Time to Rethink NASA
Leave human spaceflight largely to the private sector, and create a quasi-military Space Guard.

Astronaut Michael Good in the cargo bay of space shuttle Atlantis in 2009 (NASA)


Sunday is the 45th anniversary of the first Apollo landing. A little less than three and a half years later, the last men left the moon. As I noted Friday at USA Today: “For over four decades now, no one has gone further than a couple of hundred miles or so, a thousand times less distant, from our home planet.” The question we must ask is why we spent so much to go elsewhere in the solar system and then almost completely abandoned the effort. I pointed out in the column that the Apollo moon program was not so much about exploring space for the good of humanity as about beating the Soviets in the race to land on the moon. Paradoxically, our victory in the space race has led to what I call the Apollo Cargo Cult, similar to the cargo cults that arose among the Melanesians in their effort to lure back the Westerners who had once arrived bearing riches — and then left:

Many in the space community, remembering the glory of Apollo, repeatedly attempt to recreate it, not understanding the historical contingencies that improbably allowed it. They recall the goal, the date, and the ridiculously expensive large rocket, and hope that if only they can somehow repeat those things, we will once again send men (and this time women) out beyond low earth orbit. They lack the vision to conceive any other way of opening the solar system, though what has actually trapped us circling the earth for over 40 years is not the lack of a giant rocket, but the false belief that such a rocket is either necessary or sufficient to go beyond.

And it’s not just the space community: Congress too continues to insist on building the Space Launch System, a giant rocket planned to fly only once every couple of years — with each flight costing in the billions. What justifies this cost? As it turns out, there are no plans or funds for any sort of payload, such as a lander (which would be needed to actually go back to the moon). But the project will provide jobs in the states and districts of those who serve on the space committees on the Hill. Or at least it will provide jobs until, as with the Constellation program four years ago, it is canceled as an out-of-control and unaffordable boondoggle.

Everyone recognizes that our space policy is rudderless, but few seem to understand the root cause. In an attempt to get the nation’s human-spaceflight program on course again, funded by NASA, the National Research Council (NRC) issued a report a few weeks ago on the future of human spaceflight. Unfortunately, it was hobbled by the flawed assumptions forced upon it by its congressional charter. Among these assumptions are that a) NASA will continue to lead the effort and b) the purpose of human spaceflight is “exploration.” The report also shares the premise that the unaffordable Space Launch System will be the primary tool for such exploration. Of course, while the NRC sought public input, it sought no independent technical or cost input from any agency other than NASA, so it was not exposed to any alternatives.

But almost five years ago, while few paid attention, the Human Spaceflight Plans Committee (known as the Augustine panel, for its chairman, Norman Augustine) produced a review noting that exploration was a means, not an end, and that human spaceflight is a waste of time and money if the purpose isn’t space settlement. The recent NRC report, on the other hand, refuses to identify settlement as a goal, because its authors are skeptical that settlement is even possible; instead, it cobbles together a hodge-podge of other rationales for human spaceflight.

In The Space Review, an online weekly, Jeff Foust recently assessed the various justifications the NRC cites: “No single rationale alone seems to justify the value of pursuing human spaceflight. . . . Instead, the report endorses a mix of what it calls ‘pragmatic’ reasons, such as economic benefits, national prestige, and scientific discovery, with ‘aspirational’ reasons like survival of the species. (Human survival might sound like the ultimate pragmatic reason for human space exploration, but it has not been traditionally a driver of national policy in human spaceflight, and the report notes it’s ‘not possible to say whether human off-Earth settlements could eventually be developed’ to achieve that goal.)”

