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Flashbacks: "Money Into the Void" (March 3, 2003)
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How did The Atlantic report on John Glenn's first flight into orbit? A look at how far we've come since the earliest days of the space program.
The Atlantic Monthly | August 1963
an's exploration of space is both the greatest adventure and the greatest challenge for a technological society. But precisely because of this, it can also be of great danger to a society such as ours. The successful conquest of space can inadvertently provide us with easy diversions from the really tough problems on earth and ready excuses for not facing and solving them. For three days, Gordon Cooper's dramatic space flight in the Faith 7 diverted public attention from the integration problem in Birmingham and provided us all a convenient excuse to forget about our shortcomings on earth. In the long run, if we fail to make reasonable progress on the problems at home, victory in space will taste bitter indeed.
The Costs and the Choices
by Franklin A. Lindsay
Getting a man to the moon is a very expensive proposition, but given the funds, it is not a forbiddingly hard problem to solve. Solving the problems of economic growth and unemployment, or of urban renewal and education, will probably be equally expensive but much tougher and less glamorous than the exploration of space. Yet our space programs will have their impacts, some positive and some negative, on all these other problems.
Obviously, we are not faced with the alternatives of a full-scale space program on the one hand and no program at all on the other. But where can we reasonably begin, and how can we progress in an orderly and well-conceived way so that the dangers are minimized and the potentially great contributions of space are actually realized?
First, space can provide revolutionary new ways to carry out a variety of important peaceful activities more efficiently and less expensively than conventional earthbound methods. Radio relay satellites will provide effective intercontinental communications at significantly less cost per voice channel than present undersea cables. For the past two years the remarkably successful Tiros satellite system has been providing global coverage of the world's weather, and an improved weather satellite series, Nimbus, is about to be put into operation. As these and more advanced systems become operational, weather forecasting will become an even more effective tool for economic management. The economic payoff in crop planning, harvest scheduling, pest control, and water supply management can potentially add several billion dollars' worth of food to the world economy. Photographic satellites can provide the underdeveloped areas of the world with maps, mineral and forest resource surveys, and even human and animal population surveys far faster, cheaper, and more accurately than any other available means. The more developed countries can benefit from satellite photography through accurate and timely indexes of economic activity, such as new housing starts, industrial activity levels, transportation activity, and crop forecasts. The resulting improvements in planning and use of resources can add significantly to the real wealth of these nations.
Another valuable potential contribution of satellite photography is in the area of arms control, where orbiting cameras can provide effective means of inspection for international agreements with minimum reliance on troublesome and tension-producing ground inspection. Cuba has shown the importance of aerial photography, even in the absence of an arms-control agreement. Soon it may even be possible to detect clandestine underground nuclear explosions with satellite cameras that can observe subtle changes in the surface of the ground above the point of detonation.
Basic research on the nature of space and its gravitational and magnetic fields, as well as on the fundamental nature of matter and its distribution in space, is being advanced very greatly by use of special instrumentation carried aboard spacecraft. Earth-based astronomy, for instance, is seriously hampered by the atmosphere. The earthbound astronomer is like a man standing at the bottom of a pool of murky water, trying to observe what goes on above the surface. While the seventy-five-mile-thick envelope of air and dust surrounding the earth effectively protects living organisms from lethal radiation coming from the sun and other sources in space, this same layer severely limits our ability to observe much of outer space by optical or radio telescopes. What light docs get through the atmosphere is often so seriously distorted that the image of a distant star appears as though it were observed through the turbulent air rising above a hot pavement on a sunny day. Space astronomy, by freeing scientific observation from the earth's atmosphere, will increase manyfold the knowledge that can be gained from the solar system and intergalactic space. In ways that are yet unknown, this new knowledge will surely be of great benefit to mankind. For it is significant that the basic laws of Newtonian mechanics, without which the machine age could never have occurred, were evolved from astronomical observations; and the basic concepts of the atomic age were developed by Einstein and others from observations of stars and planets.
A further advantage of spacecraft is that they offer the only known means of creating a weightless environment, and scientists believe that fundamentally new knowledge of the nature of life will be gained by observing human and other biological life in such a space laboratory.
A major issue, now hotly debated, is whether man can accomplish more in space than can unattended instruments. There is a heavy weight (and therefore, cost) penalty for sending man and his elaborate life-support systems into space, and it is technically worthwhile only if he pays his way by being able to accomplish more than could an equal payload of instruments. The space-borne man must be protected from radiation by heavy shielding; he must carry oxygen and air conditioning, and travel in a pressurized vessel; and, finally, he must be brought back home through intensive heat. For every pound of man and his life-support equipment sent to the moon and back, very many added pounds of booster rocket will be required.
