One small step…
By John D. Turner
20 Jul 2012

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” – President John F. Kennedy, 25 May 1961

“…perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science, math, and engineering." – NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on President Obama’s direction for the future of America’s Space Agency

Forty-seven years ago today, Neil Armstrong became the first human being to set foot on another heavenly body when he stepped off the ladder of the Lunar Excursion Module onto the surface of the moon. It was a triumphant point in our nation’s history, and a signal achievement for humanity as a whole. It marked the beginning of our emergence as a space-faring race, not limited to a single sphere, but technologically capable of planting our species on other worlds as well.

Movies of the time reflected this theme also; 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s epic 1968 film based in part on Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel,” depicted a space station in orbit with regular airline-style flights between it and Earth, as well as a very large base on the moon, serviced by regularly-scheduled spacecraft. The date? 2001, just as the title stated. Yet here we are, in 2012, and though we have a space station in orbit, albeit much smaller and much less capable than the one in the movie, there is no regularly scheduled commercial service between Earth and the station; no base on the moon, no plans for manned space flight to Mars or the outer planets. In fact, no manned space program of any sort to speak of as the United States currently, and for the foreseeable future, lacks the capability to get its astronauts from Earth to the space station we built (with $100 billion in taxpayer money) without getting a ride up there and back from the Russians.

How have we come to this? How have we gone from the heady days of the 1960’s when we were competing with (and beating) the Russians, to paying them for a ride to the space station we built?

You could say that Stanley Kubrick’s vision of a vast space enterprise with a massive space station, space transportation system, and lunar base was impossible to realize in the short 30+ year span of time between the initial landing and 2001. Perhaps. But consider; we went from launching our first astronaut into space, not even an orbital flight, on 5 May 1961, to landing two men on the moon on 20 July 1969. That’s 8 years from a standing start. Had we continued to press at that rate, perhaps we would have that base on the moon, at least by now. Perhaps we would truly be a space faring race. Instead, by the end of 1972, we were done. Our last astronaut lifted off from the lunar surface on 14 December 1972. We have never returned.

On June 16th this year, China launched its 4th manned space mission; the first they had launched since 2008. On this mission, China not only put their first woman into space, but also performed a rendezvous and docking maneuver with another spacecraft – their first. Unlike our first docking, which was just a target module with no other particular purpose, the Tiangong-1 module was a full-fledged, live support module that can also be used as living space both in orbit, beyond low Earth orbit, around the moon, or in deep space. China has a vibrant, living manned space program, with plans for the future.

Reporting here in the U.S. sounded a lot like an older brother cheering on his younger sibling. “Yep, been there, done that, got the t-shirt; but ya done good, shorty!” One comment I remember vividly was that “China is still way behind the U.S., performing feats that we accomplished 40 years ago. Perhaps. Then again, China has the capability to put their astronauts into space and perform those feats; we do not. So who is ahead of whom, exactly?

When I was a kid, one of the stories I particularly enjoyed was the story of the tortoise and the hare. The moral of the story was, “slow and steady wins the race.” So yes, we beat the Russians to the moon. And now here we are, 47 years later, paying them $51 million a pop to send our astronauts to the ISS. That does not include getting them back home, by the way; that’s another $48 million. Apparently it is cheaper to get back home than to get up in the first place.

Hey, but who knows? Perhaps we can ink a better deal from the Chinese…

It will be interesting to see what we do when the Chinese (or the Russians, or anyone else) finally gets to the moon. Will we still claim that they are 40-50 years behind us simply because we go there first, even though we have absolutely no capability to return? If we were to start again, and “race” the Chinese to the moon, we would be woefully behind the power curve. The Chinese already have a working manned space capsule and a man-rated booster to loft it with. We have neither.

It will also be interesting to see what the Chinese do when they get there. Yes, we were there first. And yes, we claimed the moon “for all mankind.” But we haven’t been there in nearly 50 years and, as I mentioned above, we have absolutely no capability to return. What’s to keep China from planting their flag, kicking ours over, metaphorically at any rate, and claiming the whole thing for China? A very good legal case could be made that we have abandoned our “claim.” We never returned, and have absolutely no concrete plans or ability to do so.

We had very good reasons, back in the 1960’s, to want to beat the Russians. Those same reasons apply to China as well. American’s have gotten used to first world superpower status. Despite what we might think, we really aren’t going to like it very much when China and other countries can tell us what we are going to do and make it stick. Second world status isn’t going to sit well with us; third world status, where we are currently headed, is really going to suck.

There are those who might say, “so what?” So China gets to the moon. So they claim it for China. So they build a base there. Who cares? How does this affect me anyway? Let them waste their money in space and on the moon. We have our own problems here on Earth.

Perhaps there were those back in England, and in other European countries who felt the same way about sending folks to America, or India, or Australia, or South America. Why waste the money? Then again perhaps there weren’t that many after all. Back in those days countries were ruled by kings and queens; there weren’t any socialist states. Profit was a major motivator for exploration and colonization. The common person saw it as a way to escape their current state, and perhaps become wealthy. The financiers saw it as a way to become even wealthier. And governments saw it as a way to both increase wealth, and to get rid of malcontents at home.

Today, the ever increasing multitudes of people with their hands outstretched for government largess, see money spent on space not so much as money out of their back pockets because of taxes (most aren’t paying those), but as money that never makes it to their back pockets in the first place. That is what is behind the “we have our own problems here on Earth” argument. The problem being that they want more money, goods and services to be provided to them by the government and not “wasted” on something else.

Sure, there might be some benefit to doing “stuff” in space. But Tang and Teflon and the miniaturization revolution that brought us iPhones, iPods, and iPads have already occurred. What have you done for me lately? Particularly those young enough to not ever have lived in a world with only one black-and-white television channel, clunky land-line phones, and no video games.

It is interesting for some of us “older folks” to give some thought about how younger folks see the world. For example, those graduating in the class of 2013 have never known a world without the Internet. Most have never used a card catalog to find a book, or even know what a card catalog is. Babies have always had a social security number. Christopher Columbus has always been a “bad guy.” Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Latvia, Georgia, Lithuania, and Estonia have always been independent nations. In fact, the Cold War is something that happened a “long time ago”, like WWII and the Civil War. Russia is our friend; after all, hasn’t the government told us that? And they aren’t old enough to remember any different.

Sometimes it is easy to think that all the “really important stuff” has been done or invented. That we are somehow living in a post-modern “golden age” of some sort where it’s raining soup and all we have to do is hold out a bowl to get fed. For those graduating in 2013, and even before, the United States has always been #1. American supremacy has always been unchallenged. The dollar has always been the world reserve currency. The U.S. military has always had global reach and been invincible.

The United States has always been the number one space power.

As our manned space launch capability is outsourced to Russia, and NASA devotes it’s time to monitoring global warming and becoming a Muslim outreach program it is only a matter of time before that, like many of the things the graduates of 2013 now see as history, becomes history as well for, say, the class of 2023. Just another part of the “fundamental change” Americans voted for in 2008 I guess.

John F. Kennedy and Barack H. Obama. Both Americans. Both Democrats. Both Presidents of the United States. When it comes to space (and many other things) could two such men possibly be any more different?

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