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Let's Reach for The Stars Again

By Michael D. Griffin
Sunday, July 19, 2009

What is most striking about this 40th anniversary of the first human landing on the moon is that we can no longer do what we're celebrating. Not "do not choose to," but "can't."

By the 40th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the Oregon Trail was carrying settlers to the West. By the 40th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad, a web of rail traffic crisscrossed the continent. By the 40th anniversary of Lindbergh's epic transatlantic flight, thousands of people in jetliners retraced his route in comfort and safety every day. And on the 40th anniversary of Sputnik, hundreds of satellites were orbiting the Earth.

Only in human spaceflight do we celebrate the anniversary of an achievement that seems more difficult to repeat than to accomplish the first time. Only in human spaceflight can we find in museums things that most of us in the space business wish we still had today.

The United States spent eight years and $21 billion -- around $150 billion today -- to develop a transportation system to take people to the moon. We then spent less than four years and $4 billion using it, after which we threw it away. Not mothballed, or assigned to caretaker status for possible later use. Destroyed. Just as the Chinese, having explored the world in the early 15th century and found nothing better than what they had at home, burned their fleet of ships.

We gave up the frontier of our time -- hardly typical American behavior. We see ourselves as people who, in all things, push past the boundaries that halt others. Abandoning the enterprise of space exploration is a striking decision because it violates something that makes us human: the desire to know new things through personal experience. Mankind is mankind in part because we voyage, and because we do it personally, not because we send machines in our stead.

If that is true, why did we close the door to space?

It is sometimes said that Apollo was cancelled because, after we landed on the moon, the public lost interest. But NASA's budget began its decline in 1966 -- three years prior to Apollo 11 -- a casualty of Vietnam-era financial pressures. And after the moon landing, long before any possible diminution of its popular appeal, President Nixon cancelled three planned space missions. The hardware for these missions had already been procured; you can find it in museums at NASA's Johnson, Kennedy and Marshall space centers. Voyaging to the moon was not undertaken in response to public opinion, and it was not abandoned because that opinion flagged.

A more insightful view is that Apollo and the manned space program lacked any goal more compelling than that of besting the Soviet Union. When we won the race, the imperative for space exploration vanished. Had President Kennedy couched Apollo as the initial step in a larger strategy to become a permanently space-faring nation, the outcome might have been different. But with the quintessentially American ability to bring focus to a goal that was both impossibly audacious and ridiculously short-sighted, once we had beaten the Russians to the moon, there came . . . what? There was no answer.

For 30 years after Apollo, NASA drifted. Not in a tactical sense; indeed, some of the best minds in the country devoted themselves to the development of the space shuttle and after that the international space station. But the agency lacked a guiding vision to unify its efforts. Where was the space shuttle going, what was it carrying, what would be done with that payload and why? In the simplest of terms, what was it all about?

To fly regularly into space is the most difficult technical challenge we know. It is just barely possible, and even when done successfully, it is expensive, difficult and dangerous. To justify it requires an overarching vision. You either believe that expanding the range of human action and thereby creating options for the future is a noble endeavor, worthy of the cost and risk, or you do not. No lesser justification is acceptable, and no greater justification is needed.

But for three decades that logic was missing from U.S. space policy, and in that absence NASA and the human spaceflight program were reduced to a year-by-year, piecewise justification of activities and budgets that cannot easily be defended in that fashion. Without a multi-decade strategy, the manned spaceflight program found its argument in the politics of jobs and national prestige and . . . no one really knew.

Thirty years and six weeks after the last manned flight to the moon, the space shuttle Columbia was lost, and with it seven lives and many billions of dollars. In August 2003, Adm. Hal Gehman, chairman of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, released an extraordinary report concluding that the root cause of the disaster was the fact that NASA had lacked a guiding vision for more than 30 years. Gehman said both the executive and legislative branches were to blame.

The community involved in our nation's space program vowed that it would never happen again. A remarkably logical and well-crafted civilian space policy was put forth, one that respected existing commitments to complete the international space station while readying bold new ventures -- returning to the moon, establishing a sustained presence there and preparing for a voyage to Mars.

In 2005, a Republican Congress approved this policy as the guiding strategy for NASA, and three years later a Democratic Congress did the same. President Obama's first budget request calls for lunar return by 2020.

The words are great, but the actions aren't. In early 2005, about $110 billion was allocated to the task of returning American and international partner astronauts to the moon by 2020. Less than five years later, that figure has been slashed to about $70 billion, not enough to do the job. We're willing to spend hundreds of billions of dollars bailing out failed enterprises, but we're not willing to spend more than a half-penny of the federal budget dollar to support one of the greatest enterprises in history.

In any era, extending humanity's reach is always the hardest thing a society does. We stretch ourselves, and what we learn yields broad benefits. Our solar system is the new frontier; its exploration and exploitation will benefit those who take the lead in pursuing it.

What kind of people are we? That is the most important question we face. Are we explorers, pioneers and leaders, or will we sit back and watch others assume those roles? Are we to focus solely on immediate problems, allowing the future to happen to us, or do we want to create that future?

If we no longer understand the importance of defining, occupying and extending the human frontier, we can be assured that others do. Russia is building a new lunar-capable manned spacecraft, China continues to pursue a methodical, carefully crafted human spaceflight program, and India is planning to join the club in 2015. We should wish them well. But we must be there too. No one can wrest leadership in space from the United States. But we can certainly cede it, and that is the path we are on.

At this 40th anniversary of Apollo, we need to ask ourselves a simple question: Do we want to have a real space program, or do we just want to talk about what we used to be able to do?

Michael.Griffin@UAH.edu

Michael D. Griffin, a former NASA administrator, is a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Alabama at Huntsville.

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