The Melancholy Moon

Now that the (justifiable) hype and ceremony surrounding the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day is done, it’s time for the plaudits and plaints to begin in remembrance of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the first men on the moon. The “greatest week since creation” (as President Richard Nixon called it in an intemperate spasm) began with the launch of Apollo 11 and climaxed on July 20, 1969, with Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” onto the Sea of Tranquility. It’s ironic anticlimax occurred on Guam, where Nixon took the occasion of the return of the astronauts to proclaim the Nixon Doctrine: a formula for American retreat so at odds with the “bear any burden” mentality that had given birth to the Apollo program just eight years before.

I missed the first moon landing. Twenty-five years ago this month, I had the night shift as chief of artillery fire direction in a particularly nasty jungle base in South Vietnam. A copy of Stars and Stripes—several days old—told us of Apollo 11. I don’t recall that it made much of an impression on us GIs. To be sure, as a high school and college student, I had kept up with the space program, and shared the tension of liftoffs and splashdowns. But in the hyperactive technological landscape of the sixties, I think we kids took the big rockets for granted— sort of the government’s equivalent of a Pontiac GTO. Only in 1979, when I began to research a book on the origins and effects of the space race, did I come to know how big a part Sputnik and Apollo— and all they came to stand for— played in the life of our times. More than the tears we shed when Apollo 13 limped home after an on-board explosion, the manned space program allowed us to hope that humanity had the power and will to cope in an age of unprecedented anxiety. As such, the Soviet and American space programs were exercises in technological mythopoeia designed to extol the two social systems. But both cold war contestants lost in the end. The USSR no longer exists, and neither does the image of America that a squeaky clean NASA was to sculpt and promote.

In 1972, Harrison Schmitt, scientist-astronaut and future Republican senator from New Mexico, heard the president speak from the Oval Office a quarter-million miles away. “This may be the last time in this century,” said Nixon, “that men will walk on the moon.” Schmitt was incredulous, then wept. But Nixon was only the messenger. For by the time John F. Kennedy’s pledge to reach the moon was fulfilled, the vigor and optimism (yes, and arrogance) that defined the United States in 1961 were already gone. Vietnam, expensive social programs, racial unrest, the feminist and ecology movements, and the vulnerability of space exploration to every spasm of politics combined to make the Apollo moon program—glorious though it was—a dead end.

What went wrong with the space program? So very wrong that not only have we made none of the advances predicted back at the start (moon bases, space stations, Mars voyages, and more), we could not even repeat what we did back then if we wanted to. Some blame the “burn-out” factor: people just got bored with repetitive missions in space. Others condemn manned space flight altogether as wasteful: why pay ten times the price to put human beings in space when robots can explore just as well, if not better? Others point to détente: once the Soviet threat diminished, we lost our sense of urgency about strategic technology. And others applaud the fact that our society shifted to earthly priorities, such as poverty, education, health, and the environment. After all, if we can send a man to the moon, why can’t we.

But we can’t. For Apollo was an engineering feat, pure and simple. Its means and methods could not be used to solve human problems, even at a hundred times the cost. But the leaders of NASA—the political leaders and their political patrons—suggested we could. They actively promoted the “NASA model” as relevant to all the nation’s problems from the inner cities to the jungles of Southeast Asia. And that suggests the two deepest reasons for the debacle the space program has become. First, it was profoundly un-American: a transference to the United States of centralized, mobilized, crash “Five-Year Plans” for conscious invention of the future. As such, it inevitably fell prey to bureaucratic sclerosis, public relations excesses, cost overruns, interest group infighting, political manipulation, and outright deceit. NASA, in short, went the way of the USSR itself. Secondly, the space program suffered from the “Kennedy effect,” the fact that he made it a race. For that meant that once the race was over and won, the American people were bound to relax, even if the country had not been cracking up over Vietnam. Like the hare in the race with the tortoise, we grabbed a lead, then took a nap.

The truth is that NASA’s budget began to decline as early as 1967. By the time of the first lunar landing, the Nixon administration had decided to cancel the last four or five missions and initiate post-Apollo planning. Spiro Agnew said, “Let’s go to Mars,” and was ridiculed in the press and Congress. But even Wernher von Braun’s more moderate plea for a space station offended the enemies of the “military-industrial complex.” Only in 1972, with the election looming, did Nixon approve the Space Shuttle, and only then in order to buy votes in aerospace states like California, Texas, and Florida. But by then, NASA had downscaled severely, its best engineers having bolted for the private sector. Fearing for its very survival, NASA’s chiefs made outlandish—some say “dishonest”—promises about how much the Shuttle would cost, and how much it could do. The re-usable craft was to be “the Mack truck of space,” delivering great weights into orbit twenty-four times per year at a tenth of the cost of previous rockets. Spaceflight was to become routine, safe, and cheap. But predictably, the Shuttle came on line years late, far over budget, and loaded with glitches. By 1986, when the Challenger exploded, it was clear that the Shuttle had not made spaceflight cheaper, more frequent, or safe. Above all, we discovered that the Shuttle could do only a fraction of what had been touted. In sum, the Apollo program had been a case of deciding where we wanted to go, then designing the technology to take us there, while the Shuttle program was a case of designing a technology, then going wherever it could take us. It did not take us far.

The history might have been different. When the Russians orbited Sputnik in 1957, almost everyone panicked except Eisenhower. The moon isn’t going anywhere, he said, and one satellite does not cancel out our nuclear deterrent. So he and Keith Glennan, the first NASA administrator, pledged a steady “building-blocks” approach to space, with moderate but steady budgets, a long horizon, and ample seed money for promising new ideas. Such an approach might have got us to the moon five or ten years later, but rather than scarfing up a few moon rocks, then shutting down the program, we could have put those first astronauts to work building a base, whereupon later visitors would have all the time in the world to explore and study the solar system. Instead, we threw away the Apollo spacecraft and Saturn 5 rocket—the greatest machine ever built—then lost the blueprints (I’m not kidding). No wonder Schmitt cried.

Some say manned spaceflight was hubris: a modern-day Tower of Babel. But it need not have been, and we need not have stolen the dreams from our children and grandchildren, once we laid to rest the fears of our own. The only solace a space enthusiast might take from this history is this. Although Megellan first crossed the Pacific Ocean in 1521, not until fifty years later did the Spaniards build their first settlement, Manila, on the other side. At that rate, we have until 2019 to do the same on the moon. But until we do, the moon will remain as Shakespeare described her, “the sovereign mistress of true melancholy.”

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