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back to the future
returning to the moon is lunacy
by russ carr (@DocOrlando70)

It's 1961, again.

Now it is time to take longer strides--time for a great new American enterprise--time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.

I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshalled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment.

Nearly a year after the fiery destruction of the shuttle Columbia during re-entry, after a year in which only one of three missions to Mars met with any success, and only days after space station Freedom developed an atmosphere leak, President Bush has declared a new national goal: return to the Moon, then on to Mars.

First, 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.

The Apollo program, which ultimately set Neal Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon's surface, cost (officially) $25.4 billion between 1962 and 1972. To fulfill the same mission parameters in the next 10 years or so puts the price tag somewhere between $400 and $500 billion.

Returning to the moon also will require a fundamental shift in NASA's work ethic and mission, something requested years ago, required after Columbia's loss, and which remains undelivered. The remaining shuttle fleet is still grounded. Expansion of the space station has been halted. Development of the Orbital Space Plane -- the would-be successor to the shuttle -- has also been mothballed. Even if the shuttle resumes flying by the end of this year, its mission has been greatly reduced; it's a space taxi flying two or three crewmen to the space station at half a billion bucks a pop.

This decision demands a major national commitment of scientific and technical manpower, materiel and facilities, and the possibility of their diversion from other important activities where they are already thinly spread. It means a degree of dedication, organization and discipline which have not always characterized our research and development efforts. It means we cannot afford undue work stoppages, inflated costs of material or talent, wasteful interagency rivalries, or a high turnover of key personnel.

In the '60s we were fighting loosely-defined wars -- against the Vietcong in southeast Asia, against the Soviet Union in Berlin, Cuba and Turkey, and against ourselves in Watts, Detroit and Chicago. Our current wars are just as nebulous, just as undefined. Many of Bush's opponents, most notably the Democratic presidential candidates, likely will suggest that the new space initiative is a dog and pony show, designed to distract the nation during this election year from the quickening morass of Iraq.

The same points will be made now that have been made any time America's space program has been at a critical juncture: What are we paying for? Why does it matter? Couldn't that money go to the poor, the children, the military, the taxpayer? Unlike a year ago, the question is not, "How can NASA overcome the loss of a shuttle and crew?" The shuttle program is a known quantity, the training of its astronauts fits within measurable parameters.

No, now, the question is, "Where do we start?" Will we require a modern version of the Mercury and Gemini programs, to teach a new generation of astronauts how to work within a space capsule again? NASA hasn't put a man in space -- except in the shuttle -- since 1975. The Russians are the only ones with practical, ongoing experience in the field; we rely on their rockets to bring the crews back and forth to the space station now. Sure, we could dust off the schematics and build new Saturn V rockets, new Lunar Modules... if we wanted to spend half a trillion dollars on the 21st century equivalent of the Kon-Tiki expedition.

I believe we should go to the moon. But I think every citizen of this country as well as the Members of the Congress should consider the matter carefully in making their judgment, to which we have given attention over many weeks and months, because it is a heavy burden, and there is no sense in agreeing or desiring that the United States take an affirmative position in outer space, unless we are prepared to do the work and bear the burdens to make it successful. If we are not, we should decide today and this year.

Six times, American men have landed on the Moon, walked and driven on its surface, collected rocks, waxed poetic, smacked golf balls into orbit. It was a meaningful mission, driven by the fear of the Cold War and a pressing need to succeed before the Soviets, who for the five years prior to President Kennedy's injunction dominated the space race. When the lunar module Eagle landed, and the command module Columbia splashed down safely, it established a decisive and unsurpassable American domination of near-Earth space. The pissing contest was over, and no matter how many astronomers and xenogeologists may suggest otherwise, that's the whole reason we went then: to be first.

It's the whole reason we're going now. China, you see, has put a man in orbit. They're hinting they might attempt a moon mission in the next 20 years or so. In response, President Bush has ordered an astronomical dose of Viagra for the national ego. Never mind the past; we've got to prove we can still get it up today. If those yellow commie bastards make it to the moon, we're gonna make damned sure that when they do, our boys are there to send 'em right back down to Beijing.

Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, 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 in 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.

You will find no greater proponent of space exploration than me. The quest for scientific knowledge is one of mankind's most honorable pursuits. When Columbia was destroyed last year, I urged a rededication to the space program and a fast return to manned missions. Instead, NASA -- and the nation -- dropped the ball as certainly as they did back in 1972, when the Apollo missions were discontinued for the sake of the agency's budget. Think about it -- have you really missed hearing about shuttle missions? Had you thought about the space program at all, until the recent successful landing of the Mars rover Spirit?

To now advocate a return to the spirit of exploration and ingenuity which propelled us to the Moon and back smacks of hypocrisy. It took eight years and two months to get to the Moon; three years and five months later, we discarded it all. A disposable triumph. Skylab, NASA's big project after Apollo, was abandoned after only three manned missions. The shuttle program has never reached its goals, and after losing two-fifths of the fleet, never will. The space station, once trumpeted as man's first permanent home in space, will not be constructed to its original plans; we don't have shuttles to get us there, and neither we nor the Russians can afford it. My guess is, we'll see it deorbited within 20 years, either to burn up in Earth's atmosphere or to drift gently away, into the unknown. Goals and dreams, crushed...because the same government that has advocated these goals has been unwilling to sustain them and to push us forward. What guarantee do we have that this time will be any different?

This country of the United States was not built by those who waited and rested and wished to look behind them. This country was conquered by those who moved forward--and so will space.

William Bradford, speaking in 1630 of the founding of the Plymouth Bay Colony, said that all great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.

Space has not been conquered, nor will it be. For President Kennedy, it was easy to look to the future and see the vast potential of space, the fantasy of Asimov and Bradbury made reality by the honorable actions and answerable courage of the American people. But science fact is far removed from science fiction, and we have no Lunar base, no Martian colonies, no bustling spaceports. We did all we had to do; no more.

Imagine if, following Christopher Columbus' successful return from the "new world," he mothballed his fleet, and the nations of Europe determined there was no further point in exploring the other side of the Atlantic. While this might have been good news for the indigenous tribes of North and South America, it would have put a decided crimp in the last 500 years of world history. Instead, Columbus' voyages let the cork out of the bottle, as nation after nation sent explorers across the Atlantic, followed almost immediately by colonists who tamed the land and created new nations, new politics and new science.

The Apollo landing produced no such similar boom of space exploration or colonization. Instead, we will be starting nearly as close to square one in 2004 as we did in 1961. President Bush, for all his enthusiasm, is subject to the same naive clarity of vision as President Kennedy. "Mission Accomplished!" is years, perhaps decades distant, and well outside his purview. He does not have to care what becomes of it all, and he will lose nothing if his successors fail to sustain the mission.

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, and the others, too.

Thirty-five years ago, three brave men accepted that challenge, strapped themselves atop a bomb and rode its explosion to the Moon and back. Around the world, people turned on their televisions, saw Armstrong and Aldrin walking on the Lunar soil, and in that instant, all the challenge, all the energy and skill -- everything that made this one of the hard things of which Kennedy spoke -- was made simple...made easy. Would you like to see the Moon? Turn on the television, there it is. Say, isn't it time for "Laugh-In"?

Getting to the Moon was difficult. It was challenging. It was not hard. Hard is staying the course. Hard is taking what you know and using it to learn what you don't know. Hard is realizing that space is not a race, it is an ongoing endeavor. Hard is determining that without a clear mandate and sustained dedication, some things are not worth doing. Kennedy said it well, himself: If we are to go only half way, or reduce our sights in the face of difficulty, in my judgment it would be better not to go at all.

So long as we explore space, our astronauts will face risk and death. Our national economy will bear the strain of volatile markets. Our national security will face blows from without and within. Any one of these difficulties could proof catastrophic for our space program, whether through loss of men and materiel or through loss of national resolve. Until we, as a nation, have determined that we will not shrink from these setbacks but will press on, ever resolute, we may as well keep our astronauts grounded, and our rockets cold. The Moon and Mars are exciting challenges; it's a shame we are not worthy of them.

