Buzz on the moon
Essays and Stuff

T+51 years: Space is a marathon

This is adapted from a column that originally ran in the Waco Tribune-Herald on July 20, 2014.

“For the Eagle has landed — tell your children when
Time won’t drag us down to dust again.”
— Leslie Fish, “Hope Eyrie”

Fifty-one years ago, the future looked very different. Humanity had just set foot on the moon and there seemed to be no reason to think we would stop. Why, the Saturn V’s mastermind, Wernher von Braun, had promised us a space station that looked like the one in “2001: A Space Odyssey” (released a year earlier) and a space plane that would get us there and back easily.

The mood was neatly captured by songwriter Leslie Fish in what was regarded for decades as science fiction fans’ national anthem — “Hope Eyrie,” a paean to the idea that, though civilizations might rise and fall, humanity as a whole could — and would — press outward to the stars. “And today our fragile flesh and steel / Have laid our hands on a vaster wheel / With all of the stars to know,” she sang.

Humanity confined to Earth, and all that humanity has built, will inevitably fall to dust. Humanity among the stars, its eggs in a multitude of baskets — well, each will inevitably fall to dust as well, but humanity as a whole has a much better chance of beating the odds.

Today marks 51 years since we took those first steps. But it’s been 47½ years since we took the last steps on the moon, and humans haven’t even voyaged beyond low Earth orbit in the decades since. What happened?

• • •

The standard answer, especially from many if not most of the folks who were part of the Apollo program, invariably involves the phrase “national will” — what we had that pushed Americans to the moon, and what we lost afterward.

What we need, they say, is national will for a massive push to the next destination: Mars? The asteroids? Back to the moon? It almost doesn’t matter which one, but it has to be one, a clear single goal that the nation can concentrate on — if only we had a visionary president who made space a priority as John F. Kennedy did, a charismatic leader who could inspire the nation to achieve greatness again. Someone — needless to say — the complete opposite of Barack Obama. And of George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, and George H.W. Bush. Reagan, perhaps — if only he’d seen manned spaceflight as a priority.

President Donald Trump would like to be seen as that charismatic leader with his push for a new moon landing by 2024, although as with many other things he seems to be mainly interested in taking complete credit without putting in any actual effort. But that timeline — even more compressed than Kennedy’s 8½-year push — is a mistake that promises to be costly both to the Treasury and in human lives.

The first problem is that “we just need the right leadership” ignores all the circumstances that came together in the middle to late 1960s to create that national will — the biggest of which was fear. That a beeping globe launched in the Soviet Union could fly over the United States meant nuclear warheads could, too. And if Russia claimed the moon first, an imminent threat, wouldn’t that mean they had the ultimate high ground? The United States had to win the space race. The very existence of the United States was potentially at stake.

The moon was also sufficiently close that a near-future deadline could be set, a goal that might reasonably be met before Kennedy left office (optimistically) in January 1969 — long enough to be feasible as a practical matter, short enough to cover fewer potential changes in Congress or the White House, making it more likely that Apollo would survive politically.

Imagine that Kennedy had survived Dallas only to lose in the 1964 elections. Would the new president have continued the Apollo program? Maybe. Maybe not. But JFK didn’t survive Dallas, and that provided the final piece of the national-will puzzle: a martyr. When President Richard Nixon took office in January 1969, strongly desiring to ax anything bearing the taint of his archnemesis Kennedy, Apollo was too close to success to halt and the martyr card was still in play.

So before the decade was out, we landed a man on the moon and returned him safely to Earth. And then we went on to other pressing matters. But, much to my and Leslie Fish’s chagrin, the matters we went on to didn’t include staying on the moon or going onward to Mars — precisely because those matters weren’t pressing. We’d won the race. Russia wasn’t going there, and eventually Russia became much less of a nuclear, existential threat. And the JFK martyr card was now on the discard pile.

But most to the point, America was simply exhausted, and not just from the moon effort. There was also a long slog of a war only then coming to an ignominious end, political unrest, a president embroiled in a constitutional crisis (is this starting to sound familiar?). Those of us expecting the nation to keep sprinting outward (especially those of us who were 6 years old, with all the knowledge of political reality you could thus expect) looked behind us to find America doubled over, panting, waving us on: You go ahead. We’ll catch up.

