Monday, February 1, 2010

One Small Step, One Giant Leap

Forty years ago, on July 20th 1969, Americans first landed on the Moon.

At UTC20:17 - about quarter after three in the middle of a rainy summer afternoon, there in Michigan where I watched it on my parent’s tiny black and white TV - a fragile spidery spacecraft called Eagle set down on the desolate airless regolith in the lunar Sea of Tranquility. 

Onboard were two extraordinary human beings.

Even as a seven year old kid, I knew just how utterly profound Apollo 11’s mission was. 

Damned near everybody who owned a TV, or knew somebody who owned a TV, or could get themselves to a place with a TV, watched that landing – and those who couldn’t watch listened via radio – and they were still watching and listening a couple hours later when Armstrong and Aldrin floated down that ladder and became the first human beings to stand with their own feet upon the soil of another world. 

It was an unbelievable moment.

It was a moment in time that changed the very world we lived in.

On that night, in that moment, five hundred million Earthmen peered into their TVs and wept at the daring of the species.  Those wavering ghostly images from another world captivated the entire race. Strangers in Times Square spontaneously hugged other strangers.  All over the world, people turned to one another, struck dumb by wonder and amazement.  Others cheered and shouted with joy until their throats were raw.  Stodgy TV commentators broke down unashamedly on live TV.  People stood in their yards and stared at the night sky, at the moon hanging there, and marveled that men walked upon its ancient and sun blasted surface.

They dreamed of how the world would change now that man had finally broken free of the Earth.

They dreamed of becoming spacefarers, of going to Mars and Venus and the moons of Jupiter – and beyond.

They were inspired.

They were awed.

They were humbled.


It didn’t last long.

Barely a year later, when Apollo 13 lifted off and shaped orbit for the moon, so few people tuned in to follow that voyage the networks canceled their coverage of the mission, and substituted sitcoms and laxative commercials instead.  Americans were already bored with space, lost as they were in the horror of Vietnam, the ever present nuclear sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, civil unrest, OPEC, and Richard Millhouse Nixon.  Interest roused briefly when one of Odyssey’s oxygen tanks exploded and it looked like three Americans would die on their way home from the moon.  It didn’t happen, of course, and that brief flare of interest faded into the background of South East Asia and the Cold War and the energy crisis and the rapidly souring cultural revolution and the myriad of other things that made up the churning chaos of those decades.

All in all, NASA landed six tiny ships on the moon.  In two years, two short years, it was over.

Twelve men walked briefly upon the surface of another world.  None stayed and none have ever returned.

Nor are they likely to.

The reasons, of course, are many and varied.

Personally I think it’s a lack of vision.  A lack of hope. Of inspiration.  We Americans once dared greatly, we once revered those who dared and flew and dreamed. We were proud of those extraordinary men, and we dreamed that ourselves or our children would one day follow in their footsteps. There was a time when America was captivated by the moon, by Mars, by space, by adventure, by destiny.  There was a time when pictures of fanciful and speculative spaceships, each with an American flag and the NASA logo displayed proudly upon its shining hull plates, graced the covers of Time and the front pages of the Wall Street Journal.  There was a time when every failure was ours as a nation to bear, we knew that space was a dangerous place, and each setback only redoubled our resolve.  Oh certainly there were those who didn’t believe, who didn’t dream, who didn’t want to go, who told us to keep our feet on the ground and our heads in the sand and bemoaned how NASA’s budget could better be used here, on Earth, rather than up there in the sky. They were shouted down.

But, no more. 

See, Apollo, for all its daring, for all its astounding achievement, was little more than a stunt.

We did what we set out to do, and we did it well.

But we went to the Moon for all the wrong reasons.

It’s right there, on the side of the Eagle’s descent stage, still up there, still hanging over our heads in the night sky, as bright and as shining as that day in July, 1969 when it was carried to the moon by two extraordinary Americans:

Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon

July, 1969

We came in peace, for all mankind

But, of course, we didn’t.

Come in peace, I mean. Or for all mankind either, for that matter.

We went to the moon to show the Soviets that we could.  We went to the moon as a strategic move, a front in one of the many battles of the Cold War.  We went to the moon because even at a cost of a hundred billion dollars it was still one hell of a lot cheaper than using any of the those nuclear bombs we’d built and pointed at each other.

