In our never ending debate over the direction of U.S. space policy, you’ve no doubt heard the claim that for a human mission to Mars, we have more technology available to us than President Kennedy had available to him when he declared the Apollo Moon landing goal in 1961. Those making this assertion are likely referring to the oft-mentioned “information revolution,” whereby the computing power that guided Apollo to the Moon can fit inside a thimble, rather than the large, suitcase-sized boxes that the old system required. But computers and avionics, while essential, hardly make up a complete and operational spaceflight capability.
How was it possible that within the span of only a few years, a country that had not yet been able to send a man into orbit was able to land two men on the Moon? For over 50 years, space advocates have been talking about sending people to Mars. Yet projected launch dates for the first voyage continually recede into the dim future, currently estimated as occurring in the mid-to-late 2030s at best, but more likely after 2050 in more candid assessments. What has happened to us as a nation that would cause this huge disparity? Could it be we are not as technically literate and advanced as we believe we are? Have we ridden too long on the Apollo wave of excellence? We appear stranded – left behind, dreaming and talking of space but not conquering it.
The success of Apollo can be attributed to many factors, but one aspect often overlooked is that Apollo was a program of the Cold War – a successor to World War II, the greatest marshaling of national will and capability in human history. Several recent books have examined the role of industry and the technical infrastructure developed and used to win the Second World War – how the latent industrial power of America was harnessed and unleashed against the war machines of both the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese. The massive production capability of American industry supplied an abundance of matériel to our armed forces. In the roughly 1300 days of America’s participation in World War II, the United States produced over 100,000 tanks, almost 200,000 fighter and heavy bomber aircraft, 160 aircraft carriers, 350 destroyers, and over 200 submarines. Whatever setbacks we received on the battlefields of the world, it was not for a lack of tools (nor the will) with which to fight.
This enormous American manufacturing capacity was complemented by a concerted effort to use our abundant scientific and engineering talent pool to aid the war effort. The contributions of science and engineering were numerous, ranging from proximity fuses, to radar, to the ultimate scientific/engineering achievement of the war, the atomic bomb. These efforts not only created “wonder weapons” to serve the fight for freedom, they also produced a trained and dedicated work force – a group of people willing to endure long, hard, anonymous hours of work using their maximum (and considerable) brainpower to solve nearly intractable problems.
This marshaled capability could have dissipated into nothing at the end of the war but it didn’t because the people and facilities that defeated the Axis and restored peace to the world were necessary to contain the ambitions of a new and rapacious superpower – the aggressive and expansionist Soviet Union. This was the Cold War, a long period of world tension. Rather than putting an emphasis on the production of matériel, this war required an even greater intellectual effort and more brainpower than the just-concluded “War to End All Wars.” In a real sense, the Cold War was a “technician’s struggle,” with East and West continually engaged in a global contest of technical achievement and one-upsmanship, all with the aim of attaining a military edge over their opponent to advance and secure their nation’s position in the world. The space program was an outgrowth of this mindset and struggle.
With the advent of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), it was clear that launches into space were now possible and that the battle of ideas and ideals would inevitably spill into the heavens. The Space Race became another battleground in the relatively bloodless, ideological Cold War struggle. Each new space accomplishment was heralded not only as an achievement in its own right, but also as an example of the superiority of a politico-economic system. When President John F. Kennedy advocated the landing of a man on the Moon “by the end of the decade,” he was throwing down the gauntlet of challenge to the Soviet Union: We will do this – are you able to?
In doing so, Kennedy was able to draw on the enormous scientific and technical infrastructure built up over the course of a twenty-year Cold War (itself a legacy of the previous capacity used to win World War II). This infrastructure was much more than factories, laboratories and advanced machinery – it was powered by Americans who possessed the culture and character needed to make it all work as a unified whole. The generation that fought and won the Cold War was largely the same one that fought and won the Second World War – those men and women shaped by the hardships of the Great Depression, who sacrificed for their families and for their country. They were willing to work the long, hard hours beyond a daily punch-in to complete whatever job had to be done (and done correctly) to keep and protect a nation and a way of life. In short, it was the so-called “Greatest Generation” – those who fought back tyranny and won, who took us to the Moon.
Over time, people and ideas pass away and memories fade. After the fall of the USSR, the enormous technical infrastructure that won this triumph was allowed to atrophy and dissipate. I have always thought that the 1989 declaration of the Human Space Initiative (later re-named the Space Exploration Initiative – SEI) of President George H.W. Bush (a WWII veteran) was our leadership’s recognition of the danger of letting this capability lapse and thus, coupled it to a suitable challenge for America’s scientific and engineering community (one that would keep sharp our capacity to fight some future technocratic war or struggle – a sentiment and truth we should always reflect upon). Historically, exploration is an activity used to keep a country’s military engaged during long periods of relative peace (e.g., The H.M.S. Challenger’s oceanographic survey in the latter part of the 19th Century). In this sense, President Bush believed a challenging goal in space would serve to maintain this critical national capability, a capability bought and paid-for with decades of blood and treasure.
However, SEI was not supported by the Congress and the technological infrastructure that won the Cold War evaporated. Numerous small, high-tech companies that supported military and space needs in previous decades were allowed to fold or were absorbed by mega-conglomerates. The contraction was not only permitted to occur, but was actually encouraged by ideological opponents of the “military-industrial complex,” the allegedly evil coalescence of the high-tech, federal contractor firms that helped to win the Cold War. The so-called “boom” of high-tech in the late 1990s was largely consumer-oriented and did not produce the needed pieces of a space faring capability.
So, here we find ourselves in the new millennium. Are we “more technically advanced” than when JFK annunciated the goal of a lunar landing within a decade? I think not. Not only has our enormous and varied technical industrial capacity vanished, its engine – the people who made it all work – are gone (laid off, retired or dead). Too many of the current generation lack an understanding of history. They are not motivated by an understanding and belief in American exceptionalism – the foundation that animated past generations to greatness. They have not learned (or have not been taught, so do not possess) the ethic of self-sacrifice of their parents and grandparents – those tough, smart generations that defeated the Nazis, brought down the Soviets, and built a technically advanced American civilization, wealthy – and generous – almost beyond imagination. That nation has been slowly receding into the mists of history, leaving behind but a shell of what it once was and what it was capable of doing.
This is not the same country that sent people to the Moon in less than a decade. We have become a generation of self-absorbed takers, vegetating on and destroying the accumulated wealth and accomplishment of our formerly great nation. We spin fantasy when we talk about going to Mars. We’re not going to Mars – or anywhere else in space – until we are willing to sacrifice, roll up our sleeves and begin working to rebuild what we once had. Until then, our future in space will remain limited to Powerpoint presentations and recollections of what the Greatest Generation was able to achieve.