Can our political leaders shake Curse of Apollo?


At 7:56 p.m. on July 20, 1969,  I was watching television.

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I was not alone. About 600 million people around the world were also watching, taking in the grainy, black and white images of Neil Armstrong making that “one small step” on the surface of the moon.

As an 11-year-old boy, I was enraptured. I had followed the Gemini and Apollo space flights as a child of the ‘60s.

I was fascinated to watch Edward White take the first American spacewalk, three months after Soviet Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov. I even made my mother wake up at 3 a.m. to watch launches with me.

The moon landing was a Cold War victory over the Soviet Union, a scientific marvel and a pinnacle of American pride. Little did I realize on that July day 50 years ago that America’s great achievement would warp its space exploration policies for decades to come.

The exhilaration of achieving President Kennedy’s goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the ‘60s fostered nationalist pride and celebration hard to convey to anyone who did not experience it. While it was a great human achievement, most Americans, myself included, felt it was first and foremost a great American triumph.

Ever since, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has continued to make manned space flight its central mission, despite the enormous cost. That desire to recapture the magic of the first moon walk is America’s Curse of Apollo.

Following Apollo, NASA put people in space on Sky Lab, then the space shuttle, then the International Space Station. Now we are looking at the moon (redux) and Mars.

One would think the space shuttle and station experiences would be instructive.

The space shuttle was billed as reusable and affordable. In 2011 dollars, it was to cost $43 billion to develop and $54 million per flight to launch.

However, the actual price tag, in combined development and launch costs, ran $1.6 billion per flight. It cost almost $200 billion overall.

Add to that the loss of 13 Americans and one Israeli in the Challenger and Columbia disasters.

The space station was projected to cost $10 billion and take 10 years to build. But it actually ran 10 times that figure and took nearly three decades to build.

NASA promoted the ISS as a moneymaker, thanks to the space manufacturing that a micro-gravity environment could provide. But industry merely shrugged.

As NASA Inspector General Paul Martin testified to Congress, the ISS had generated “scant commercial interest … over its nearly 20 years of operation.” 

Through the ISS, we learned some things muchphysiology in space, but little else. The space station has, for the most part, proven a $3 billion to $4 billion a year paperweight in space.

But expensive failures have not dissuaded politicians.

President Trump is now insisting the U.S. proceed to the next great accomplishment — putting Americans on Mars — and from there, go on to “human expansion across the solar system.”

People on Neptune? Bad idea. Satellites to outer planets? Been there, done that.

Vice President Pence recently announced the administration’s interim goal of putting humans back on the moon, “by any means necessary,” by 2024. So NASA is currently building a new moon rocket.

It has already cost $12 billion over five years, and is expected to cost $1 billion a launch. Asked about that, NASA’s Chad Bryant said, “Think of it as a jobs program. So we’re taking all of the funding that is given us to build this rocket, we’re creating jobs everywhere. And not only that, we’re all coming together to build a product that is going to make us proud to be Americans.”

If we only spend enough money, that old Apollo pride will apparently surge right back.

Ironically, in the midst of all of the hullabaloo about human space flight, NASA has been attaining extraordinary accomplishments in space that should swell any American’s heart, using vehicles with no people aboard. Employing satellites and robots, we have driven over the surface of Mars, plunged into the atmosphere of Jupiter, explored the rings and moons of Saturn, discovered gravitational waves and distant exoplanets, visited asteroids, zoomed past frigid Pluto, visited every planet in the solar system and entered interstellar space.  

Had we not been spending $3 billion a year shuttling humans to the space station and back, battalions of other satellites and telescopes would be exploring the vast reaches of the universe, bringing distant outposts to us in vivid detail.

Consider one simple comparison of human versus robotic accomplishment.

The total amount of time humans have spent on the moon, at budget-busting expense, is 9.96 days. Of that, only 3.5 days were spent on excursions outside the lander.

In contrast, the Mars rover Opportunity explored the surface of the red planet for 14 years for less than the cost of maintaining the space station for a year. And the rover Curiosity, which landed on Mars in 2012, is still busily at work.

The cost of sending humans to Mars has been estimated at between $100 billion and $1 trillion. Based on NASA’s history with cost estimates, I would lean toward the higher price tag.

What is certain is this: Valuable robotic missions will be sacrificed so we can fling humans into space, largely to bolster America’s apparently fragile ego.

One frequently cited reason for sending Americans to Mars is to avoid having other countries beat us to it. The Chinese have suggested they want to send humans to Mars, making NASA’s knees wobble.

If the Chinese want to send people to Mars, I say. “Let them.”

For a fraction of the cost, America can have three rovers playing “Yankee Doodle” drive over to greet them with cheeseburgers. Then, a few days later, when they leave, our little robots can wave good-bye with American flags and signs saying, “Hurry back, we’ll still be here.”

Now that’s American pride.

The American people are already ahead of the politicians on the subject of manned space flight. An NPR poll this June found only 27 percent said that the U.S. should send astronauts to Mars, versus 47 percent who said robotic exploration of space should be a priority.

Returning to the moon ranked even lower at 23 percent.

A full 68 percent held that NASA should prioritize monitoring for asteroids and comets that could impact Earth.  Nothing makes for national pride like saving the whole damn planet.

Americans, it would seem, have shaken off the curse of Apollo. They have come to recognize self-preservation and getting the biggest bang for our buck is the wise course of space action.

Apollo was great.  God Bless America.

Now it’s time to let our robotic servants explore the universe, save the planet and maybe hand a cheeseburger to the Chinese.



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