And we won.

We beat the Ruskies.

We set a goal, and we reached it.

And then we came home and we lost interest within a year, distracted by other battles, by other fronts.

See, governments don’t dream.  Nations don’t dream.

Rarely do governments inspire. It is not nations who explore, who seek the limits of human endurance, who push on over the horizon.  It is not governments who quest or go a-Viking or chase adventure on alien shores simply for the sheer joy of it. There is no government existent, ours included, that has the will and the stamina and the intestinal fortitude to break free of this world and journey to the stars.  Governments are subject to the whim of the mob, and the mob doesn’t give a damn about outer space.

The great explorations of history were never government enterprises.  If left to government Shackleton would still be waiting for funding, his ship The Endurance would be the size of an aircraft carrier and hold no more than three explorers.  If left to government, Columbus would still be tied to the pier, pending a review by Congressional subcommittee of his navigational skills and while the fitting out of Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria kept 10,000 defense contractors employed for the next three decades.  Stanley would have no trouble finding Livingston, because Livingston would never have gone anywhere – and the source of the Nile would still be unknown. 

Governments don’t explore.

Governments conquer. Governments grandstand and stage stunts. Governments argue and bicker and wage war. Some are good and some are bad and some are indifferent.

But they don’t explore.

It is human beings who explore. Individuals of courage and daring and burning passion and enterprise.

It is private corporations who explore, hunting profit and new markets and assets and resources.

If we are ever to truly break free from the bonds of this world, we must first get government out of the business of space travel. 

Governments own ships for one reason, to protect the interests of their citizen upon the high seas.  Governments send warships to sea, and law enforcement vessels, and vessels for safety, rescue, and navigation.  Until there is need for such ships in space, i.e. until there are civilian and private vessels in significant volume, there is no need for government to build ships of its own.

The internet is a twitter with the news today.  President Obama’s 2011 budget essentially ends America’s time as a space faring nation

If you didn’t see this coming, you’re a fool.

The Constellation program has been doomed from the start.  Hell, the Constellation program has been doomed since July 20th, 1969.  We’ve been there, we’ve done that – and America as a nation wasn’t interested in continuing when we had the hardware and the resources, what makes you think we’ll do it now when we have to recreate the entire infrastructure at a hundred or a thousand times the cost? Access to space hasn’t gotten cheaper or less complex, just the opposite in fact. The age of daring, of the test pilot astronaut is over – it’s the age of the bean counter.  Constellation has always been underfunded, organized by committee after endless committee, awash in adminstrivia and paperwork and government bullshit – and really, it was never more than a political gambit by an uninspired and uninspiring twit of an anti-science President who tried to pull a do-over of JFK but couldn’t motivate his own Administration let alone galvanize the nation (maybe he should have gotten himself assassinated right after the speech announcing America’s return to the moon, or found terrorists hiding on Mars.  But I digress). 

Constellation has always been doomed.

Constellation has always been doomed because governments don’t explore. Bean counters and bureaucrats don’t explore. Because when Congress runs your space program, indeed any program, you are doomed from the start.

I’ve said here and elsewhere that I never expected a single human being to ride Ares into orbit.  I have never expected to see Orion falling between the worlds, or Altair standing on the moon.  When NASA unveiled the program and we got our first glimpse of a Shuttle SRB with what was essentially an Apollo capsule on top I knew I was looking at the Flying Dutchman of space programs, cursed to rounding the Congressional moon forever. Building a rocket to the moon isn’t going to be any cheaper or more efficient or be any longer term now than it was the first time we did it. 

We need something new. Something better. Something inspired.

Those who know me, know that I am an unabashed space nut.  I grew up with Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Skylab.  When NASA named the first Shuttle Enterprise I was ecstatic (until I learned later that it was little more than an empty wasted gesture). I grew up reading Heinlein and Asimov and Clarke and Niven. I grew up dreaming that I would someday go to the stars.  I’ve waited for forty years to look into the night sky and see the lights of Luna City shining back at me from the darkened crescent of Tycho Crater.  I’ve turned on the TV every day for the last four decades hoping to see men and women setting foot upon Mars the way I saw Armstrong and Aldrin do on that night so long ago.