Dr. Edward Purcell of Harvard University has suggested that only the equivalent of man's eyeball and hands need be sent into space, leaving heart, lungs, brain, and other vital but noncontributing parts safely on the ground. Through a television extension of man's vision, it is possible to couple a television camera in space to the movements of his eyes on the ground so that he can see as clearly from the ground that which he would be able to see from space, simply by shifting the direction of his gaze. Similarly he could, from the ground, manipulate mechanical hands in space. Through remote radio control, it is likely he could thus accomplish most, if not all, of the operations he could perform from within the spacecraft.
Although a great deal has been said about the versatility of the human astronaut, it seems unlikely that in the foreseeable future there will be much opportunity for such human functions as repairs and maintenance in space. Reliability will be achieved primarily by designing and building better equipment. On the other hand, important missions may evolve which only a human can perform, and it is therefore important to develop now the capabilities for human travel in space.
his raises the inevitable question about one of our most ambitious and expensive space programs, Project Apollo. No one can help but share the tremendous pride of a successful human assault upon Mt. Everest or a dramatic conclusion to a multi-orbit Mercury trip. It is only when the cost becomes so great that other important things will have to be deferred or relinquished that many begin to question such a major space venture.
As the cost estimates to put a man on the moon mount from $20 to $40 billion to accomplish this feat before 1970, more and more protests are being heard that we are diverting too large a share of our resources from urgent but less glamorous problems on earth. This mammoth program is the most expensive single program ever undertaken by man. Warren Weaver, vice president of the Alfred F. Sloan Foundation, has made some dramatic comparisons between the cost of the moon race and more earthly projects.
The sum of $30 billion, which is undoubtedly an underestimate of the total cost of "putting a man on the moon," is a sum so large that the ordinary human being simply cannot grasp its magnitude....
Some of the arguments in favor of pursuing the moon program are, however, compelling. Champions of the program point out that we are in a race with the Soviets, and the nation which first lands on the moon will reap incredible rewards in cold war prestige and world leadership. They also say that the people of the United States need a new frontier to consume their energies. A dynamic society must maintain its momentum by heroic assaults on new obstacles. Further, it is suggested that the space race can be a psychological substitute for man's natural instinct to make war.
With that sum one could give a 10 percent raise in salary, over a 10-year period, to every teacher in the United States from kindergarten through universities (about $9.8 billion required); could give $lO million each to 200 of the better smaller colleges ($2 billion required); could finance seven-year fellowships (freshmen through Ph.D.) at $4,000 per person per year for 50,000 new scientists and engineers ($l.4 billion required); could contribute $200 million each toward the creation of 10 new medical schools ($2 billion required); could build and largely endow complete universities with liberal arts, medical, engineering, and agricultural faculties for all 53 of the nations which have been added to the United Nations since its original founding ($13.2 billion required); could create three more permanent Rockefeller Foundations ($l.5 billion required); and one would still have left $100 million for a program of informing the public about science.
It is undoubtedly true that the United States will gain immensely in world prestige if we are first to the moon, and lose if we are second, or if we do not get there at all. This is especially true now because of the President's public commitment to realize this goal within the decade. There is no question that this is a worthwhile goal. Its opponents, however, point to the immense price tag#&8212; a price that must be paid not only in money, but in skilled manpower.
Clearly, NASA could not be expected to solve the integration problem, or the school problem, or the balance-of-payments problem, or the urban renewal problem, or the underdeveloped-nations problem. Nevertheless, some argue that since most of the dollars going into the NASA moon program will be for construction, test equipment, and fuels and engines, much of the human and material resources could be used on other programs. The construction industry could just as well be used to build new schools and new university research buildings. The vast array of computers and their programmers could be of great value if employed to support economists in a deep analysis of the complexities of our economy and its lagging growth. The physicians, physicists, and engineers building the equipment to support human life in a space capsule could also be employed in finding solutions to pressing medical and air pollution problems on earth.
One of the most difficult problems raised by the increasing level of space activities is the potential diversion of scientists and engineers from teaching and other professional careers. We are entering a period which will be characterized by a great increase in the college population. If the present teacher-student ratio is to be maintained, our universities will, over the next several years, have to retain about two thirds of their Ph.D. output instead of the present one third. Thus, the flow in new Ph.D.'s to government and industry would have to be cut roughly in half. It is just at this critical point in time that NASA's requirements will be peaking. And it appears that there will not be a sufficient supply to meet the requirements of both an expanding space program and a mushrooming college demand, as well as to meet the needs of the rest of society. Hard decisions will have to be made on where to cut.
