The History of Science II

Primary Source Research Paper:

“What Ever Happened to ‘Star Wars’?”

The Speech. On March 23, 1983, Americans watched one of the most unusual and historic speeches in U.S. history. Broadcasting from the Oval Office, President Ronald Reagan gave a nationally televised address in which he unveiled a controversial proposal, the Strategic Defense Initiative. Critics pounced the notion, and they gave it the mocking moniker of “Star Wars.” (What would Luke, Darth, and Yoda think of that?)
What Reagan proposed was a high-tech, super-sophisticated missile defense shield that would use lasers and “particle beams” to shoot down Soviet missiles that were launched to attack the U.S. The plan seemed far-fetched, the stuff of science fiction, and the speech might not have even received proper vetting at the White House. Two prominent Cabinet officers, Secretary of State George Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, learned about the speech’s contents only two days before Reagan addressed the nation. Both disagreed with the SDI initiative. The notion of SDI might have come directly from Reagan’s imagination. Was it fanciful, dangerous, wise, visionary, or something in-between? For this paper, you are going to have to reconcile the conflicting views and controversy surrounding “Star Wars” and render a judgment on the program.


Your paper should be shaped along the following framework.

Introduction. A short (and I mean short!—no more than three sentences) paragraph that states your thesis.

Reaction. After Reagan gave the speech, many media outlets and politicians roasted it with ridicule. Others gave scorching criticism. Why? On the face of it, the notion might have seemed intriguing, even sensible—an outer space barrier to protect Americans from annihilation during nuclear attack. So why did opposition crystallize so fast? What did critics say? In particular, can you find scientists who attacked the proposal?
Besides the president, did anyone support the plan? (Please do not quote from the speech here—that is too obvious.) How did supporters defend it? What did they tout as SDI’s virtues? Did any scientists favor the idea? What did members of the military say?

1980s Progress and Budget. Here are questions you should try to answer: What happened to SDI after Reagan promulgated it? During the 1980s, what progress did scientists make on SDI? Within the federal government, what institutional apparatus was established to guide research? Did the research take place under the Pentagon’s direction? What was SDI’s annual research budget, and how much money was spent on SDI for the rest of the decade? Were any eminent scientists involved? Did SDI research take place at any STEM universities? Did Reagan ever mention SDI again to the public? If so, what did he say? If not, did reporters try to pry information out of the administration? Did Reagan give updates or

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