Summary: NASA dreams of manned space flight to the planets, and spends billions to do so. They focus on “how” with no thought of why, repeating the error that led to the failure of Apollo. Like the State Department (wrecked in the 1950s, never fixed) and DoD (same mistakes in a succession of failed wars), NASA seems unable to learn from its experience. For 52 years manned space programs have provided expensive entertainment for Americans and welfare for its aerospace corporations. FAILure to learn is a serious weakness for the government of a great nation.
Given time, a desire, considerable innovation, and sufﬁcient effort and money, man can eventually explore our solar system.Given his enormous curiosity about the universe in which he lives and his compelling urge to go where no one has ever been before, this will be done.
— Report by President John F. Kennedy’s advisory committee on space, 10 January 1961.
- Men and Women in Space: a dead end.
- Next steps on the road to nowhere.
- Journalist cheerleaders.
- Comparing space to other big projects.
- For More Information.
(1) Men and Women in Space: a dead end.
History consists of missed opportunities and wrong turning onto dead ends. For example, what if Charles Babbage had completed his Difference Engine (a mechanical calculator) by 1850, and on that success he or his successors completed his Analytical Engine (a programmable computer) in the 1870s? What if America had not poured so much of its energy, creativity, and technical talent into the space program in the 1960s? What if we had spent it on some other form of research?
It’s not just hindsight. During the 1950s and 1960s the government commissioned numerous committees to consider the benefits of manned spaceflight; most of them repeated the conclusions of the 1960 Hornig Committee and the 1961 Weisner Committee (quoted above; the Chairman became a life-long opponent of the manned space program): the cost would outweigh the benefits.
The first 53 years of men and women in space validated their forecasts. It produced little useful science. The technological spin-offs have been even smaller (many commonly cited ones are myths, such as Tang, Teflon, Velcro, MRI, barcodes, quartz clocks, or smoke detectors). As for the commercial benefits of opening the final frontier, we turn to the definitive account of this wrong turn is Dark Side of the Moon by Gerard J. DeGroot (2006) — “The magnificent madness of the American lunar quest.”
Those who justified the presence of men in space argued that the early astronauts were like the medieval seafarers, looking for places to colonize. But the efforts of Columbus and Magellan were inspired by the commercial potential of new territories — exploration was pointless unless commerce followed. The Portuguese and Spanish courts would have pulled the plug on the explorers quicker than you can say Vasco da Gama if their voyages had been exclusively esoteric, or if they had brought back only worthless rocks. Instead, they returned with valuable commodities — precious metals, spices, trinkets, potatoes — which thrilled the medieval money crunchers.
In addition, the places they sought to explore were, by virtue of their existence on Earth, actually habitable. The same could not be said for colonies on the Moon or Mars. … The Moon, remember, makes Antarctica seem like an oasis.
NASA, with other nations, built the $150 billion space station that does little of commercial or scientific value. Now they plan further adventures.