Tuesday, July 16, marked the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11 to the moon, an occasion whose significance is lost to increasingly dysfunctional political wars on Capitol Hill and across our nation. Today, July 20, is the 50th anniversary of the landing. Some of us are old enough to remember where we were and what we were doing when news of the landing broke.
I was attending the Naval Academy in Annapolis. The subsequent moon walk took place in the late hours of the evening and into the morning in that time zone. We otherwise-incommunicado midshipmen were awakened and taken to see the televised broadcast of history unfolding.
This was the culmination of the Cold War space race with the Soviets, one that started with their orbiting Sputnik in 1957. I remember watching that first satellite in the evening sky for the better part of three months. Sputnik 2 carried aboard an ill-fated pooch named Laika, dubbed “Muttnick” in the United States. I have watched a great many satellites since.
I’ve also dreamed. My intent in going to the Naval Academy (after a year already at the University of Texas engineering school) was naval aviation leading to test-pilot school (assuming I survived air combat in Vietnam), then astronaut selection. My goal was the first mission to Mars, which in the 1960s optimists planned for the 1983, ’85 or ’87 oppositions — in short, when the red planet was at its nearest points to Earth. Well, one can dream.
But stepping back further into time, the United States seemed to play catch-up for several years after Sputnik sparked a certain national anxiety. The Soviets orbited the first man in space, took the first space walk, flew the first woman in space and flew the first multi-person crew. Till 1958, the United States didn’t even have a National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
With exceptions, our effort was a cost-is-no-object, take-some-risks crash program. And the Christmas 1968 Apollo 8 mission around the moon was an example of taking some very serious risks. It was really the first manned test flight of the three-stage, liquid-propellant Saturn V rocket. But it worked. The Soviets’ giant rocket failed too many times while ours did not, which is what led to Apollo 11 and the other five landings. The goal was to beat the Russians to the moon. Mission accomplished.
Yet what we did was less about science, more about experimental test-flight work and national pride — “flag-and-footprint” endeavors versus exploration the way it has been done for more than 500 years. And this was true from the very first Mercury shot (dubbed Freedom 7) carrying aloft Alan Shepard in 1961. All but one of our moon-walking astronauts was an engineering test pilot. Only Harrison Schmitt on the very last landing broke the pattern. He was originally educated as a geologist. Our astronauts were trained to set up experiments and collect certain types of moon rocks, so scientists back home could do the actual science work later. Such work continues. Some moon rocks have yet to be studied.
After those missions, there no longer was any race to win. And because there was no race to win, support for spending large amounts of taxpayer money in space flagged. Typically, funding for science and exploration projects here on Earth was far smaller. Most was non-governmental.
Government funding of space exploration is very politicized. Yes, President John F. Kennedy committed us to a moon landing before 1970, but he was not a fan of the space program till he witnessed a Saturn V engine test. Texan Lyndon Johnson was the real believer in a space program and he convinced Kennedy that beating the Soviets to the moon was not only possible but worthwhile.
The presidential continuity that got this eight-year mission accomplished happened primarily because Johnson succeeded Kennedy after the latter’s 1963 assassination. Richard Nixon, not a big supporter of the space program, succeeded Johnson in 1969. Nixon reveled in its success before TV cameras (including a phone call to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin 50 years ago today in which Nixon said that, because of them, “the heavens have become a part of man’s world”), yet he killed the Apollo moon program at the sixth landing (Apollo 17). We were due to fly another five landing missions through Apollo 22. Unused rockets and capsules are why so many of these items are now on display around our country.
The big-ticket manned space missions since — the space shuttle and International Space Station — have been marvelous initiatives, but they are as much about “workfare” for corporate ventures and pork-barrel politics for the congressional districts from which they originate, even if in parts and pieces. In the long run, however, space exploration is not all about winning a race or even doing pure science for the sake of knowledge. It’s about exploration of the unknown, something hard-wired into humans and inscribed deep in our history. In centuries past, this involved exploration of unknown corners and crevices of the globe.
“Exploration” is an emotionally loaded word. What it truly means is going somewhere to find out what all is there (including resources), where exactly it is and how hard it is to obtain. Then you stay a while to figure out how to use what you found and how to survive the environment.
Is there anything worthwhile to accomplish out there? Definitely. The long term promises off-world settlements and all of their associated economic dynamics and rewards, now a matter of speculation. In the shorter term, possibilities loom of space-resource businesses and planetary protection against rogue asteroids and comets. No better reason exists for continuing unmanned and manned space programs than finding ways to protect the folks back home.
NASA can’t do it all. And it’s almost impossible for the United States to go it alone. Nor can it be done in the expense-is-no-concern manner that more or less characterized much of the Apollo program. Yet it’s important to remember space exploration is risky.
All this requires thinking way outside the boxes of where we’ve been with the Apollo, space shuttle and space station programs. Future exploration will require stronger, more equal partnerships between government and private companies. It means looking beyond the traditional contractor base. Pork-barrel politics must not be allowed to corrupt these endeavors.
Suggestions for the near term: Establish a sustained human presence on the moon. Start small, expand slowly. Send humans to Mars as the fulfillment of a dream centuries old. And when we go, do exploration right and from the first landing. Finally, any vessel capable of taking crews to Mars can take crews to near-Earth asteroids and comets. Visit these, explore them and learn how to defend against their ever impacting Earth. This will one day be extremely important to our children or grandchildren.
Ultimately, that’s who we’re doing all this for, isn’t it?