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.)”