Undergraduate Honors Theses

Thesis Defended

Spring 2016

Document Type


Type of Thesis

Departmental Honors


International Affairs

First Advisor

Lisa Dilling

Second Advisor

Victoria Hunter

Third Advisor

Jack Burns


This paper documents how the narrative of space exploration in the United States (U.S.) has changed from the Cold War to today. It examines the policy and rhetoric of eight U.S. presidential administrations in regards to space exploration: Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama. The paper also discusses how the overall field of space exploration has changed over time. To investigate this narrative, the paper first examines the history of U.S. space exploration from the Cold War to today, and also examines three current conditions of the field of space exploration, including: 1) the increasing role of the private sector, 2) the influence of global politics and specifically the emergence of China as a global space power, and 3) the current focus on a manned mission to Mars. The Cold War was a period in which the direct competition between the United States and the Soviet Union played out within the field of space exploration. This meant that space initiatives in the U.S. were predominantly centered and motivated around themes of national prestige and pride. However, after the end of the Cold War, there is a shift in U.S. space goals, toward increased interest in the benefits of international collaboration and cooperation. The shift demonstrates the effect of modern globalization, as well as the realities of a space exploration field that increasingly encompasses many different players beyond just the United States and the Soviet Union. In order to further understand the narrative of U.S. space exploration, the paper compiles a list of five rhetorical themes: competition, prestige, collaboration, leadership, and a new paradigm. These themes are then utilized to analyze the content of forty documents over the course of space exploration history in the U.S. from the aforementioned eight U.S. presidential administrations. The historical narrative and content analysis together suggest that space exploration has developed from a straightforward, bipolar arena between the United States and the Soviet Union, into a complicated field that encompasses many new players in the national to the industrial realms. The results also suggest that the United States is currently at a crossroads in which the U.S. must quickly make a decision on how it wants to participate in this changing field of space exploration. This paper identifies three challenges regarding U.S. space policy in the current era. These three challenges are: 1) there is a disconnect between stated policy goals in American space exploration efforts and the implementation of those goals, 2) the United States communicates mixed messages regarding its intent to be both the dominant leader in the field of space exploration and committed as a participant in international collaboration, and 3) the United States cannot remain a true pioneer of space exploration if it does not embrace the realities of globalization and the changing dynamics within the field of space exploration. After discussing the above three challenges, the paper recommends that: 1) U.S. government and NASA should critically examine space exploration priorities and commit to implementing a program that will further realistic and robust stated policy and goals, 2) the U.S. should reexamine its intention to play a dominant leadership role in space exploration, and consider emphasizing a commitment toward active participation in international collaboration in space, and 3) the United States should fully embrace the new paradigm of space exploration by - lowering barriers like ITAR that hinder the competitiveness of the American space industry, committing to collaborative endeavors with rising space-faring nations such as China and abandoning Cold War era thinking, and paving the way to Mars by encouraging the participation of many nations and space agencies on future manned missions.