JFK challenged Americans to take to the skies half a century ago -- but as human space flight embraced rockets rather than reusable spacecraft, what did we lose?
Fifty years ago, on May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy stood before Congress and laid out his famous challenge for the nation to "commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth."
It was a lofty goal that set in motion the intense technology development of the Apollo era, and a moment we remember happily because, after all, we succeeded! Against all odds, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, a full five months before the challenge deadline.
Achieving that success took a tremendous investment and focus of money and national resources, of course--an investment that was available because, as Kennedy made clear in his speech, going to the moon was not just an interesting scientific endeavor.
"If we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks [on May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard had become the first American in space] should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take," Kennedy said, stressing that taking a "clearly leading role" in space might even "hold the key to our future on earth."
Why the moon? Because, Kennedy said, "no single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind."
Kennedy was undoubtedly correct in that assessment. Furthering knowledge and understanding about the universe by increments is not nearly as inspiring a goal or as strong a competitive political masterstroke as "land a man on the moon, in this decade, and return him safely to earth." A moon mission has imagination, a clear victory point--and, as retired astronaut Story Musgrave likes to point out, all the elements of great project management: a clear focus, clear requirements, a clear goal, and a clear timeline in which to accomplish that goal.
The eight-year Apollo effort leading to the moon landing also sparked the development of all kinds of new technology: from rockets to life-support systems, from lightweight materials to protective coatings, and to really cool pens that wrote in zero gravity. It also undoubtedly inspired many school children in the 1960s to pursue engineering, in the hopes of becoming part of the grand space adventure when they grew up.
But while the moon landing was unquestionably inspirational--I still remember racing home from a camping trip to watch it on TV--and a decisive public-relations victory for the U.S. in its "space war" with the Soviet Union, it came at a price. In the late 1950s, NASA was working on other, more sophisticated ways of getting into space. The X-15 rocket plane (pictured below) incorporated exotic materials, the first throttle-controlled rocket engine and was designed to fly more than six times the speed of sound, at altitudes above 250,000 feet. Up at those altitudes, it used small bursts by hydrogen-peroxide thrust rockets for control (normal aircraft control surfaces, which depend on air pressure, would be useless outside the atmosphere) and then glided back for an unpowered landing on earth.
And yes, that's Neil Armstrong in that photo--Armstrong served as an X-15 test pilot before joining the astronaut corps.
The military was also working on a space plane project called Dyna-Soar, while other researchers at NASA worked on concepts for lifting bodies--highly efficient, if odd-shaped, spacecraft that could handle the heat of re-entry while still being controllable within the atmosphere. (see the examples below)
There was, in fact, a division within NASA between the "airplane" folks, who wanted to develop more sophisticated, reusable spacecraft that could fly into space and back, and the "rocket" folks who advocated the brute force of a rocket launcher with a capsule on top as the best (and fastest) way to get space capability. But with the tight deadline imposed by Kennedy's challenge to getting a man to the moon and back within nine years, it became clear that the more complex reusable engines and spacecraft would take too long to develop. The rockets won the day, and the funding and focus turned away from hypersonic space vehicles and space "flight."
The Space Shuttle did, in fact, incorporate some of the earlier design concepts from the airplane side of NASA--including its reliance on gliding back to an unpowered landing on earth. But concepts like a single-stage-to-orbit rocket engine, scram and ram jets for ultra-high-speed transport planes, and better reusable spacecraft designs never made it off the drawing board. If they had, we might now have commercial spaceflight vehicles hopping from Japan to Chicago on a regular basis. As it is, even the Shuttle has to rely on the brute force of disposable rocket engines to get out of the earth's atmosphere, at a cost of around half a billion dollars a pop.
The moon program also seemed to lock our collective imagination into a fixed formula for human spaceflight, and spaceflight as an engineering project, even if those missions had questionable scientific value (with notable exceptions like the launch and repair of the Hubble Space Telescope). After all, even the moon mission was primarily an engineering challenge, not a scientific research mission.