It pains me so much to know we’ve squandered our legacy, that in my lifetime human beings may never set foot again upon another world, indeed maybe ever, that’ll I cheer any human endeavor that returns us as a species to space and to the moon and beyond – even if those who do it are Chinese or Indian or Russian.

I’ve known for some time that America will not return to the moon, will not go to Mars,  will not explore the solar system let alone go beyond it, not while the dreams and hopes and spirit of exploration are held captive in squabbling congressional subcommittees.  It will not happen when the bean counters and administrators smother the spirit of human endeavor like a B-movie alien slime mold. It will not happen as long as we leave it up to government. It will not happen as long as we leave it to these people:

Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-AL), "The president's proposed NASA budget begins the death march for the future of U.S. human space flight. The cancellation of the Constellation program and the end of human space flight does represent change, but it is certainly not the change I believe in."

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL.), "The president's green-eyeshade-wearing advisers are dead wrong. And I, for one, intend to stand up and fight for NASA, and for the thousands of people who stand to lose their jobs."

Shelby doesn’t give the contents of a NASA urine bag about the future of human space flight, the cancellation of Constellation, like Iraq or 911 or Wall Street, is simply another opportunity to advance partisan politics. Nothing more.  Shelby’s constituents in Huntsville make up a significant fraction the NASA workforce, if they didn’t you can damned well bet that his interest in the future of human space flight would be exactly nil.  The same with Nelson.  To Senators and Congressmen, Constellation, indeed all of NASA, is nothing more than a cash cow.  A endless source of money that nobody expects success or results from. 

Don’t get me wrong here.  NASA does some wonderful science.  NASA pays direct dividends back to the American public every day, in increased air safety, in advanced technology, in aeronautics, in engineering, in medicine, and many fields far too numerous to name.

NASA does many things well.

But not manned spaceflight. Not exploration. Not commercial ventures.  And sure as hell not profit.

That’s right, I said profit.

Congress should be cheering Obama’s “capitalist” approach to space exploration.  Republicans especially should be applauding the president for his repudiation of socialist space travel (Well, what do you call it when the government owns all the ships?), his slashing of wasteful government spending and pie in the sky government programs, and his market driven approach to space exploration.

See, by law, the one thing our government can’t do is make a profit. 

But private space companies can.

And if we are ever to make space travel a self-sustaining endeavor, then we must make a profit doing it. 

We must privatize space travel and return government to its proper role in such things.  And what is that, you ask? The same role that government has always had in exploration; as a customer and as a provider of grants, bankrolls, support, advice, tax breaks, access to data and knowledge and research and technology - and an eventual share in the spoils. NASA should be Space University, a place of research and development and education, a place where we train citizen astronauts to fly and float and live and prosper beyond our own little world.  A place where we teach our children how to build spacecraft and habitats and hardware.  A place where we teach spacemen how to manage the business of space, of exploration, of construction and funding and exploitation of the new frontier.  A place were civilian, government, and military people develop standardized engines and components and software and a place where we can rent time in the wind tunnels and weightless pools, on the rocket test stands and in the vomit comet. A place where we teach our kids to dream, to push the boundaries of the human spirit, and to seek beyond the far horizon.

If we as a species are to survive, if we as human beings are to reach our ultimate potential, if we as Americans and our allies and partners and friends are to ever break free from of this tiny little world, then we must get government out of space exploration while we still have a chance.

Killing Constellation may end America’s manned space program, but it opens the doors for Americans.

NASA’s vision is limited to the space station.

For the rest of us, the sky is the limit.

Governments don’t explore, but if they do the job right their citizens do.


  1. Nick from the O.C.February 1, 2010 at 8:32 PM

    damn fine post, Jim. I've been following the Augustine Panel and its recommendations with interest and growing frustration, as I saw my father's legacy fade away (he worked on Apollo and the precursor programs).

    in theory, I like the reprogramming of budget from spaceflight to research and the perfecting of new technologies (e.g., ALice) that can be used by commercial entities to create more cost-effective spaceships.

    But a piece of me died a little, when I realized we probably wouldn't be returning to space anytime soon.

