Rocket Rhetoric

Paul Dombrowski
University of Central Florida

Spring 2010

I teach undergraduate technical communication courses for both majors and non-majors.  I recently decided to spice up my non-majors course for interdisciplinary honors students, who range from humanities to natural sciences majors. 

The University of Central Florida was created in part to serve the Florida Space Coast, which is just forty miles down the road.  Many of my students grew up watching rocket launches and have parents working for NASA or defense contractors around Kennedy Space Center, so adding a rocketry thrust to the course seemed natural for capturing student attention.  Nevertheless, situating technical communication theory and practice in a real, vivid, and current technological enterprise could work well for similar courses in other locations.

I developed a new honors course, Rocket Rhetoric, and have taught it twice very successfully—the students loved it.  The purpose of the course is to show how rhetoric is involved in the enterprise of space exploration, “rhetoric” understood broadly as persuasion, argumentation, representation, and communication that shapes and is shaped by perceptions, whether in spoken words, typed words, or real or fictive images.

In the course, we cover a broad span of history and so cannot deal with any specific events in great depth.  I begin with the period just after World War II, to set the stage for understanding the historical context and later developments.  This context includes the occupation of Eastern Europe and the standoff in Berlin, and the two superpower leaders, Eisenhower and Kruschev, both famous World War II general.  This historical perspective brings home the warlike geopolitical context of early space exploration.  We examine the words of Eisenhower in response to the launching of Sputnik I, the International Geophysical Year, and the inauguration of NASA, particularly the desire to ground international space exploration in peaceful missions of benefit to all humankind.  (YouTube, www.youtube.com, offers videos of Eisenhower’s response to Sputnik, a frightening rant by Kruschev at the U.N. (from a somewhat different context), and two speeches by Kennedy, one at Rice University announcing his plan to go to the Moon and another in which he almost begs Congress to fund that program.)  At the same time, one finds a mixed message of having to stay ahead of Cold War adversaries.  Based on this background, the class talks about Sputnik, not what it “was” (just a simple aluminum sphere enclosing a primitive ham radio) but what it “meant,” how it was perceived and what it represented among the public, the media, the military, and the fledgling space agency.  Recent revelations and video productions such as Sputnik Declassified (www.pbs.org)  kept students attentive and engaged.

Similarly, we explore a number of other episodes in space exploration, including the controversy about Wernher von Braun, not who he “was” but more what he “meant,” how he was perceived and how the media represented him at different times.  Was he a basically innocent man of science caught up in nasty circumstances, or was he a warmonger complicit in slavery to produce rockets under conditions that led to the miserable deaths of thousands of workers? (Sputnik Declassified has a section titled “A Tainted Legacy” about von Braun, for example.) After all, von Braun appeared on Time magazine’s cover at least four times, once as Man of the Year.  At the same time, we examine his own early work with the U.S. Army, developing ballistic missiles to attack or at least deter military enemies.

Then we explore the monumental Apollo program, which offers a plentitude of rhetorical illustrations.  In the limited time we have in this course, I focus on two episodes.  The first is the first photo of Earth from orbit around the moon as taken by a human, Earthrise above the lunar horizon.  This image from Apollo 8 is one of the most reproduced images of all time, figuring even in Al Gore’s famous video “An Inconvenient Truth.”  There had already been many images of Earth from space, but this one was different, and we explore why and how it was different.  The difference lies not in the image itself but in the fact of the human presence behind the camera as the image was taken, another illustration of the difference between “is” and “means.”  We also contrast reactions to this image against reactions to the very first image of Earth from orbit around the moon, taken robotically by the Lunar Orbiter some years earlier.

The second Apollo episode is the profoundly moving rhetorical impact of the recitation of the first ten verses of the Book of Genesis from the Bible by the three Apollo 8 astronauts as they zipped out from behind the moon on Christmas Eve.  No one who heard those words, so perfectly apt (at least for those of religious faith), will forget that event.  It was rhetorically important in many ways, such as in defusing the militaristic race for space supremacy by supplanting it with a vision of a common humanity and in emphasizing the greatness of a Creator in comparison to the meager achievements and squabbles of humankind.  On the other hand, a similarly important rhetorical effect of their short recitation was the strong objections to this from a number of important figures.

We also examine the space shuttle program, especially in representations that were false, misleading, and ultimately played a part in two major tragedies, in contrast to what it has been, an experimental research vehicle that has never been fully operational.  I use mostly documents from NASA and from the government investigations of the loss of Challenger and Columbia, in order to ground our discussions in authoritative rather than speculative sources.  (The official government reports are available many places, including www.ksc.nasa.gov; I supplement these with a couple of my own articles).  We also listen to and discuss the words of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush as they eulogized the astronauts lost in the Challenger and Columbia disasters, explaining the purpose of these missions and giving humane meaning to these losses.

Later in the course, we have a segment on missile defense.  We look at the shifting representations of the effectiveness of the Patriot missile system in the first Gulf War, and the rhetorical difficulties in even establishing clearly what constitutes an effective intercept of a missile target.  The vivid CNN images of Patriots streaking upward to explode against incoming missiles left the rhetorical impression of clear, remarkable success, but Congressional investigations later showed that all was not as it appeared (see Government Accountability Office/General Accounting Office at www.gao.gov for some of these reports).  Thus, what at first seems like a simple, cut-and-dried determination of technical success was anything but that.  A guest lecturer from UCF’s Political Science department explained the rhetoric of the politics of developing and funding missile defense programs.

The course ends with a couple of classes on the future of space exploration.  One guest lecturer, from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, represents the official government approach involving the Constellation programs with the Ares rockets and the Orion crew exploration vehicle, meant to return to the Moon and later venture to Mars.  Another guest lecturer, from the National Space Society, represents a civilian, populist perspective on future human explorations of the planets and even of the “settlement of space,” analogous to the settling of the American West in the nineteenth century.  He discussed a vision of large permanent cities in space in which people would live out their entire lives.  We asked questions of both presenters about the felt need to go to Mars even though there is no technical usefulness to doing so.  The language, values, presuppositions, and representations of technologic feasibilities—even the rhetorical deliveries—were markedly different and provided rich material for class discussions.

The net result of structuring the course around U.S. space endeavors was to make real and immediate the rhetorical practices of technical communication within a larger context.

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