With the presidential election season drawing nigh, space advocates are firing up their computers and are starting to offer unsolicited advice to the presidential candidates about how to fix the space program. Stephen Smith, a frequent critic of NASA, was first out of the gate Friday with a long, rambling blog post on why space exploration should be entirely commercial, by which he means “commercial” funded largely by the American taxpayer. He begins his dissertation by, in essence, trashing the Apollo program, perhaps the greatest engineering and scientific achievement in human history.
Smith asserts, “President Kennedy perverted NASA into a propaganda organ.” Then he goes on to suggest that using the race to the moon as part of the larger Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union was a mistake. He also notes that most people alive today were born after the Apollo program and, therefore, have no emotional resonance to the heroic era of lunar exploration. The clear implication is that invoking Kennedy would be a serious error.
Smith is not alone in his disdain for the Apollo program. Space blogger Rand Simberg suggested, in a controversial piece in USA Today on the occasion of the 45th anniversary of the moon landing, that Apollo was probably a mistake and attempting to recreate it in the modern era would be a bigger one.
However, as Slate Magazine points out, “Apollo nostalgia” is alive and well, having been inculcated by the baby boom generation that witnessed the moon landings to Generation X and the Millennials. When most people think about Apollo, they have a wistful feeling of a time when people actually did things in space, as opposed to the current era when people are stuck going in circles in low Earth orbit and only machines get to go to those strange new worlds. Politicians ranging from Barack Obama to Ted Cruz regularly invoke the spirit of Apollo. They must know something that Stephen Smith doesn’t.
It is not as if we’ve not managed to do $100 billion space projects since Apollo, as the space shuttle and International Space Station can attest to. Despite President Obama’s abrupt and politically motivated cancelation of the Constellation program, a humans to Mars program is still on and enjoys wide bipartisan support.
Kennedy tied the space program to a larger purpose, fighting the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The Apollo moon landings succeeded brilliantly in that goal, having a resonance that has lasted to this day. That fact is something to consider with a new Cold War brewing with Vladimir Putin’s Russia and China.
Starting a space policy proposal by trashing the Apollo moon landings is likely to get one pegged a nut and to not have the proposal taken seriously. Any serious space effort, whether it includes a commercial element like the Commercial Crew Program and international partners, like the ISS, is likely to be high-profile, take at least years, and cost many billions of dollars. Such an effort will almost certainly have a national security/soft power rationale. In other words, it will look a lot like Apollo, albeit with 21st Century features with it.