Two Space Programs, Double Vision
Dennis Wingo has written a very impressive article on the effect of the Apollo program on the whole of the national space program until the present day. In a way, it provided me a sort of epiphany on why we have such a difficult time finding and executing a focus. Really, I have not before seen so well-stated an explanation of the situation. I won’t bloviate endlessly on what Mr. Wingo had to say, other than to summarize what I got out of his missive.
What was sold to the American public was a space program that included all of our flying-car desires and plans for the future like moon bases, asteroid mining, and trips to mars before the end of the century. This Public Space Program was very different from the creature known as the Political Space Program, which had the more earthly goal of beating the USSR in the very ideologically crucial arena of technology. Capitalism must beat Communism, it must show that the free market provides the flexibility to excel, and that our society was better. In many ways it did just that.
Of course, that ideological victory drove Apollo and then later programs to be even more politicized, and so many of our national space goals became just checkboxes on a list. Sometimes the checkboxes linked to another one on the list, and sometimes they were dead-ends. Paths across a frontier aren’t often plotted very straight that way.
A quote from Dr. John Marburger:
The ultimate goal is not to impress others, or merely to explore our planetary system, but to use accessible space for the benefit of humankind. It is a goal that is not confined to a decade or a century. Nor is it confined to a single nearby destination, or to a fleeting dash to plant a flag. The idea is to begin preparing now for a future in which the material trapped in the Sun’s vicinity is available for incorporation into our way of life.
I agree with Wingo that the above is about as articulate a description of an American Space Program as you could imagine. On the other hand, while this American Space Program is at odds with the Political Space Program, I do not agree that the Political Space Program is a failure. Rather, I see the Political program having just about reached the limits of its capability, and it does tend to wander. In those many decades of wandering, it has stumbled into a number of interesting areas, leaving a good bit of science and technology all over the place. For those of us whole entered the Space field because of the promises of the Public Space Program, it is up to us to pick up all of the best bits and move forward on a straighter path.