I have been sitting and thinking about this day in history – obviously, the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Like many others, I grew up watching the Apollo program. Honestly, it was a major aspect of my childhood. I remember being up in the middle of the night in 1969 (at 7 years old) to watch Neil Armstrong descend to the moon’s surface. I remember sitting glued to the TV to watch every second of coverage, not just of Apollo 11, but of all of the missions which followed. I remember setting up my little cassette recorder in front of the TV speaker to record the audio so I could listen to it over and over (my first act of copyright infringement).
It was really a magical time for me – I was a little kid, and all of this real-life adventure was going on. I was already interested in astronomy at that age – I had started carrying astronomy books around with me when I was about 4. These events influenced much of my life – leading to my obsessions with astronomy and physics. It also led to my early career choices – working in remote sensing, and later working in satellite flight dynamics (sometimes I wonder why I ever stopped doing that).
It seemed at that time like we had just embarked on the first steps of a grand adventure, and that the adventure would only get grander.
So what the heck happened? Apollo rapidly lost it magic for the world. Skylab was interesting, but was ultimately a dead end. The shuttle as a program seemed exciting, but has never seemed to escape its problems. And there has never seemed to be a grand, long-term, sustainable vision for manned space flight.
Looking back, as impressive as Apollo was, mankind went to the moon for the wrong reasons. In the sixties, there was no clear, long-term reason for going to the moon, at least not at the public and governmental levels. It was all about “we have to beat the communists to the moon”. It was not about “we need to go to the moon as a first step of humankind’s push to explore, to learn and expand.”
That is why interest in Apollo died. Once the Russians had been beaten to the moon, the race was over and there was no longer any reason to keep going back. The Soviet Union seemed unlikely to catch up or leap frog the US at the time, so there was no real motivation to go further.
Then came the Space Station. A grand vision. A permanent home in orbit. A platform not just for scientific study, but as a platform to reach further. Unfortunately, the Space Station as it came to be is a pale shadow of that vision.
This highlights the problems with the space program still. The percentage of the population that really, strongly believes in manned space travel is small. Every so often, someone will stand up with a grand vision. Occasionally, it will get funded (but never properly, just enough for promotional purposes). Then comes the next budget crunch, economic downturn, or election, the the vision gets revised, the scope reduced, and the budget whittled away.
We are seeing this right now. George W. Bush had his grand vision for going to Mars (trying to be like JFK?). Even at the outset however, it was not funded properly (cannot take away from the budget for blowing the hell out of everyone who disagrees with you). And this summer I see that a round of reviews are underway to assess (i.e. reduce) the scope.
So how do we actually have a space program? How do we push forward?
Well, the best way (maybe the only way) is for private sector to see a profit in exploration. Nothing gets people moving like dollar signs and ROI. Unfortunately, the ROI of space exploration is long term, and the vast majority of our political and business leaders are unable to think beyond the current quarter, current year, or the next election.
If space exploration remains in the hands of government, a way must be found to fund it, in a way that protects it from political games played by small minded people.
Unfortunately, I see very little hope for any of this. The magic has died – or maybe it was really all just an illusion to begin with.