But they didn’t. Or, rather: They haven’t, yet.

• • •

Fast, cheap, good — pick any two. Among the mottos of Project Apollo, plastered on factory walls and muttered by countless team leaders, was “waste anything but time.” We had a deadline to meet and we were willing to spend whatever we had to in order to meet it. Our choice was fast — and, eventually (spurred by the deadly Apollo 1 fire), good.

Then we met the deadline. But there was nothing to drive a new deadline, and NASA and its associated space-industrial complex (containing pretty much the same players and practices as the military-industrial complex it sprang from) didn’t change to fit that new reality.

“Waste anything but time” became “waste anything”; the main purpose of the space program became to funnel taxpayer money to contractors.

But taxpayers and politicians exhausted by Apollo (and by everything else) weren’t willing to foot such a big bill this time. Von Braun’s reusable space plane got nickeled-and-dimed (and committeed-to-death) down to the space shuttle — notionally reusable but only with massive refurbishment between missions (which meant more billions for the contractors). It was a textbook case of penny-wisdom and pound-foolishness.

The seemingly obvious solution: Provide a purpose, a new, massive, Apollo-style push that would justify the multi-billion-dollar cost-plus contracts, essentially blank checks. That was what got us to the moon — obviously that was what it would take to get us to farther-flung destinations such as Mars. Another sprint.

The problem is that Mars isn’t close enough for a sprint. Mars requires a marathon. In fact, spaceflight in general is a marathon; it was that first checkpoint, the moon, being so close that fooled us into thinking that sprinting was the best approach. But sprinting takes the kind of, well, national will that — in a democratic republic — only happens when everything lines up properly, as it did for Apollo, and it isn’t sustainable for very long. The other ways of marshaling that will tend to require a more authoritarian regime. (It’s more than a little scary that now, six years after I originally wrote this, I seem to actually need to say that a more authoritarian regime isn’t the answer.)

And, as any long-distance runner will tell you, trying to run a marathon distance by splitting it into a series of sprints is a recipe for disaster. Even if we could muster the strength to start, sprinting to Mars will again leave us exhausted — unable, and unwilling, to take the next steps for another several decades. And the arbitrary setting of 2024 — a presidential campaign year, which JFK avoided with his 1969-70 goal — as a moon landing target is a recipe for a go-fever rush past safety protocols and sense.

But marathons are a harder sell because sprints offer the sexy now, or at least soon, while marathons all but guarantee that the sexy will only come when someone else is in office to take the credit. Maybe this Congress is willing to take that risk, but will the next Congress? The time-honored way to get past that problem is to maximize the number of districts and states that benefit financially. (Another long-term scientific megaproject, the Superconducting Super Collider, died in large part because Texas alone got the lion’s share of economic benefits.) Which means your contractors are chosen and your spaceship is designed based on how many jobs are created and how spread out they are, rather than whether it can get the equipment you need deep enough into space without breaking the bank.

Which is how you get a bloated monstrosity like the Space Launch System now under NASA development. At current funding, we can only afford to fly it at most twice a year (more likely, once every three or four years) and we can only barely afford to build anything to put on top of it. Like the space shuttle, it’s a rocket looking for a mission rather than a rocket built for a mission. But we can fly it . . . if we can summon sufficient national will for another sprint to write blank checks to Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrup Grumman. Waste anything.

• • •

Until recently, Big Space contractors had an ace up their sleeves: the ability to use not only the we’ve-already-spent-billions sunk-costs argument against cancellation but the lack of alternatives. If you kill us, you have no space program. And you don’t want that, do you?

Which is why companies like SpaceX are such a threat to the established order. For the first time, an alternative exists, and that alternative allowed President Obama to cancel (justly) the shuttle-derived Constellation project that Congress zombied out of the grave as SLS.

I’m of two minds about Obama’s refusal to narrow NASA’s goals after that. NASA is adrift and something needs to be done about that. But running a marathon instead of a sprint requires time and attention to infrastructure, which is unsexy — and looks an awful lot like being adrift and without purpose.

