The death of the first man on the moon naturally elicits thoughts of the death of the American manned spaceflight program.
Strictly speaking, it’s not dead.
There are Americans aboard the International Space Station, but given how uncertain the future of that project is, and how unclear it is whether it will lead to anything significant, the ISS is not a satisfying substitute for astronauts on the moon. It’s certainly not as exciting.
NASA is also laying the groundwork for a return to the moon, but we have no assurance that that will really happen — or, if it does, that it will be continued beyond a few missions. Apollo was supposed to be just the beginning of America’s exploration of space, too.
I was part of the Apollo project. I worked at NASA/Houston on the Apollo missions, from the start through Apollo 15. When I arrived there in 1967, the excitement was fresh and the future was wonderful. But by the time I left, it was clear that America had decided to abandon manned spaceflight.
This may be surprising to those who are too young to remember those days and to those who should remember them but weren’t paying attention at the time.
Support for the moon-landing program was never unanimous. On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy said: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.” Immediately, there were those who objected, insisting that the money would be better spent on Earth. Those objections grew louder as the manned space program progressed. Arthur C. Clarke pointed out that objecting to the money spent on the space program while ignoring the immense amount being spent on the military — a disparity that’s far greater now than it was then — was equivalent to a policeman arresting a jaywalker while ignoring a nearby bank robbery. But Clarke was preaching to the choir — to people like me.
Still, enthusiasm and support for the program were generally high in the early days. I let myself believe that America was committed to spreading human exploration and settlement across the Solar System just as it had earlier done in the American West. Putting aside the question of whether that’s a romanticized, idealized, and very incomplete version of our westward expansion, it certainly is how Americans see themselves and how we view, or used to view, our destiny.
However, even before Apollo 11, carrying Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, lifted off, polls showed a sudden and dramatic drop in public support for the manned spaceflight program. There was at least one group of social activists who showed up at the Apollo 11 launch itself to protest the money being spent on the space program. America wasn’t in love with the idea of exploring the universe, after all. Like a toddler, it had been suddenly attracted to a shiny, new toy, and just as suddenly, it had lost interest.
During my remaining time at NASA, I saw constant layoffs and a steady reduction in the number of Apollo missions. The people whose job it was to devise post-Apollo missions — that whole exploration and settling of the Solar System thing — were laid off and their group was eliminated. It was clear that the increasingly abbreviated Apollo program was now a dead end.
One of the Apollo program’s strongest and most effective opponents was Senator Ted Kennedy, the surviving Kennedy brother, the younger brother of the man whose soaring vision and soaring words had sent Americans to the moon. By contrast, Ted Kennedy’s words were angry and hostile.
After one major NASA budget cut Kennedy pushed through the Senate, NASA eliminated whatever it could that wasn’t directly mission related. That included a group of highly paid PhDs in Cambridge, Massachusetts who were working on very blue-sky future technology ideas. They weren’t contributing at all to the ongoing missions or the few missions that remained, so they had to go. That office was eliminated. Kennedy blew his top. In a furious speech, he attacked NASA for dumping those fine Americans who had families to support. Many of my colleagues, laid off by NASA and private aerospace companies contracting with NASA, also had families to support, but they didn’t live in Massachusetts, so clearly they were of no consequence to him.
I’m a very liberal Democrat. I supported Ted Kennedy in later years, and I was saddened when his illness effectively ended his political career. Nonetheless, when my fellow liberals mourned the death of the Lion of the Senate, I couldn’t help but hark back to those bitter days when Apollo was being slowly killed.
I’ll give my side of the political spectrum this much credit, though. Their shortsighted objection to spending money on spaceflight, in particular manned spaceflight, stems from the laudable goal of wanting to spend the money on helping their fellow citizens instead.
Indeed, we should be spending far, far more money on rebuilding and strengthening our social safety net, schools, and infrastructure. We should be instituting free, universal health care. We should be giving much more civilian foreign aid than we do.
The problem, of course, is that the money for all of that should be coming, not from cuts to NASA, but from massive cuts to military spending and far higher taxes on the rich.
Obviously, we’re not headed in that direction, not even if the nominal Democrat now in the White House is reelected — and he’s the best Democrat we’re going to get in the current political environment.
If the smirking plutocrat the Republican Party will nominate next week wins the election, matters will be far, far worse. The upward shift in wealth will accelerate, with money flowing even faster from those who can least afford to lose it to those who least need it. The social safety net, infrastructure, and schools will continue to deteriorate, but so will publicly funded science and technology, including NASA.
Some day there will be settlements on other worlds, but they won’t be American.
The toddler who so quickly lost interest in those shiny space toys is an easily frightened child. This is certainly not the land of the brave, no matter what the national anthem says. Overblown, unrealistic fears of urban crime have led to soaring gun ownership. Americans have sheepishly acquiesced to ever more burdensome restrictions on travel and speech and to a grotesquely inflated military budget because of their fear of terrorists hiding under their beds and in their closets.
So we spend our substance destroying our social and physical environment and providing welfare to arms manufacturers instead of exploring the universe. We have turned away from the future. We have turned destructively inward. We have let ourselves be gulled into thinking that we are encompassed by peril, when in truth we are surrounded by wonders.