    I guess D.D. Harriman wins, huh? Though the Wikipedia article on The Man Who Sold the Moon carries this quote--

    “The idea that a private investor can put together the funds to develop rockets capable of a lunar mission is extremely speculative, verging on fantasy” said John Logsdon, chairman of space history at the National Air and Space Museum.

    oulas = plural form of the exclamation uttered by a seaman on shorleave upon the sight of the first woman he spies.

  2. Meanwhile, on a nearby planet, one brave volunteer soldiers on...


    Dr. Phil

  3. I saw that yesterday or the day before, I forget. I don't know why, but it bugs me.

  4. I'm currently working for the Government, some consulting work is starting to come in but a steady cash flow is nice.

    Friday and Monday the computer system was very slow, running 35 minutes between report request and report print. Taking minutes to accept data.

    Thursday afternoon everybody with a computer terminal is going to spend the time inputing test data to see if the system can withstand production levels.

    We already know the system can't deal with a light load, but the schedule says we must test for roughly 1505 load. And the schedule is far more important than actually doing the work.

    How many bright men with glasses of ice-water at hearings, does it take?

    Frankly shooting NASA in the back of the head is probably the kindest thing that could be done to the American space program.

    oddical - mathematical calculations using only numbers not divisible by two.

  5. I've been not thinking about this announcement since I saw the headline. Thanks for giving me a different way of looking at it.

    scoldr = too much like a real word.

  6. I found this disappointing as well, but was encouraged that NASA received $3.2 billion for the thing they do well - science.

  7. Saw this summary and am still digesting it:

  8. Jim, it's a great post, and while we've argued about this issue in the past, I think we do agree on some things--I think we agree, for instance, that exploration should be a private enterprise and science a public one. I've expressed reservations about manned spaceflight, but I should also clarify that I have no problem with private investors and volunteers forming a profit or non-profit venture to go into space.

    That said, I would quibble on one minor point: exploration up until around the 19th Century--in other words through the "Age Of Exploration"--was a government venture... and a purely private one. The paradox, of course, is that the nature of government began changing throughout the world during the 18th Century, and not just in revolutionary republics (even the world's monarchies became more democratic during the era). We can't really say Columbus' voyages or Sir Walter Raleigh's colonial ventures were public or private in any contemporary sense because the crown as a private person was also the state in a legal and economic sense (the revenues the crown expended in each case were drawn directly or indirectly from state funds--taxes, licenses, etc.--and the missions had an explicitly nationalist cast).

    Along those lines, I'd have to say that the Age Of Exploration was fueled then by the same things you mention as now: governments invade, governments pursue diplomatic and military objectives. England went to North America because Spain did and France because England did, and South America was initially explored to a large degree to determine which parts would be Spain's and which would belong to Portugal. Along with the colonial ventures were explorations to find new trade routes--which not only benefitted private companies, but were arguably of even more benefit to the monarchs who, as the state, traditionally had the exclusive right to permit those companies to exist and/or do business. Even later explorations for the sake of science carried prestige for wealthy regimes looking for ways to show off--just as commissioning art showed off a ruler's disposable wealth, so too did being able to blow money on science and adventure.

    I don't know where this leaves us today, only that earlier eras may be a poor example to us because the conditions that created them are obsolete.

  9. great post, yet so sad. While it was true the Apollo and such were primarily posturing I am confident everyone knew what they were doing for the whole human race as well.

    As an American I find it incredibly sad to realize that the shining beacon other countries looked up to as a model for how it should be done is fading away (both as a country and as a space program.)

    and for what..the entire NASA budget is equivalent to 7 stealth bombers or 2.6% of the subsidized health care costs.

    I sure hope you are right about private space travel.. the spaceport being built gives some hope

  10. When Space University opens, I'm applying!

    bomind- cow telepathy

    --Hey, does anyone else get so busy trying to think up a clever meaning that they forget to actually type the word in the verification box?

  11. As an American I find it incredibly sad to realize that the shining beacon other countries looked up to as a model for how it should be done is fading away

    Well, you could look at it the other way. America is continuing to show other countries how it should be done. It's just that how it should be done has changed, and America is the first to change to it. :)

    bentsh = a bench in German

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