboratory that would keep Russian space scientists out of the hands of rogue nations after the Soviet Union disintegrated. The station - which also depends on Canadian, European and Japanese involvement - has already taken ten years to reach its current half-complete status and its costs so far are staggering. Not a single piece of scientific data of any worth has been produced in that time. Nor is any expected for the foreseeable future. Thus Nasa's most palpable legacy, as it celebrates its 50th birthday, is the most expensive and wasteful piece of technology ever constructed, a device built to satisfy political aspirations but incapable of solving a single important scientific problem. Moreover, the agency will soon have no means of its own to reach this orbiting white elephant.

As to the future, Nasa is committed to the development and use, around 2015, of Orion and Ares rockets - its shuttle replacement launchers - for which men and women will be put back in capsules that will ride on top of rockets just as Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins flew towards the Moon on top of a giant Saturn V booster. This will be the technology that will take human beings to the Moon by 2020 and to Mars a couple of decades later, says Nasa.

Just why mankind is returning to the Moon is unclear. Nor is it obvious that the manned exploration of Mars is anyway justified by the costs involved. In any case, the funding for such missions has yet to be pledged by the White House, which has merely indicated a general desire that Nasa aim for these goals.



Robot missions

At the end of the day, Nasa is beset by the most fundamental of all problems that concerns space travel: thinking of a good reason why men and women should undertake it. In an age of mini aturisation and telecommunication marvels, astronauts waste space, oxygen, room and payload. Yet Nasa's raison d'être was, above all else, to put human beings into space and, in particular, to get Americans higher and further than Russians. Everything else that it has done has been an afterthought. Yet humans have brought nothing but trouble to the agency.

By contrast, Nasa's unmanned space probes have produced magnificent returns and demonstrate what the agency can do when it is left to get on with science. Its robot missions have shown us that Venus is a searing, acid-shrouded hell; that Saturn and Jupiter have moons with ice-covered oceans; that Mars has canyons and ice-filled craters; and that our own planet is now suffering from serious climatic change.

Best of all, however, have been the stunning photographs of distant galaxies, stars and nebulae gathered by the Hubble Space Telescope. These are the most popular by-products of any Nasa endeavour - by a long way. Yet their cost represents a tiny fraction of the money spent by the agency on human space flight.

Nasa clearly has the "know-how" to explore space. After 50 years, that much is clear. But demonstrating that prowess while saddled with projects such as the ISS and a new set of manned Moon launches has become a challenge that will stretch Nasa to its limits. This, in short, is an agency that badly needs to find a way to free itself from the shackles of its past.

Robin McKie is science editor of the Observer


NASA by numbers

1958 US Space Act establishes National Aeronautics and Space Administration

1961 Yuri Gagarin is first man in space

1965 Alexei Leonov takes first space walk

1969 Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land on the Moon

1986 Launch of Mir space station; Challenger explodes on take-off

1990 Hubble Space Telescope sent into orbit

1993 International Space Station (ISS) project established with support of 16 countries

2003 Columbia disintegrates on re-entry into Earth's atmosphere

2004 Nasa's rover robots look for water on Mars

2010 ISS due to be completed; shuttle comes out of service

Research by Simon Rudd

This article first appeared in the 07 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, British jihad

An artist's version of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler blamed on the communists. CREDIT: DEZAIN UNKIE/ ALAMY
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The art of the big lie: the history of fake news

From the Reichstag fire to Stalin’s show trials, the craft of disinformation is nothing new.

We live, we’re told, in a post-truth era. The internet has hyped up postmodern relativism, and created a kind of gullible cynicism – “nothing is true, and who cares anyway?” But the thing that exploits this mindset is what the Russians call dezinformatsiya. Disinformation – strategic deceit – isn’t new, of course. It has played a part in the battle that has raged between mass democracy and its enemies since at least the First World War.

