HOUSTON — Over the three and a half years from July 1969 to December 1972, six teams of astronauts walked on the moon. They went from “We came in peace for all mankind” to the parting words, “We’ll be back.”
But decades passed, and nobody came back. At various times in the 1980s and 1990s, space enthusiasts (myself included) were encouraged by speculation about being “halfway back to the moon.” That is, in one’s imagination, the years until the next human footprint were certain to be less than the years since the last footprint. It was going to be downhill from now on, or so it could be thought.
There's a chance that estimate might even be true. If the Obama administration and its successors stick to the “space vision” unveiled five years ago, Americans might be walking on the moon again in 10 years, or 15 at the outside. If they do, it won’t have been a decade between moon programs, or a generation — it will have been practically an entire human lifetime.
Between now and then, the grim statistics of the actuarial tables suggests that despite the hopes and wellwishers and the best efforts of medical science, Earth may well lapse back to a demographic situation that had ended on July 20, 1969, when nobody living on Earth had ever been to the moon. It would be nice if any Apollo moonwalkers lived long enough to see new footsteps on the moon, at least for cultural continuity — but it may not happen.
With the loss of key players in historic events comes a loss of memory. Artifacts may endure, and records can last as well. But the thoughts, hopes and fears of the participants — they can fade away forever. And this loss of the past may cripple the future, since unless we understand the why of past efforts, knowing the when and who and how may turn out to be useless.
The ‘why’ of Apollo
Skimming the popular literature of spaceflight history, a novice reader may be forgiven for believing that humans went to the moon because they are a curious species for whom exploration has always been a wired-in cultural trait. These readers may also imagine a time when scientists wielded enormous influence over federal budgets.
In addition, they may be led to believe that economists were able to forecast tremendous “technical spinoffs” from space discoveries that would lead to medical and microelectronic revolutions. Realization that Earth was a tiny, fragile world was going to totally revolutionize humankind’s view of the world they lived in. Further, there was the enticing possibility that resources of value might be located and profitably exploited.
Cynics, meanwhile, can be forgiven falling for the equally seductive myths of “bread and circuses” in space as a distraction from domestic woes, or the outgrowth of a short-lived spasm of machismo from a president embarrassed by the failure of foreign adventures, a project that was fulfilled after his tragic assassination for mainly sentimental reasons. It was also a “moondoggle” of literally astronomical proportion when it came to allocating funds to states and congressional districts whose leaders needed rewarding or influencing.
All these and other motivations were fulfilled by Apollo’s success, to be sure. And the ideas were part of the contemporary debates as well. But political historians know that none of them were persuasive when it came time, year after year, to vote more billions of dollars from the federal budget.
Funding from fear
Something else was strong enough to swing those votes: fear. Pure fear was the key to the treasury, and that was exactly as it should have been.
Three presidents, hundreds of members of Congress, and the government and private teams assigned to the project were afraid of the kind of world that would result if the United States did not succeed at the manned lunar landing. Specifically, they were not afraid of aliens, or of epidemics, or of economic depressions — they were afraid of the adjusting alignments in a world in which U.S. technology and leadership came to be thought of as second-rate, and where the United States wasn’t everyone’s partner-of-choice in business, in culture and in security.
Moscow’s triumphant string of firsts in the space race had made an enormous impression on public opinion, and on the views of government officials, business leaders and intellectuals all around the planet. If the Soviet Union could solidify its superiority in outer space, the symbol of the future, it would strengthen its influence on the hearts and minds and hopes of billions of people. The communist way of life would become a more attractive model for new nations.
This would have profound diplomatic and commercial consequences, none of them to the benefit of the United States. The cost of such a world — from lost trade to lost resources to lost allies — would be vastly greater than the money to be spent on Apollo.
But it didn’t happen. When Apollo succeeded in its mission — when American astronauts walked on the moon — Apollo also succeeded in its purpose. The Soviet space program, overstretched and underorganized, faltered and failed. Bold promises from Moscow were exposed as bluster, and high-tech space vehicles turned out to be junk. And the whole world saw it.
Two decades later, the credibility that Apollo had bestowed upon American space technology scored its most important triumph when the Soviet Union collapsed. Historians still debate the combination of stresses and lucky breaks that ended the Cold War, but an undeniably major theme was the threat of an American space-based missile defense shield.
Badly burned by their underestimation of American space technology in the 1960s, Soviet leaders in the 1980s can be forgiven for being skeptical of experts who declared that the new U.S. space goal was impossible. Many of these same people had said the same things about the Apollo program. Unable to compete, and contemplating their budget-busting investments in weapons systems that might soon be rendered impotent, Soviet leaders lost faith in their own historical inevitability — and the rest is history.
Advocates of new space visions and strategies, including a variety of proposals for a human return to the moon, seem to be still stuck on all the pseudo-motivations of Apollo. We will satisfy our curiosity (“science”), or our greed (“resources”), or our geekiness (“new gadgets”). While all of those things — and more — doubtlessly would follow such a project, they are no more capable of mustering political support for it now than they were for Apollo forty years ago.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of things to be afraid of these days, and many of them do indeed appear susceptible to space-based solutions. Since the primary purpose of a government is to protect its citizens — not amuse them, or enrich them, or even raise their consciousnesses — perhaps this line of justifying arguments will have more traction.
First, space exploration has taught us to be afraid of our ignorance about our neighborhood. It can be argued that the cost of not knowing about external threats and internal natural processes could be very high. At the very least, reliable warnings can forearm us. At best, technology-based countermeasures can be developed, validated and applied to mitigate such threats.
Second, space exploration now goes on in an international environment, not a bipolar space race. Cynics were correct when they claimed that adding partners made the international space station program slower, costlier, less capable and more dangerous than going it alone, exactly the opposite of what NASA had promised. But despite its faults, the program has shown a remarkable ability to surmount tensions and squabbles among its partners. It has been an effort bigger than any single country, and that concept has taken hold, even among many of the cynics.
Imagine the cost of a world without such projects — antagonistic splintering of alliances, rising walls of secrecy against technological espionage, distrust of ambiguous intentions and resulting counteractions, collapse of domestic space capabilities in nations unable to afford stand-alone programs, cultural polarization. Then consider the trends that an ambitious new space vision could encourage. One doesn’t have to be fully taken in by wish-fulfillment and rose-colored glasses to understand that however distasteful and wasteful grand international space efforts may be, most alternatives (that is, not doing such projects) may be far more unattractive.
When you add up the fear of the outside unknown universe (the “cost of not knowing”), plus the fear of our own inner demons (the “cost of not distracting them”), plus a history-based confidence that all the secondary benefits stand a good chance of being satisfied (with other totally unexpected benefits showing up as well), the case for sending humans beyond low Earth orbit, to the moon and/or elsewhere, can be confidently argued.
Maybe someday, just maybe, when televised images of footsteps in moondust again are displayed to earthlings, it will be in time for some men who have already been there to see. And maybe it will be in time for all of us, too.
NBC News space analyst James Oberg spent 22 years at NASA's Johnson Space Center as a Mission Control operator and an orbital designer. This is an updated version of a report that originally appeared July 19, 2004.