Today, I read yet another angry article on the continuing death spiral of the American economy, which ended with what has become a rather stale cliché:
We can put a man on the moon, but…
Actually, no. We can’t put a man on the moon. We might have been able to do it once upon a time, a long time ago. But today? In this technologically overloaded era, we can chat with friends and rellies on the other side of the planet, we download half the Library of Congress on our Kindles and Kobos, we can tweet what we had for breakfast in California to the twittering lunchtime crowd in New York, we can play on-line video games with sophisticated graphics and total strangers, and we can blog about it to the entire world. But we cannot do what we once did with not much more than a slide rule and the completely insane self-confidence that we as Americans could do anything we set our minds to. Failure was not an option.
Now it’s a way of life.
Last Friday, the space shuttle Atlantis lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center for the last time, and heralded the end of America’s space shuttle program. For half a century, NASA not only employed generations of scientists and technicians for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs, it gave America the impression that we ruled the stars, proud, brave, invincible, the best and the brightest the world had to offer. We could do what no other nation has ever done – we left our footprints on the dust of the moon. In 1968, I sat in a movie theatre entranced like so many others by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and less than a year later, Neil Armstrong made Hollywood fantasy an American reality. Less than four years later, in December, 1972, Harrison Schmitt and Eugene Cernan became the last Americans to have walked on the Moon. A little less than forty years later, it seems quite likely I will not live long enough to see another human being step onto the moon. Certainly not another American.
Gene Cernan has long been a genial ambassador for America’s space program, but lately has become an outspoken critic of what he considers a deliberate agenda to destroy what NASA has achieved. It’s not just about the end of America’s space shuttles. ‘The agenda is to dismantle America’s space program, Cernan said. ‘There’s no objective. There’s no timetable. There’s no goal. And there’s no mission. We’re retiring America’s space program. We’re out of the business.’
We’re out of the business. Quite literally. 7,000 rocket scientists are now joining the rest of the vast army of unemployed Americans. Florida’s once booming space industry is an empty shell, where not only those highly educated engineers, project managers and technicians who worked directly for NASA are competing for work in a labor market where over 10% are now unemployed, everyone who benefitted from the industry – restaurant owners, shop keepers, hotel owners, doctors, nurses, teachers, bus drivers, you name it – are struggling for survival; for every aerospace job lost, two local jobs are gone as well. And just to add salt to the wounds, the worst housing collapse in decades is making it near impossible for workers to sell up and move somewhere else for a job. It’s not just the space industry; it’s entire communities dying.
There are valid criticisms of the NASA space programme, particularly NASA’s $100 billion proposal to return astronauts to the moon so far costing $9.1 billion with little to show for it, ‘was over budget, behind schedule and lacking in innovation due to a failure to invest in critical new technologies.’ But Obama’s decision to kill… sorry… ‘redirect’ America’s space programme is more about saving money than any idealistic aspirations. On May 25th, 1961, President Kennedy stood before a joint session of Congress and declared, ‘I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth,’ and gave a nation and even the entire world a sense of optimism and unity we have rarely experienced. Obama’s science adviser, John Holdren, can only come up with ‘We're putting the science back into the rocket science.’ Yawn.
All hope is not completely dead, of course. The $4 billion NASA spends yearly on human space exploration will now be used for developing new technologies in rocketry, including in-orbit fueling, autonomous rendezvous, orbital fuel transfer systems and closed-loop life support systems, to send astronauts to a nearby asteroid, maybe a brief foray back to the moon, or even the Martian moons. Sounds great… but the White House plan is tellingly short on the more niggly details, such as just exactly where astronauts would fly next, on what type of rocket ship, or even when. No timetables have been established for human flights beyond low-Earth orbit.
‘Imagine trips to Mars that take weeks instead of nearly a year, people fanning out across the inner solar system, exploring the Moon, asteroids and Mars nearly simultaneously in a steady stream of 'firsts,’ NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told reporters. ‘And imagine all of this being done collaboratively with nations around the world. That is what the president's plan for NASA will enable, once we develop the new capabilities to make it a reality.’
Yeah, right. Just imagine in one hand and spit in the other, see which one fills up first. Once we’ve developed the capability to turn our imaginary space programme into reality, pigs will fly. What this is really about is killing NASA's post-Columbia moon program and shifting the cost of development and operation of new rockets and capsules from the government to private industry, preferring new commercial manned spaceflight capability. There’s a word for this: ‘privatization.’ And we’ve seen oh so well how that’s worked out.
Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, an architect of the now-cancelled moon program, has called the shift to commercial space operations a profound mistake.
‘I'm one of the biggest proponents of commercial spaceflight that there is, but it doesn't yet exist,’ he said. ‘I would like an enlightened government policy to help bring it about, but I don't believe you get there by destroying all your government capability so there's no option but for the government to do whatever necessary to get the - quote - commercial operators - unquote - to succeed. That's not the way to do it.
‘Basically, you're burning the bridge behind you. Even if it's successful, now what you've done is you've created not a space program for the United States, you've created a capability to get to low-Earth orbit but there's nothing to do there because there's no government program. Where's the market?’
And there’s the crunch. Even if you’re not a right-wing Ayn Randite capitalist shark, it’s a valid question: where’s the market? Who is going to use this new commercial space flight? To go where? To do what? Joy rides for millionaires? In the meantime, American astronauts will now have to pay the Russian Space Agency to get to the International Space Station aboard Russia’s even more venerable Soyuz spacecraft, to the tune of around $50 million per round-trip.
In our rush to cut back all the ‘unnecessary’ programmes, such as Medicare and Social Security along with NASA, in order to ‘balance the budget,’ we will continue this long, not-so-slow slide down into irrelevancy and endemic depression. Where we had a Kennedy who could galvanize the American spirit and bring out the best in us, this administration, hounded by the jackals on the right to cut everything to the bone (unless you’re an oil company or a multi-billion dollar bank, that is) is not only allowing us to fail, but helping us along. With a poke in the eye for good measure.
We can put a man on the moon, but we… well… can’t put a man on the moon. How sad is that?