Quotes of Kennedy speeches on May 25, 1961 and September 12, 1962.


If the media is the eye on the world, Russ Carr is the finger in that eye. Tune in each month to see him dispersing the smoke and smashing the mirrors of modern mass communication. The world lost Russ on 2/7/12, but he lives on.

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matt morin
1.19.04 @ 12:24a

I'm a huge science buff myself. I grew up on Cosmos and Carl Sagan. But right now, putting money into the space program is like paying to landscape your yard while your roof is leaking and your foundation is crumbling.

It's not that space isn't important. It is. It's not as important as a dozen other problems facing the US and the world right now.

I wonder what would happen if, instead of Bush adding a billion dollars to this year's NASA budget, he put that money behind a national challenge to build a zero-emission car? Or into a way to harness ocean waves into renewable energy?

And of course it's a election year ploy. Bush can make some grandiose speech but have no real plan and have no accountability to ever actually back it up with action.

juli mccarthy
1.19.04 @ 12:55a

To me, space is an ideal. I am fascinated, diverted and intrigued by what we have learned and almost overcome by the realization of how much more there is to learn "out there."

But I'm scared that this IS a grand gesture designed to distract. Bush would not hesitate to deny many of our citizens their rights, in fact he has made active efforts to do so - and he has support. As we gaze longingly at the moon, we let thieves into our midst.

tracey kelley
1.19.04 @ 10:29a

And now that Hubble is going to be released, it seems kind of strange, doesn't it?

I find the space program to be incredible and inspirational. That being said, I'm constantly curious as to the "why" and the "need" and the "how" right now. I don't doubt the importance of scientific advancements, but I'm not one to believe in a "space race" anymore, nor do I think this is an area in which American needs to prove its Superpower ability. I still think America should lead by example, and prove we have superpowers in creating renewable resources (some of which designed for and proven effective in space, yes), a stronger public education program and a less-profit driven and more health-oriented health care system.

We accomplish these, and we have every right to explore the universe.

In most science fiction, humans end up in space because of strong ideology and, lest we forget, population problems. Problems with overcrowding, lack of resources and sometimes incredible conflict. I'd rather we not go to space to run away from problems on Earth, but as an extension of our capabilities.

matt kelley
1.19.04 @ 10:54a

The only way the science fiction many of us love will ever become science fact is for us to continue reaching for more distant and difficult goals. The space shuttle program served its purpose well and it’s time to move into the next generation of vehicles that can take us to new (and old) places. It won’t be a revamped lunar module atop a massive Saturn V. The proposed new spacecraft I’ve seen are more reminiscent of the shuttlecraft seen on Star Trek, but without phasers and Vulcans.

I don’t agree with your assertion President Bush’s only motive in putting forth the new initiative is to deflect attention from Iraq or other issues. That’s pure political pandering on your part. A friend of mine at NASA wrote me last week, elated after the speech: “It is long overdue for us to get beyond low-earth orbit and back to the moon and on to Mars, for our future and for our nation's morale and continued spirit of exploration. We can't push forward going in circles all of the time and not expanding into further frontiers.“

Any event involving a politician can be twisted. Some Democrats claim the timing of Bush’s State of the Union address tomorrow night was deliberate to steal thunder from the winner of tonight’s Iowa caucuses. Bunk. It’s no conspiracy. The address is –always- held the third week in January.

I also disagree with your claim our space researchers will be starting at square one. With every successful NASA mission, and with deadly disasters, we’ve learned volumes. We’re light years from 1961 in countless ways, from zero-g construction techniques to EVA suits. We had more than 100 successful shuttle missions and we’ve built the huge space station which will –not- be abandoned and left to fall, but will continue to be used to further our scientific endeavors.

Remember the original Star Trek? Is it coincidence today’s cell phones look amazingly like communicators? As a journalist, I’ve walked into virtual reality museums that were incredibly like Star Trek/TNG’s holodecks. Look at stealth technology, CDs, laptop computers and many other of today’s high-tech conveniences and you’ll see them echoed in the science fiction of a few decades past. Can warp drive or transporters be that far off? Yes, if we don’t keep trying.