A further major issue is the degree to which we will need to create a military space capability. Barring an effective international agreement there will be an inevitable requirement for military space capabilities. The military use of airplanes evolved from that of passive observation platforms during World War I to the full-fledged military doctrine of control of the air as a prerequisite to ground operations in World War II. Similarly, the use of spacecraft will evolve from today's passive observation platforms to a requirement for the control of space, at least in close proximity to earth and perhaps as far as the moon.
Spacecraft are already being used as relay points for worldwide communications, as television platforms for coverage of the world's weather and terrain, and as ultra-accurate navigational and survey systems. Each of these functions has important military applications, and we will become increasingly reliant upon them to maintain our deterrent capability. In periods of extreme tension, as in the Cuban crisis, or in times of actual conflict, it will be vital for the United States to be able to protect these information and communication services against disablement or destruction by the Soviets.
On the other band, the United States must develop capabilities for identifying Soviet spacecraft, intercepting them, inspecting them, and, if necessary, rendering them harmless. Thus, it seems almost inevitable that the United States and the U.S.S.R. will find themselves in a race to develop defensive and counteroffensive capabilities in space, for the nation which first achieves the capability of freely operating in space while denying that privilege to all others will win a substantial strategic and political cold war advantage.
Whether there are real advantages to orbiting nuclear bombs is not so clear. Intercontinental missiles, based on land or under the sea, can probably form a much less expensive, more accurate, and more swift-reacting nuclear force than anything orbiting in space. There is the remote possibility, however, that the Soviets will consider orbiting a several-hundred-megaton bomb. Detonated at an altitude of fifty to a hundred miles it would be possible with one such bomb literally to incinerate an area of several tens of thousands of square miles. In the light of this possibility, and in the absence of effective international controls, it seems imperative that we develop effective means of inspecting and disarming orbiting weapons.
nother critical space issue, but one which has received much less public attention than the glamorous moon program or the hair-raising military question, is the possibility of inadvertently upsetting the delicate natural energy balance between the earth and outer space. Rachel Carson has pointed out the dangers of upsetting the biological balances on earth. The danger may be equally great in space, and could conceivably result in catastrophic changes on earth. The balance between the energy received by the earth from the sun and the radiation emitted by the earth is so delicate that a very small change in the balance could ultimately result in the return of the Ice Age or the melting of the polar ice caps and the consequent flooding of the earth's lowlands.
No one can now be certain about the complex mechanisms of energy transfer in space, but competent scientists have expressed fears that the exhaust gases from a relatively few burned-out rocket engines could seriously alter the rate at which solar energy is trapped and held within the earth's atmosphere. Similarly, the explosions of nuclear weapons in space are believed by some to 'endanger this balance by altering the chemical equilibrium in the ionosphere, which in turn may affect the absorption of high-energy radiation by the earth. These possibilities have been of serious concern to NASA, and research on this problem is being undertaken. It may be prudent, however, to spend even more time and effort studying the exact nature of this energy-transfer process before launching extensive new space efforts.
The proponents of the space program argue that new technologies of great significance will be evolved and that these technologies will give the economy a major boost. Critics of such a program agree that new technologies, such as miniature electronics or heat-resistant materials, will develop and will contribute to the economy and the advancement of society as a whole. But they say that this should not be a principal justification of the space program. If our economy needs new technologies as the basis for expansion, the critics argue, a greater result will undoubtedly occur if these problems are attacked directly rather than sought as a by-product of a space program. The massive research and development expenditures during and since World War II for defense and atomic energy have not, as yet, produced the stimulus to boost the rate of growth of the economy that has been predicted.
The important issues of space thus are not those that can be solved internally by the Department of Defense or by NASA. These agencies are both engaged in carrying out with dispatch programs that have been given them by the Congress and the Administration. Rather, the problems are such that they must be resolved by the nation as a whole. They are these questions:
It is not, then, a matter of massive program versus little or no program. Into the balance of rockets, satellites, man in space, and bombs must be placed schools, hospitals, medical research, and consumer products. The dramatic success of the Mercury program, where we elevated man into space, must be balanced against our failure to elevate large segments of our own society to the level of equal opportunity. Certainly we could not solve our earthly problems by turning our backs on space, but we should be very careful before we turn our backs on earth.
- How fast must we proceed in order to be the first to put men on the moon; how important a national goal is it; and what risks should be run in the process?
- What is the proper balance between this essentially political objective and scientific research in space, and how large a premium should we pay for political ends?
- What is the proper balance between military and nonmilitary space activities?
- Finally, what is the proper balance between all of our space activities, on the one hand, and the other important objectives of our society, on the other hand?
Copyright © 1963 by Franklin A. Lindsay. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 1963; The Costs and the Choices; Volume 212, No. 8; 51-54.