Michael KreponFrontiers in Space

After succeeding spectacularly by landing astronauts on the lunar surface and welcoming them home, what do you do for an encore? This question has vexed Washington ever since 1969. Subsequent national choices in the form of the space shuttle and the international space station absorbed large sums and turned out to be confining – not exactly what Americans expect or deserve from their space ventures. Next comes the long wait, until China produces similar headlines to the ones on yellowing newspapers that I treasure in my attic.

Momentum is to geopolitics as possession is to the law. A rare commodity for the United States at present, in space as on terra firma. It’s hard to pursue bold new visions when cleaning up big messes from the previous ones.

I’m eagerly anticipating John Logsdon’s book on JFK’s space policies. Here, for old times’ sake, are a few key passages from President Kennedy’s famous man on the moon speech before Congress, May 25, 1961:

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. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish… In a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the Moon—if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there….

Let it be clear—and this is a judgment which the Members of the Congress must finally make—let it be clear that I am asking the Congress and the country to accept a firm commitment to a new course of action—a course which will last for many years and carry very heavy costs… If we are to go only half way, of reduce our sights in the face of difficulty, in my judgment it would be better not to go at all.

One speech does not a space policy make. Kennedy’s encore (view it here), at Rice University on September 12, 1962, was perfectly pitched):

Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolution, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it—we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.

Yet the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world’s leading space-faring nation.

We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people… But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? …

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win… “

Fast forward to NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden, Jr., as reported by Space News, January 11, 2010:

We cannot do big things very much any more.


  1. 3.1415 (History)

    1969 was the heyday of the Empire – fighting a bloody war with a conscripted army and demonstrating to the world that only Uncle Sam had the guts and the ability to go where nobody had gone before. All Americans should be proud of the achievement. Fast forward some 40 years, with a “volunteer” army fighting two sticky, if not entirely oily, wars, lots of pork barrels and 12 trillion dollars of debt, it is time to ponder the future of the Empire. Sam Huntington’s “Who are We?” would be a good starting point. And forget about Clash of Civilizations, the ability to clash is getting rusty quickly at the current rate of going.

  2. Azr@el (History)

    As long as NASA mires itself in the Gagarin paradigm of ‘manned space’ it will continue to be nothing more than a jobs program. There are great projects in space that lie ahead, unfortunately for the astronaut corp, they simply don’t involve humans. We have created drones that can give us a fairly good estimate of the plains of Mesopotamia or the plains of Mars, we have the existing rockets to slowboat exploratory machines to any section of our star system and all we lack is an agency with the will to push forward. We are in the information revolution yet NASA lags behind, nostalgically clinging to 60’s, and heroes made of flesh, blood and 8mm film clips. Like some middle age high school football star constantly trying to relive their glory years as they refuse to accept a more mundane adulthood.

    It wouldn’t matter much to the average human being on earth whether a an US national or a PRC national steps foot on mars first or the moon ever again, but it would profoundly affect life here if a drone found life in the seas of Europa (Sol5Zeta) or an infrared astronomical array in a solar orbit close to Mars (Sol4) discovered the traces of life in the atmosphere of an extrasolar planet. There are great challenges ahead in the realm of space exploration, yet a wistful moping NASA is unequal to each and every one of them.

  3. Andrew Tubbiolo

    Given how tightly space is tied to conventional as well as nuclear war fighting, I wonder how much the other space program really wants a bunch of civilians running about looking at the wrong things and pointing telescopes the wrong way. While I think space is America’s only hope at re-establishing itself as a nation above all others by merit and raw industrial might, I’m afraid the day of the technical Yankee has come and gone. We’re just becoming a rabble of non-analytical brutes.

  4. ekzept (History)

    “We’re just becoming a rabble of non-analytical brutes.” I so agree with Mr Tubbiolo!

    But, putting that aside, I believe our limits in space exploration are there because we singularly lack imagination and lack a sense of adventure, and a willingness to pay psychological prices for pursuing it. My template is simply Zubrin’s MARS DIRECT, not because I am beholden to him or think he’s a guru. (Indeed, I think he got some things wrong.) But, rather, we can DO that without direct involvement of government — as long as they can collectively ignore Lockheed-Martin lobbyists — and we can do it if the public isn’t so fearful of loss of life in such adventures as it seems they are. Note Apollo 13, and drama and ratings appeal, but how viewers were so drawn some judged such exploration inappropriate, basically because it would subject them to emotional discomfort, mediated (literally) by television. Such sensitivity to the prospect of loss without then running into the arms of blind, superstitious spirituality (*) is a limiter. It makes us collectively see failures and hurts where we should see successes, such as the performance of the Twin Towers on 9/11/2001, and the remarkable ability of an air traffic controls system to safely depopulate tens of thousands of planes from the skies. We need some gumption. Kennedy used fear to motivate us. We need something else, or the American experiment is teetering upon failure.
    (*) This opinon is of course mine. Who’s else could it be? And I just happen to think that our collective inability to face and accept death in the pursuit of good causes often for the commons without promise of reward other than that purpose is a defining flaw in our present national character.

  5. Arduus

    Michael’s quote of JFK’s Rice speech omits two key passages:

    “What was once the furthest outpost on the old frontier of the West will be the furthest outpost on the new frontier of science and space. Houston, your City of Houston, with its Manned Spacecraft Center, will become the heart of a large scientific and engineering community. During the next 5 years the National Aeronautics and Space Administration expects to double the number of scientists and engineers in this area, to increase its outlays for salaries and expenses to $60 million a year; to invest some $200 million in plant and laboratory facilities; and to direct or contract for new space efforts over $1 billion [$7.2 billion in 2010 dollars] from this Center in this City.”


    “But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

    While historians and economists still debate the economic impacts of NASA spending on the modernization of the South, one thing is certain: Rice and Texas are no longer in the same athletic conference.

  6. Ouroboros (History)

    I am having a bit of difficulty locating that quotation from Charles Bolden on the Space News website. I agree that it is sad, and perhaps telling, but I would ask your assistance in substantiating it. Thanks.

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