Letting ordinary people pick governments depends on shared trust in information, and this is vulnerable to attack – not just by politicians who want to manipulate democracy, but by those on the extremes who want to destroy it. In 1924, the first Labour government faced an election. With four days to go, the Daily Mail published a secret letter in which the leading Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev heralded the government’s treaties with the Soviets as a way to help recruit British workers for Leninism. Labour’s vote actually went up, but the Liberal share collapsed, and the Conservatives returned to power.

We still don’t know exactly who forged the “Zinoviev Letter”, even after exhaustive investigations of British and Soviet intelligence archives in the late 1990s by the then chief historian of the Foreign Office, Gill Bennett. She concluded that the most likely culprits were White Russian anti-Bolsheviks, outraged at Labour’s treaties with Moscow, probably abetted by sympathetic individuals in British intelligence. But whatever the precise provenance, the case demonstrates a principle that has been in use ever since: cultivate your lie from a germ of truth. Zinoviev and the Comintern were actively engaged in trying to stir revolution – in Germany, for example. Those who handled the letter on its journey from the forger’s desk to the front pages – MI6 officers, Foreign Office officials, Fleet Street editors – were all too ready to believe it, because it articulated their fear that mass democracy might open the door to Bolshevism.

Another phantom communist insurrection opened the way to a more ferocious use of disinformation against democracy. On the night of 27 February 1933, Germany’s new part-Nazi coalition was not yet secure in power when news started to hum around Berlin that the Reichstag was on fire. A lone left-wing Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, was caught on the site and said he was solely responsible. But Hitler assumed it was a communist plot, and seized the opportunity to do what he wanted to do anyway: destroy them. The suppression of the communists was successful, but the claim it was based on rapidly collapsed. When the Comintern agent Gyorgy Dimitrov was tried for organising the fire, alongside fellow communists, he mocked the charges against him, which were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Because it involves venturing far from the truth, disinformation can slip from its authors’ control. The Nazis failed to pin blame on the communists – and then the communists pinned blame on the Nazis. Dimitrov’s comrade Willi Münzenberg swiftly organised propaganda suggesting that the fire was too convenient to be Nazi good luck. A “counter-trial” was convened in London; a volume called The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror was rushed into print, mixing real accounts of Nazi persecution of communists – the germ of truth again – with dubious documentary evidence that they had started the fire. Unlike the Nazis’ disinformation, this version stuck, for decades.

Historians such as Richard Evans have argued that both stories about the fire were false, and it really was one man’s doing. But this case demonstrates another disinformation technique still at work today: hide your involvement behind others, as Münzenberg did with the British great and good who campaigned for the Reichstag prisoners. In the Cold War, the real source of disinformation was disguised with the help of front groups, journalistic “agents of influence”, and the trick of planting a fake story in an obscure foreign newspaper, then watching as the news agencies picked it up. (Today, you just wait for retweets.)

In power, the Nazis made much use of a fictitious plot that did, abominably, have traction: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged text first published in Russia in 1903, claimed to be a record of a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world – not least by means of its supposed control of everyone from bankers to revolutionaries. As Richard Evans observes, “If you subject people to a barrage of lies, in the end they’ll begin to think well maybe they’re not all true, but there must be something in it.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler argued that the “big lie” always carries credibility – an approach some see at work not only in the Nazis’ constant promotion of the Protocols but in the pretence that their Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 was spontaneous. (It is ironic that Hitler coined the “big lie” as part of an attack on the Jews’ supposed talent for falsehood.) Today, the daring of the big lie retains its force: even if no one believes it, it makes smaller untruths less objectionable in comparison. It stuns opponents into silence.

Unlike the Nazis, the Bolshevik leaders were shaped by decades as hunted revolutionaries, dodging the Tsarist secret police, who themselves had had a hand in the confection of the Protocols. They occupied the paranoid world of life underground, governed by deceit and counter-deceit, where any friend could be an informer. By the time they finally won power, disinformation was the Bolsheviks’ natural response to the enemies they saw everywhere. And that instinct endures in Russia even now.

