Apollo 11 landing. San Diego Air & Space Museum via flickr
Saturday marked the fiftieth anniversary of the first landing of humans on the moon. I remember staying up late in my bathrobe and watching the blurry images on our old black-and-white tube-model TV as Neil Armstrong first set foot on the dusty surface. I was no more moonstruck than most fifteen-year-olds were at the time. I enjoyed the attention that engineers and high technology were getting as a part of the space program. But the geopolitical forces that led up to the space race in the first place and the reasons why the U.S. government was spending so much money on it were things I was almost completely ignorant of.
NASA is still very much with us, though almost a shadow of its 1960s self in terms of its percentage of the federal budget. The questions of whether and how to spend the many billions of dollars it would cost to either return to the moon with manned spaceflights, or eventually go beyond the moon to Mars, will inevitably rise as we look back on what turned out to be a basically one-trick achievement. This is not to belittle the incredibly complex and, overall, well-executed program that took men to the moon. And if you want to connect the dots that go from the lunar landings to the Star Wars research initiatives to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, you can view the Apollo program as the most successful battle in the war against global communism, a war that the West won without starting a nuclear conflict.
But all that is history, and now the world faces the question of what to do next in space. The answer depends on which country you ask.
China makes no secret of the fact that they want to land Chinese citizens on the moon and establish a permanently-staffed lunar base. That is also the goal of one version of plans that NASA has been discussing. According to an article in Physics Today, during the Obama administration NASA examined the costs associated with setting up a manned lunar base: $60 to $80 billion. Faced with such a price tag, the agency instead proposed a plan involving lunar orbiters, landing on an asteroid, and eventually getting to Mars, but it attracted little support and became a dead letter.
More recently, Vice President Pence announced plans to land both men and women on the moon by 2024, but Congress refused to add the $1.6 billion needed for NASA to start planning for such an early date, so it looks like the political climate is more of a problem than any strictly technical issues.
As the barnacles of bureaucracy keep accreting on the U.S. ship of state, achievements of the past look even more impressive than they did at the time. Taking the technology of 1961, when many if not most electronic systems used vacuum tubes, and moving it forward to the point that we landed men on the moon and got them back safely in only two Presidential election cycles, was truly a stunning achievement.
But the country was more unified then, and nations that are deeply divided have problems uniting around any goal that isn't clearly for immediate self-preservation. Nevertheless, it's possible that younger people could unite around a space program that manages to establish a permanent outpost on another planet.
In my work as an educator at the college level, I run across students who, despite their precociously mature and somewhat cynical attitudes, show their support for space efforts by their desire to work for bold, exciting companies like SpaceX or Blue Origin, the Jeff-Bezos-funded space firm. I suppose it's the latest version of the pioneering spirit that led adventurous Swedes, Poles, and Englishmen to endure the hardships of a transatlantic voyage in the age of sail to explore and settle the unknown territories of the New World. We've pretty much run out of that sort of thing on this planet, so the moon or Mars is the next frontier, as the old Star Trek series used to tell us. It's no coincidence that the peak of that show's popularity was the late sixties, although its descendants have a cult following that continues to this day.
Science fiction is one thing, but taking a substantial fraction of a nation's gross domestic product and spending it on sending a few people out of this world is not to be undertaken lightly, even if it is privately funded instead of paid for by governments. It's the same kind of thing that the Egyptians did when they built the Pyramids, and it's no accident that most of the great construction achievements of the ancient and medieval world—pyramids, tombs, temples, cathedrals—involved religion in some way. With those who reply “none” to the pollster's question about religious belief increasing in our U. S. population, it seems pointless to hope that an explicitly religious motive could be found to unite people behind a new effort to go to either the moon or Mars.
But as the quasi-religious devotion of some Trekkies to the Star Trek franchise shows, some entirely secular things can become a religion for some people. A lot of the folks who work on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) have a kind of religious fervor about their jobs. And a good many Silicon Valley types believe with an almost religious conviction that once we overheat this planet we'll have no choice but to load up our interplanetary U-Hauls and move to another one.
The danger in that kind of thinking is that it can begin to inculcate the attitude that any sacrifice in the present is worth doing for the future paradise that awaits. Though I don't see any sign that this is happening yet, one could imagine a dictatorial government forcing its people into grinding poverty for the sake of a space program that at most could benefit a few dozen individuals directly. The same sacrifice of present goods for the ever-receding magnificent future was the way that Communism tempted (and still tempts) people to do highly immoral things right now for the sake of imagined future generations. The way things look now, we're in little danger of doing that in the U. S., but it might happen in China.
If we do land on the moon by 2024 (only five years from now), I will be happy to watch a full-color, 4K-definition image of someone young enough to be Neil Armstrong's grandson (or granddaughter) set foot on the moon for the second time. But I'm not placing any bets on it, and not just because I'm not the gambling type, either.
Sources: Physics Today's article “Quo Vadis, NASA: The Moon, Mars, or both?” by David Kramer appeared on pp. 22-26 of the July 2019 issue.