Yet, if we spend a phase building out infrastructure — things like orbital fuel depots and a way station at an Earth-moon Lagrange point that makes a much better jumping-off point for interplanetary travel than Earth’s gravity allows — the next phase will be that much easier and not necessarily restricted to one destination. It’s not as sexy as heading straight for Mars, but it’s pound-wise. (I’m not convinced that the Lunar Gateway is the right infrastructure. It seems to be useful only for certain types of moon missions and constrains windows for landing and, most crucially, for returns — not something you want if you need to get back off the moon in a hurry.)

The marathon approach also means a bunch of smaller projects running side-by-side instead of one massive project that sucks up all the oxygen. Competing spacecraft keep costs down, and also — when, not if, something goes wrong — they mean that you can keep flying if something grounds one of the competitors, instead of staying earthbound for multiple years as we did after Challenger and Columbia were lost, and, with the launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, have only just stopped doing after the shuttle’s retirement.

(Indeed, scant months after I originally wrote this column, the loss of an Orbital Sciences Cygnus cargo ship marked the start of a bad year for robotic cargo flights to the International Space Station, with a Russian Progress ship and a SpaceX Dragon each being lost several months later. But Dragon and Progress had each flown successfully twice between the Cygnus failure and their own; Progress was able to resume flights quickly, and Cygnus was back in space by late 2015, with Dragon following in mid-2016. Having options meant supplying the ISS was never seriously in doubt.)

Multiple, cheaper spacecraft also mean the freedom to tune different spacecraft to different tasks, rather than trying to build one jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none craft like the shuttle.

Thus the marathon approach means letting someone other than government handle some of the missions. Cheaper launch vehicles and smaller satellites already mean that spaceflight is falling into the price range where universities and nonprofit organizations can easily launch unmanned craft.

(And now we come to the part of the original column that six years’ time has been unkindest to. I had expected, in 2014, that private, commercial moon bases were likelier than government ones; I’m less sure about that now, especially with Bigelow Aerospace seemingly dropping out of the picture. Planetary Resources and its efforts to robotically survey and mine asteroids are likewise no more, although its intellectual property has at least been placed in the public domain and will hopefully be picked up on. I also mentioned the human spaceflight aspirations of Mars One and Inspiration Mars; I did note “varying likelihoods of success.”)

Finally, privately held companies — like SpaceX is currently, though an IPO may come in the future — are freer from the pull of political currents and shareholder discontent with this quarter’s results and thus able to focus on the spacecraft itself, while government (ideally) focuses on traffic management and new tech development. For better and for worse, private enthusiasts are filling the vacuum left by government intransigence.

• • •

Perhaps, with six years of hindsight, a race is the wrong metaphor altogether. “Race” implies competition; the ideal would be for humanity to push forward as a whole, working together, since it is precisely humanity’s survival as a whole that is at stake. In a time of rising nationalism worldwide, that seems a forlorn hope.

Such a collective effort does not require collectivism — indeed, a robust space effort, national or international, needs independent projects working in parallel, so a setback in one doesn’t imperil the whole, and so we develop a variety of tools for our toolbox, rather than a single hammer that makes every mission look like a nail.

In fact, putting all our eggs in one basket is precisely the problem, on multiple levels. Basing the entirety of a space program on one system is just as ultimately disastrous as basing the survival of our species — of all Earth’s species — on one fragile planet. Which means continuing to preserve this planet as best we can as well as colonizing others — and success in human and robotic spaceflight is as key to the former effort as to the latter.

When the time comes, hopefully in the far distant future, I want us to be able to evacuate Earth — to save the majority of its population rather than a hand-picked few. That will require a lot of spaceships — a lot of different spaceships. It’s a distant goal, but it’s only reachable if we start now. (If it’s not already too late — a prospect which seems a distressing amount more than six years closer now than when I first wrote this column…)

A sprint — a race to plant what amounts to a campaign sign on the moon by 2024 — would be a waste of resources (and, very likely, lives). Not running at all consigns humanity to dust. Our best shot at survival requires a slower, steadier, sustained and sustainable push outward. “If you would not perish, then grow,” as Leslie sings.

It’s a long run, space. And the interesting thing about this kind of marathon is: You may know where the checkpoints are, but where it ultimately goes is anybody’s guess.

This is the bio am I doing this right? Probably not.

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