A significant element of the Kennedy legacy is under attack—and frankly, it’s about time!
When President Kennedy declared in 1962 that “We choose to go to the moon in this decade,” he could not possibly have known that our desire to recapture the lost glories of the Apollo years would put us in a holding pattern, repeating the same mistakes over and over, like a broken record, well into the 21st century. His speech was followed by seven years of breakthroughs—and 40 years of decline.
It’s not hard to understand the reasons why. A government space program whose purpose was to beat the Soviet Union was designed with a monomaniacal focus on just one goal: to put a man on the Moon and return him safely to earth. Broader goals, like economic development or cost saving technologies, were placed on hold, waiting for another day. We’re still waiting.
The problems of America’s nostalgia driven civil space efforts reached complete absurdity when 36 years after Neil Armstrong took a giant leap for all mankind a NASA Administrator called the latest viewgraph plan to return to the Moon “Apollo on Steroids.” The idea being that we can break the cycle of failure by throwing a pile of tax dollars at the problem, like an ageing athlete craving one more season of glory, regardless of the longer term side effects to his health and reputation.
Fortunately, “government space” isn’t the whole story. In recent years a private movement called “NewSpace” has quietly emerged. Already NewSpace companies have sold tour packages to the International Space Station [Space Adventures], flown a spaceplane into space twice in less than two weeks [Scaled Composites], developed a new expendable rocket [SpaceX], and flown the world’s first inflatable habitat in space [Bigelow].
Within a few years, NewSpace companies will be taking customers on suborbital flights, building the best spacesuits in the world, breaking lighter-than-air altitude records, landing rovers on the moon, launching large space habitats, and best of all, making buckets of money in the process.
Last spring President Obama created a committee of ten experienced space hands, led by Norman Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin, and asked them to rethink the government’s human spaceflight efforts.
They quickly recognized that there was a yawning gulf between promises and accomplishments. “The U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory,” they concluded. They even had the temerity to suggest that maybe we should leave a few things that have long been the sole province of government to the vital and growing private sector.
The blowback was immediate. Even before the final report was issued, Congress called Norman Augustine to come up on the Hill for a hearing to lecture him on his misguided ways. The notion that the private sector should be “allowed” to carry humans into space was ridiculed as too risky—a notion that runs counter to all logic and experience and is a strange perversion of the legacy of JFK, an enthusiastic supporter of capitalism who once said: “Those who dare to fail miserably can achieve greatly.”
In October, the launch, to a height long ago surpassed by model rocket builders, of a prototype called Ares I-X, at a cost to taxpayers of over 400 million dollars, was hailed by supporters of the status quo as proof that we need only stay the course. In November, the aerospace trade press had expensive, full page ads, paid for by the Ares prime contractor, demanding that we should be “keeping the moon in sight,” not actually going there, that might end the gravy train, just keeping it in sight like a distant vision of a glorious past. Just this week language found its way into a massive omnibus appropriations bill that requires spending nearly $4 billion on the program even if the Obama administration doesn’t want it.
So here we are, forced to choose between our nostalgia for Apollo and a free and open frontier in space. John F. Kennedy gets the last words. “History is a relentless master. It has no present, only the past rushing into the future. To try to hold fast is to be swept aside.”
Bob Werb is the Chairman of the Board of the Space Frontier Foundation, an organization of people dedicated to opening the Space Frontier to human settlement. In his ongoing effort to reach out to the world beyond the beltway and the space aware, he published a shorter version of the above article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.