A note on NASA and the 1969 Apollo moon landings – 50 years on

From the Apollo 14 mission. Image credit: NASA

In my last epistle, I posted that I would continue onward with my critique of the upcoming METRO Next referendum, but I changed my mind because of the substantial attention that was brought to bear over the fact that July 20th, 2019 was the fiftieth anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 mission when Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong became the first humans to land and walk on the moon. Many celebrations were held around Houston, including at Space Center Houston, Discovery Green downtown, and elsewhere.

I was a small boy when the famous Apollo 11 mission took place, and it is personally significant because it marked an important moment in my family’s history. My family actually arrived in Houston in July 1969, coming from up north because my father had been transferred (along with lots of his work colleagues) to Houston by his employer. It was a part of my family lore that we watched the Apollo 11 moon landings on television in a hotel room off the Southwest Freeway, as my parents were closing on the house in Spring Branch that we moved into (and which I grew up in). As a boy, there were many occasions when people asked me my name, they inevitably replied, “Neal Armstrong!” Such was the power that the achievement that America had successfully landed men on the moon had on ordinary people’s imaginations.

And yet, as I entered my adulthood, the “Neal Armstrong”s became fewer and fewer until they disappeared altogether. At the same time, I often encountered people who, when talking about public affairs, would decry that “America could land a man on the moon, but we can’t do X!” The moon landing became a metaphor for America’s can-do spirit, but I would submit that the event also became a metaphor for the ending of an era when visible material progress was still easy to achieve, and the start of an era where material progress was becoming more of a slog. Thinkers from both the Left and the Right have spoken about the same thing. Paul Krugman, while he was still a respectable economist and before he became a half-mad clickbaiter for the New York Times, wrote about the slowdown in overall economic productivity in his 1994 book Peddling Prosperity. More on the right, billionaire Peter Thiel alluded to this overall slowdown in healthy economic growth that started in the early 1970s in this You Tube video interview. In other words, the easy pickings in material progress from technological discoveries resulting from 19th and 20th century advances in physics and chemistry (and also including fossil fuels) were reaching their limits. From the early 1970s onwards, it was going to still be possible to make material advances in human well being and achievement. However, those achievements were going to be much harder to come by.

What the slowdown in advances in the physical sciences meant for NASA and space exploration after Apollo 11

As a practical matter, what this slowdown in economic advances resulting from physics and chemistry meant was that… well, here we are 50 years later and we haven’t yet invented the hyper drive in Star Wars movies! Nor have we invented the warp drive found in the stories of Star Trek. Of course, a diehard movie and television fan would say that these discoveries are still to be made far into the future, but my retort to that is exactly what I wrote above. We’ve been making some rather slow progress from the world of physics and chemistry over the past 50 years, and among other things that fact has been showing up in how little progress humans have made in manned space exploration. It took four days for Apollo 11 to make it from the earth to the moon. Yet, the minimum distance from the Earth to Mars is some 34.8 million miles, with the two planets being an average distance of some 140 million miles apart. The problem here is that all planets in our solar system orbit around the sun. Hence the minimum travel time to get from Earth to Mars, with current technology, is estimated to be some nine months. Then it would take another nine months or more to get back to Earth. Needless to say, that’s a long time to be away from Earth, and any journey to Mars using current technology from today’s physics and chemistry would be fraught with endless perils.

In the absence of a manned mission to Mars or an extremely exciting exploration feat that would top that of the Apollo missions, NASA and other space explorers have opted for a more modest agenda. When Richard Nixon was president, NASA bureaucrats persuaded Mr. Nixon to approve the space shuttle as NASA’s major future platform for space exploration. The shuttle was meant to be reusable (or at least partially reusable), and there seemed to be an idea floating around out there that space shuttle launches would be happening every week or two. As it turned out, the space shuttle program ended up costing an estimated $209 billion over its nearly 40-year life. With 134 launches to its credit, the space shuttle program ended up costing some $1.6 billion per launch and each launch ended up taking an average of several months to accomplish rather than the few weeks that were initially envisioned. In short, the space shuttle program ended up becoming another of a long list of exhibits supporting my dictum that governments can never do anything cheaply.

Now, the space shuttle program was not the only focus of NASA’s efforts. The Hubble Space Telescope was what this eternal government skeptic would consider to be a pretty solid success. Built and completed at a cost of some $1.5 billion in 1990 (about $2.9 billion in 2019 dollars), the Hubble has made some significant contributions (not to mention spectacular photographs) to our understanding of the universe. Other unmanned missions have made successful landings on other planets in our solar system and have contributed to our understanding of what’s out there.

Where does NASA (and space exploration) go from here?

At bottom, the whole enterprise of space exploration is both enhanced and hampered by the fact that the universe is a pretty big place. The case for NASA and its taxpayer-sponsored space programs is enhanced by trying to answer age-old questions, such as whether we humans are the only form of highly intelligent life in the universe. Indeed, are there any other forms of life out there? What planets or other space bodies are out there that might be able to sustain life? If there are such planets, then how far away are they, and what would it take to reach them? Also, there are other, more worrisome questions to be answered, such as asking if there are any asteroids or bodies that could strike our home planet with such force that doing so would threaten catastrophic loss of human, animal, and plant life? If so, then what could we do to stop those objects from doing so?

And yet, the hampering of the case for NASA consists of the same exact problem. Since NASA is supposed to be concerned with the exploration of space, that raises fundamental questions  such as what is supposed to be the overall agenda for space exploration and how is NASA supposed to go about doing it? Not long after NASA was created and chartered by the United States Congress, President Kennedy made his famous speech at Rice University in 1962, where he urged manned exploration of the Moon. What I would argue here is that from a political and material standpoint,  President Kennedy pointed his finger and gave marching orders to NASA to hit a big fat target. All that was needed was a pile of taxpayer money and the technological prowess to do it. America’s Apollo landings achieved before the end of the decade were a huge political success, even if they were costly, and of course were a tremendous human achievement. They helped overcome general public apathy for political support for taxpayer-funded space exploration, the support for which has never been that great.

However, since the end of the Apollo program, NASA has suffered from an overall lack of direction for the past 40 years or more. In what steps or orders are humans supposed to explore and conquer the challenges of space? Is there a step-by-step roadmap for NASA’s future? As far as I can tell, I do not see that there really is. In contrast, what we are seeing in private efforts in space is that there are definite visions and programs in place to facilitate new ventures in space. The Space X company, founded by Elon Musk, definitely has on its agenda the colonization of Mars. Meanwhile, NASA’s elite are talking about going back to the moon in 2024. I would ask, why? Or, perhaps in a more gentle manner, why go back to the moon unless NASA can show us that humans can stay on the moon for prolonged periods of time and can perhaps establish a base on the moon? What is the point here?

In ending this note, I would simply suggest to NASA and to space exploration fans that if you want to garner more taxpayer support for NASA, first of all concentrate on missions that can achieve something substantial for relatively low costs. Unmanned exploration missions are fine for this. I would also suggest to NASA to stay away from trying to commercialize space, as the private sector can do a much better job of that, and because private actors would have a better set of incentives for doing so. And finally, I would say to NASA and its supporters to draw up a roadmap for space exploration in the future that even a skeptic like me can understand and follow. Doing so would likely give Americans a much better view of why they are having to pay taxes to support a space agency in the first place.