From myriad medical advances to microwave ovens and TV remote controls, our society has seen innumerable benefits from the space program. To paraphrase SecDef Rumsfeld, we don’t know what we don’t know. It’s impossible to predict what bold new discoveries will be made in the new push for the moon and Mars. If we don’t try to reach farther out, we’ll atrophy and become cosmic couch potatoes, satisfied to simply watch and dream…not to do.

matt morin
1.19.04 @ 1:11p

See, that's all fine and well for those of us who are well off. (And if you're reading this, you're well off - you have a home, food, clothes, a computer, etc.) We have the luxury of saying "Yeah, sure, go spend multi-billions to explore and learn and bring us back a better way to pop popcorn and change channels without getting off the couch."

I just think at this moment in history, we'd be much better off allocating our limited budgetary resources to things like bettering the environment so this planet is habitable. Or to education so millions of people can lift themselves out of crushing poverty. Or to better healthcare so people who are suffering needlessly can actually afford the medical attention they need.

Space is a luxury. And sending a man to Mars or putting a base on the Moon is pure luxury.

To paraphrase Mr. Spock: "The needs of the many outweight the needs of the few."

juli mccarthy
1.19.04 @ 1:25p

You're right, Matt, that we should redistribute our resources with the here and now being a priority. I doubt very much though that we'd be able to convince anyone to take funds from one thing and give them to another thing. It just doesn't work that way. In a perfect world, it might, but to paraphrase Robert Heinlein: we don't have a perfect world - we must take this world as a given.

And someone will be along soon, I'm sure, to point out that Spock's philosophy has much in common with the tenets of communism.

russ carr
1.19.04 @ 1:29p

A couple of clarifications: I never said Bush's only motive for the initiative was Iraq deflection; I said that Bush opponents would skew it that way. However, I'm certain that he's welcoming any distraction it provides, and would not discourage the citizenry from averting its attention to loftier things.

But the column isn't about the President, so I'd just as soon move on to other points...

Bit by bit, the sacrifices to other areas of the space program (eg: shuttle, station) are being made known. 2010, once "the year we make contact" is now "the year we stop working on the ISS." I don't see a lot of additional usage for the ISS after we pull out; Russia can't afford it, and I don't see the ESA stepping up to fill our shoes. We may consider using it as a docking target for whatever LEO vehicle replaces the shuttle (if there even is such an animal; I can't see much attention given to that program if the goal is interplanetary craft). The only thing that will save the ISS is privatization.

The shuttle fleet has 21 flights left in it, if we're extremely optimistic...one this fall to get things going again, then four per year, maximum, 'til 2010.

But I do stand by my "square one" assertion. Consider where we'd be if, rather than dribbling away our progress by cancelling Apollo 18-20, and by not exploiting Skylab, we'd continued on...going boldly, so to speak. It would have cost money, yes, but it would have been cheaper then than it is today. Space transport could have continued to evolve. Instead, we put all our eggs in one basket (or should I say, cargo bay) and left our heavy-lift program behind. We have no successor to the Saturn V; it will take considerable effort to engineer one.

I hope we go back to the Moon. I'd love to see it in my lifetime, if only from the comfort of my armchair. But I am not persuaded that the nation's resolve to do this is what it was in 1961. I am all but certain that our government is not resolved to do it; I don't believe the initiative (at this stage) will survive a change of administration.

President Bush the Elder made a similar call for a return to the moon back in 1989. Read the speech, which was far more eloquent than that of his son. In the 14 since, are we any closer? Were we dramatically stirred to action? Bush quoted Apollo 11 command pilot Michael Collins in that speech, "The Moon is not a destination; it's a direction." Washington still doesn't grasp that; they didn't 32 years ago, and I don't believe they do now. For most, the space program is nothing more than an occasional hobby, brought out of the closet, dusted off and played with periodically. And until we find the equivalent of a flat black monolith on the Moon, that's all it's going to be.

robert melos
1.20.04 @ 12:59a

While I think there are better uses for the money G.W. is willing to pour into a moon mission at this point, if those dollars are being diverted from warmongering than I'm all for it.