As Story Musgrave put it in the interview noted above,
We could have had multiple Voyagers landed or floating in the atmosphere on every planet and on every moon of every planet. That is what we gave up when we went with [the International Space Station]. If you sent multi-media robotic machines [into space], people would be unbelievably excited about going everywhere out there. And we could have gone everywhere. But we opted to stay in low-earth orbit and do a jobs program because we had no imagination.
Musgrave is not the only one of that opinion. John M. Logsdon, a space policy specialist who's written a new book on the subject (John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon), told a New York Times writer last week that despite having praised the Apollo program in an earlier book, he's since come to the conclusion that the Apollo program's impact on the space program has "on balance, been negative." Apollo, Logsdon said, was "a dead-end undertaking in terms of human travel beyond the immediate vicinity of this planet."
Certainly the human space flight program, and the International Space Station, have more than a few critics. And the money and focus on the human spaceflight side of NASA have deflected huge amounts of money and brainpower away from other research efforts. The question is ... could the situation have been different?
I'm a huge fan of the more sophisticated design ideas that languished at NASA in the post-Kennedy-challenge era, as well as many of the other technologies that could have been developed with that money. Not to mention the scientific discoveries we could have made if we'd put the effort there instead of sending crew after crew into the same orbit around the earth. The materials and mind-bending physics know-how required to build a spacecraft capable of really-distant space flight outside our galaxy still lie beyond our reach. But we might be closer if we'd put a big chunk of the human space flight budget toward that effort.
On the other hand, the prodigious Apollo funding would likely not have been approved for anything less clear, less politically impactful or less mesmerizing than putting a human on the moon. So in many ways, whether or not the Apollo money could have been better spent is a moot point. And there is something to be said--something pretty compelling--for having gotten a human off the planet, onto another celestial body, and back home again.
The issue with Apollo is just that it set expectations so strongly in one direction, and left NASA so geared up to pursue human spaceflight, that it was difficult to shift gears after the moon landing was accomplished. Important scientific and aerospace technology research has continued at numerous NASA Centers around the country (think Mars Rover, satellite and GPS technology, and a host of telescopes, safety technology, and aircraft design and efficiency improvements). But the human space flight side of NASA continued to get a big chunk of the budget pie, even after the Apollo program concluded and there wasn't another clear goal for humans to accomplish in space.
But if our focus never shifted to the amazing scientific discoveries that might have been found, it's at least in large part because what drove the Apollo program--as President Kennedy made abundantly clear in that speech 50 years ago--wasn't science. It was a strategic blow against the Soviet Union, and for the achievements of democracy, in a world where communism was seen as a real and growing threat. Period. Paragraph. End of discussion.
Still--one of the many intriguing parts of Kennedy's speech (and there are many) is how strongly he stressed to Congress and the American people that if they were not willing to sacrifice for this goal, and commit fully to its achievement, no matter what it took, then it would be better not to attempt it at all.
"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," Kennedy said. "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."
Of course, it was easier to say that in 1961, before NASA had as many Center and work forces whose jobs would be endangered if the nation decided that, in fact, it would rather not bear all those burdens and pay all those costs.
But 50 years later, Kennedy's point is still valid. Some of the work in low-earth orbit that NASA used to do is being handed off to private industry. The great promise of NASA's current space program is now in the field of technology advancement and exploratory science. Of course, those developments might lead, some day, to another clear goal worth pursuing in-person, an exotic, distant place brought almost within reach that's worth a mighty, focused effort for humans to go explore.
But the true challenge Kennedy threw down in that 1961 speech still applies. Without a Soviet rival to "race," and without the imperative of a cold war threat to counter, do we really care enough about space for science and exploration's sake to pay the costs and bear the burdens for that effort to bear dramatic fruit? The jury is still out on that one, in part because I don't know that the country's been asked to sacrifice much for NASA's scientific efforts. But in any event, as Kennedy said, we shouldn't attempt something halfway. We should figure out what scientific, engineering, or technology goals we really do care enough about to pursue, get excited about, and focus on carrying those through to completion--and let the rest go.