Apollo 11
July 20 marks the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and the first steps of mankind on another world. Here’s a look back at images from the Apollo 11 mission, from the archives of NASA. Pictured, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin on the moon.
The crew that would make history (from left): Mission commander Neil A. Armstrong, command module pilot Michael Collins, and lunar module pilot Edwin Aldrin.
Neil Armstrong was part of the “New Nine,” the second set of astronauts recruited by NASA after those who flew on the Mercury missions. A test pilot and Naval aviator during the Korean War, Armstrong first flew in space on Gemini 8, where he completed the first docking of two manned spacecraft.
Michael Collins was a member of the third group of NASA astronauts. A former Air Force test pilot, Collins flew on Gemini 10, performing two spacecraft rendezvous and conducting two spacewalks.
Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin flew more than 60 combat missions with the Air Force during the Korean War, and was recruited in the third group of NASA astronauts. Aldrin flew on Gemini 12, where he conducted a spacewalk and may have taken the first-ever space “selfie.”
DAY OF FLIGHT: The Apollo 11 rocket assembly is wheeled away from NASA’s massive Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Canaveral.
The Apollo 11 crew enjoys the traditional steak and eggs breakfast with Donald “Deke” Slayton (in orange shirt), NASA’s director of flight operations. Sidelined from flight earlier in the program, Slayton later flew on the Apollo-Soyuz mission.
The crew waves to the media after suiting up and headed towards launchpad 39A. The silver boxes they carry help keep them cool under layers of flight suits and their outer spacesuit.
July 16: Apollo 11 streaks into the sky, with a condensation layer mid-way down the rocket assembly, a result of its extreme speed.
Among the crowd at Kennedy Space Center was former President Lyndon Johnson, an early advocate of the space program who helped secure NASA facilities in his home state of Texas, and Vice President Spiro Agnew.
Flames from the giant Saturn V booster spread out as Apollo 11 flies through thinner air at higher altitude. This image was taken from an Air Force EC-135 aircraft.
From left: Astronauts Charles Duke, James Lovell, and Fred Haise at Mission Control. Duke would fly as lunar module pilot on Apollo 16. Lovell flew on Apollo 8, the first manned mission into lunar orbit, and was commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13. Combined with his two flights during the Gemini program, he is by some measures history’s most-travelled man. Haise also flew on Apollo 13.
FLY ME TO THE MOON: The Big Blue Marble as seen from Apollo 11 shortly after performing the Trans-Lunar Injection burn that would take them out of Earth orbit and towards the moon. It marked only the third time, after missions Apollo 8 and Apollo 10, that a manned spacecraft left Earth orbit.
The lunar module Eagle sits inside the S-IVB stage after separation of the command module Columbia. Pilot Michael Collins has turned Columbia around and is preparing to dock with Eagle and extricate it from the booster.
July 18: Aldrin out of his spacesuit performing systems check in the lunar module.
Command module pilot Michael Collins in Columbia.
The view back towards Earth past the lunar module Eagle during the flight to the moon.
Earth rises over the lunar horizon.
The rocky surface of the far side of the moon in the area west of Daedalus Crater. To keep communications links back to Earth, all of the Apollo landings occurred on the “light” side facing Earth.
July 20: The spider-like lunar module Eagle and descent stage, with Armstrong and Aldrin inside, photographed by Collins during a visual inspection prior to descent. The rods projecting beneath the landing pads are surface-contact probes that alerted Aldrin to shut off the descent engine just feet from the surface.
The reflective silver visage of Columbia, with command module pilot Michael Collins inside, is seen from the lunar module after separation prior to landing.
The view from the lunar module outside Armstrong’s window, with craters Messier and Messier A visible, as Eagle descends toward the landing site in the Sea of Tranquility.
ON THE SURFACE: A frame of video from the live broadcast of Armstrong’s descent to the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, the first man on walk on the surface of another world. His epochal words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
A detail of the first photo taken by Armstrong on the surface, past one of the landing legs to the lunar horizon.
Aldrin descends the ladder from Eagle to the lunar surface — the last step was a long hop to the landing pad.
The surface of another world. Upon seeing the Moon’s stark surface up close, Aldrin observed: “Beautiful view. Magnificent desolation.”
Aldrin’s shadow is seen in this image of the vista at the Sea of Tranquility. (The crosshairs are etched onto a pane of glass between the lens and the film of the Hasselblad camera, and are used to help measure distance.)
Close-up of a bootprint made by Aldrin.
Armstrong’s famous photo of Aldrin on the surface, one of the most reproduced images of the entire Apollo program.
A closer look at Aldrin’s helmet visor reveals a reflection of Armstrong as he takes the picture, the lunar lander, and the tiny blue speck of Earth just visible at the top.
A remote camera image of Armstrong and Aldrin setting up the American flag.
Aldrin salutes the American flag set up near the lunar lander.
A closer look at Aldrin in a frame of film taken close to the salute reveals he is leaning forward into his spacesuit helmet and turning to look at Armstrong. Movement in the suits was cumbersome and difficult.
Aldrin unpacks scientific equipment from the rear of the descent stage. Other scientific packages can be seen on the surface to the right of the lander.
Aldrin carries scientific packages to a site further away from the lander.
Aldrin assembles the Passive Seismic Experiment Package, which measures moonquakes.
Armstrong took this image of the lander, with flag visible just to the right. This image was taken later in the day, revealing a web of tracks left by Armstrong and Aldrin in the lunar dust.
The distant Earth seen beyond the lunar module Eagle.
Armstrong back in the lunar module after the historic moonwalk, which lasted two-and-a-half hours. Armstrong and Aldrin spent a total of 21 hours and 36 minutes on the lunar surface.
Aldrin inside Eagle after the moonwalk. The two rested for seven hours before firing up the ascent stage to return to orbit.
WATCHING HISTORY: The Apollo 11 mission was a worldwide media event, with the landing and first walk on the surface watched by an estimated 530 million viewers around the world.
Watching the Apollo 11 mission in Paris, France.
A family in Tokyo, Japan, watches as President Richard Nixon speaks with the Apollo astronauts.
COMING HOME: The Eagle lunar module — briefly “upside down” relative to Columbia as it approaches for a rendezvous — carries Armstrong and Aldrin back from the surface as the Earth rises in the distance. All of humanity save one soul, Michael Collins in the command module, is contained within this image.
The Moon looms large as Columbia returns home.
The blue skies of Earth beckon upon Columbia’s return.
A helicopter from USS Hornet brings Navy divers to Columbia after splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on July 24. After traveling over half a million miles to and from the Moon, the command module landed just a dozen miles from Hornet.
The crew at Mission Control celebrates the safe return of the Apollo 11 crew, fulfilling President John Kennedy’s challenge.
President Nixon chats with the Apollo 11 crew aboard Hornet. The three astronauts were still confined to the Mobile Quarantine Facility to guard against any pathogens they may have brought back from the moon.
New Yorkers line 42nd Street as the crew of Apollo 11 are treated to a ticker-tape parade on August 13, 1969.
A commemorative plaque on the ladder of the descent module, which still sits on the lunar surface. The inscription reads: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
Updated: Jul. 19, 2014