In a competitive field, perhaps the show trial is the Soviet exercise in upending the truth that is most instructive today. These sinister theatricals involved the defendants “confessing” their crimes with great
sincerity and detail, even if the charges were ludicrous. By 1936, Stalin felt emboldened to drag his most senior rivals through this process – starting with Grigory Zinoviev.

The show trial is disinformation at its cruellest: coercing someone falsely to condemn themselves to death, in so convincing a way that the world’s press writes it up as truth. One technique involved was perfected by the main prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky, who bombarded the defendants with insults such as “scum”, “mad dogs” and “excrement”. Besides intimidating the victim, this helped to distract attention from the absurdity of the charges. Barrages of invective on Twitter are still useful for smearing and silencing enemies.


The show trials were effective partly because they deftly reversed the truth. To conspire to destroy the defendants, Stalin accused them of conspiring to destroy him. He imposed impossible targets on straining Soviet factories; when accidents followed, the managers were forced to confess to “sabotage”. Like Hitler, Stalin made a point of saying the opposite of what he did. In 1936, the first year of the Great Terror, he had a rather liberal new Soviet constitution published. Many in the West chose to believe it. As with the Nazis’ “big lie”, shameless audacity is a disinformation strategy in itself. It must have been hard to accept that any regime could compel such convincing false confessions, or fake an entire constitution.

No one has quite attempted that scale of deceit in the post-truth era, but reversing the truth remains a potent trick. Just think of how Donald Trump countered the accusation that he was spreading “fake news” by making the term his own – turning the charge on his accusers, and even claiming he’d coined it.

Post-truth describes a new abandonment of the very idea of objective truth. But George Orwell was already concerned that this concept was under attack in 1946, helped along by the complacency of dictatorship-friendly Western intellectuals. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he warned in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on pain of damnation, but on the other hand they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.”

A few years later, the political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that Nazis and Stalinists, each immersed in their grand conspiratorial fictions, had already reached this point in the 1930s – and that they had exploited a similar sense of alienation and confusion in ordinary people. As she wrote in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” There is a reason that sales of Arendt’s masterwork – and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – have spiked since November 2016.

During the Cold War, as the CIA got in on the act, disinformation became less dramatic, more surreptitious. But show trials and forced confessions continued. During the Korean War, the Chinese and North Koreans induced a series of captured US airmen to confess to dropping bacteriological weapons on North Korea. One lamented that he could barely face his family after what he’d done. The pilots were brought before an International Scientific Commission, led by the eminent Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham, which investigated the charges. A documentary film, Oppose Bacteriological Warfare, was made, showing the pilots confessing and Needham’s Commission peering at spiders in the snow. But the story was fake.

The germ warfare hoax was a brilliant exercise in turning democracy’s expectations against it. Scientists’ judgements, campaigning documentary, impassioned confession – if you couldn’t believe all that, what could you believe? For the genius of disinformation is that even exposure doesn’t disable it. All it really has to do is sow doubt and confusion. The story was finally shown to be fraudulent in 1998, through documents transcribed from Soviet archives. The transcripts were authenticated by the historian Kathryn Weathersby, an expert on the archives. But as Dr Weathersby laments, “People come back and say ‘Well, yeah, but, you know, they could have done it, it could have happened.’”

There’s an insidious problem here: the same language is used to express blanket cynicism as empirical scepticism. As Arendt argued, gullibility and cynicism can become one. If opponents of democracy can destroy the very idea of shared, trusted information, they can hope to destabilise democracy itself.

But there is a glimmer of hope here too. The fusion of cynicism and gullibility can also afflict the practitioners of disinformation. The most effective lie involves some self-deception. So the show trial victims seem to have internalised the accusations against them, at least for a while, but so did their tormentors. As the historian Robert Service has written, “Stalin frequently lied to the world when he was simultaneously lying to himself.”

Democracy might be vulnerable because of its reliance on the idea of shared truth – but authoritarianism has a way of undermining itself by getting lost in its own fictions. Disinformation is not only a danger to its targets. 

Phil Tinline’s documentary “Disinformation: A User’s Guide” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm, 17 March

This article first appeared in the 07 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, British jihad