If you’re still thinking about Star Wars Day, here is your perfect excuse to keep your space theme for a little longer and roll out those telescopes again: International Space Day is celebrated on the first Friday of May, landing on May 7 this year. After the past year of politics and pandemic, we might all be craving an escape from Earth into the dark, open abyss of space lined with stars. But alas, even in outer space: Here be astronauts and politics. 

It’s no secret that the history of astronautical developments and “Space Race” is steeped in the Cold War events between the US and the Soviet Union. But since then, space travel has become an innocuous part of “American” pop culture, from the many space-centric movies (The Martin, Hidden Figures, Gravity, Interstellar—picking up a theme?) to the popularization of clothing and merchandise with the NASA logo splashed across it. So on International Space Day, as we set up our telescopes and stumble around in the dark with our phones aloft to tell us which direction is north, we might be focused on the sky, trying to find our favorite constellation or imagining what life on Mars is like. 

But don’t be fooled; even International Space Day gets its own politicized history right here on Earth.

The International Space Day originates from the aerospace and defense company Lockheed Martin, a manufacturer for the U.S. Department of Defense and the federal government. The company created the event in 1997, initially called “National Space Day.” It was designed as a one-off event to promote careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. But the widespread popularity of the event continued after that first year. 

By 2001, U.S. Senator and former NASA astronaut John Glenn expanded the celebration to become International Space Day. Glenn, himself, was one of NASA’s first astronauts as part of both the “Mercury Seven” and “Friendship 7” astronauts. In 1959, he was among the first Americans in space. But by the time he was 77 years old in 1998, he was the oldest man in space. 

Between those years, Glenn also had a distinguished career in the military and as a senator. Before being shot into space, Glenn was a U.S. Marine serving in World War II and the Korean War. By the time he came home from Korea, he was already zipping around and creating a record for a transcontinental flight. In 1974, Glenn became a Democratic Senator for his home state of Ohio. He is remembered for his work on the Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees. During his time in Congress, Glenn authored the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act of 1978 to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. Although Glenn failed in his campaign for president in 1984, he remained popular with a 25-year career in Congress before he retired in 1999. He eventually passed away in 2016, at the age of 95.

Glenn is not the only one to have made his mark on International Space Day. After all, there have been so many people, women included, that have played a role in space exploration. But as we celebrate International Space Day, its history in politics, Congress, and the military reminds us that it’s not just efforts in STEM that go into these lofty adventures and endeavors. There is a considerable amount of money, social power, and collective action that gets us to the skies. 

And although National Space Day became International Space Day two decades ago, the political narrative of space exploration and its patriotism has a continued impact till today. Lockheed Martin continues to be one of the major manufacturers for the U.S. military and Department of Defense with contracts in the billions. They’re not alone. Even SpaceX, a much younger company, has military contracts and is tied into billion-dollar deals. NASA’s work has now become inseparably linked to the U.S. Space Force, a military branch. 

So tonight, when you look out at the stars, remember not just the STEM but the history and workforce it took to get there.

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  • Helena Ong

    Helena Ong is a freelance writer and journalist from San Francisco, California. In the past, she's worked at San Francisco Public Press, World Policy Journal, and NBC4 Los Angeles. She graduated from Pomona College, where she served as Production Editor for her college newspaper, The Student Life.