Actually I like the idea of space exploration even on a lunar level, and Mars as well, but I think the only way real exploration will come about is when private industry and foundations sponsor the programs. I know they won't be any safer than present exploration, with all the same danger of failure and death, but the possible discoveries outweigh the dangers. The fact is, the human race isn't about noble efforts, but about money, greed and winning at all costs.

There are a handful of people who can maintain their noble ideals. In the meantime, some greedy corporation will come along with enough money to fund a real moonbase. I just hope it won't someday be Martha Stewart leading us into space. I can just imagine the flight suits, and the moonbase interiors. Tasteful? Yes, but what happens if plaid is in that decade?

matt kelley
1.20.04 @ 9:59a

Privatizing the ISS is a cool idea, which I'm sure NASA's considering now. How many millions were spent by those first few space tourists to spend a week up there upchucking their lunches? Lots. Send up a couple of rich gawkers every few months and the ISS would be paid for in a year & well maintained, I'd wager. Come on -- wouldn't you rather save up and spend a few days in orbit instead of a week in Vegas?

robert melos
1.20.04 @ 2:17p

You could have a casino on the moon. It would be like gambling on a cruise ship. Once you're in orbit, it would fine.

Seriously, there are billions of dollars being spent privately on every other kind of research we can think of, I don't see why people don't start tossing money into something better than charities that support bigotry, or campaigns to get warmongers reelected.

russ carr
1.22.04 @ 2:55p

In optimistic space news today, the heretofore successful Mars rover Spirit has ceased sending back data, and is now only warbling an emergency tone that lets controllers know that something serious is wrong with it. Basically, NASA is seeing the equivalent of the Blue Screen of Death instead of pictures or telemetry data.

And additionally, the director of the task force charged with monitoring shuttle safety improvements said today that while improvements have been made, there is still enough work to be done that it casts doubt on the likelihood of shuttle flights resuming by October.

As Casey Kasem always says, "Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars."

joe procopio
1.23.04 @ 7:02a

It got et!

russ carr
1.23.04 @ 12:33p

That damned Man from Mars!

matt morin
1.23.04 @ 2:00p

Maybe I'm just missing something, but don't you think someone would have thought to put redundant hardware on the rover that they could switch over to in case of problems just like this?

tracey kelley
1.23.04 @ 2:41p

I was saying to M* yesterday, "It would be funny if the last image they recover when they turn it back on is a Martian attacking it or something."

THREE editorial cartoons played that scenario out today.

Long distance communication and economies of scale being what they are, I'm sure the engineers created as much back up as they could, given what they were working with. Think about it: this is like a remote control car on Mars with a hellva long way for the frequency to travel. There will be gliches. Some cell phones don't work as well from across the street.

matt morin
1.23.04 @ 2:46p

We also don't pay $820 million for a cell phone.

robert melos
1.23.04 @ 4:39p

You haven't seen my cell phone bill, Matt.

I guess this doesn't look good for Bush's proposed re-entry into space. On some level the very cool thing is that we even got to Mars. On the human race level, that is. Isn't the back-up rover supposed to land on Sunday?

sandra thompson
1.30.04 @ 8:14p

In a few billion years the sun will go splutter, and the solar system will no longer be habitable. If we deserve to survive as a species we will have left for somewhere else before then. If not, we will no longer exist. The more urgent problem is keeping earth habitable in a shorter run: doing something about the environment and finding other sources of energy than our finite supplies of oil, coal and gas so civilization doesn't enter another dark age which precludes any notion of space exploration at all.

Oh, and BTW, if any of you doubt that shrub's speech was anything more than a campaign stump speech I hope you aren't so naive about everything else in this world.

russ carr
2.1.10 @ 10:20p


That's the sound of the Moon program getting canceled. All I can say is: "Go, taikonauts, go!"

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