The part of that 1961 speech that Kennedy is remembered for is the moon challenge. But his challenge to Congress and the nation to think about whether or not space was worth the effort, and to walk away unless "every scientist, every engineer, every serviceman, every technician, contractor, and civil servant gives his pledge that this nation will move forward ... [without] undue work stoppages, inflated costs of material or talent, wasteful interagency rivalries, or a high turnover of key personnel" is the part of the speech that has the most lasting relevance.
What goal, if any, do we care enough about to commit to that fully? Fifty years later, the question still lingers in the air, awaiting an answer again.
Freddie Gray's death on April 19 leaves many unanswered questions. But it is clear that when Gray was arrested in West Baltimore on the morning of April 12, he was struggling to walk. By the time he arrived at the police station a half hour later, he was unable to breathe or talk, suffering from wounds that would kill him.*
Gray died Sunday from spinal injuries. Baltimore authorities say they're investigating how the 25-year-old was hurt—a somewhat perverse notion, given that it was while he was in police custody, and hidden from public view, that he apparently suffered injury. How it happened remains unknown. It's even difficult to understand why officers arrested Gray in the first place. But with protestors taking to the streets of Baltimore since Gray's death on Sunday, the incident falls into a line of highly publicized, fatal encounters between black men and the police. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, a reserve sheriff's deputy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, pleaded not guilty to a second-degree manslaughter charge in the death of a man he shot. The deputy says the shooting happened while he was trying to tase the man. Black men dying at the hands of the police is of course nothing new, but the nation is now paying attention and getting outraged.
In her new book No One Understands You and What To Do About It, Heidi Grant Halvorson tells readers a story about her friend, Tim. When Tim started a new job as a manager, one of his top priorities was communicating to his team that he valued each member’s input. So at team meetings, as each member spoke up about whatever project they were working on, Tim made sure he put on his “active-listening face” to signal that he cared about what each person was saying.
But after meeting with him a few times, Tim’s team got a very different message from the one he intended to send. “After a few weeks of meetings,” Halvorson explains, “one team member finally summoned up the courage to ask him the question that had been on everyone’s mind.” That question was: “Tim, are you angry with us right now?” When Tim explained that he wasn’t at all angry—that he was just putting on his “active-listening face”—his colleague gently explained that his active-listening face looked a lot like his angry face.
Four hours after learning about Saturday's devastating earthquake in Nepal, I received a Facebook notification I had never seen before: Sonia, a journalist friend based in northern India, was "marked safe." An hour later, the same notification about a different friend popped up. Then another. Soon, several of my friends wrote that they, too, had learned via this strange new notification that their friends in Nepal were okay.
A few hours later, the mystery was solved. On Saturday afternoon, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced on his timeline that the notifications came from Safety Check, a service the company launched last fall. "When disasters happen, people need to know their loved ones are safe," he wrote, "It's moments like this that being able to connect really matters."
A magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal early on Saturday, centered 10 miles below the surface, less than 50 miles from the capital of Kathmandu. At least 1,100 are already reported to have been killed by the quake and subsequent avalanches triggered in the Himalayas. Historic buildings and temples were destroyed, leaving massive piles of debris in streets as rescue workers and neighbors work to find and help those still trapped beneath rubble. Below are images from the region of the immediate aftermath of one of the most powerful earthquakes to strike Nepal in decades. (Editor's note, some of the images are graphic in nature.)
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Lots of conservatives talk a good game about how citizens should resist federal control and devolve power to local governments. Few of them are willing to put their convictions into action in quite the same way that Sheriff Joe Arpaio is.
The man who calls himself "America's toughest sheriff" was already in trouble with Uncle Sam, on trial for contempt of court in a U.S. district court. It was only once that was under way that Arpaio and his lawyer apparently had the idea to sic a private investigator on the wife of the federal judge hearing his case. That shows toughness. It shows a willingness to use unorthodox tactics to resist federal interference. It's also not especially bright.
Reporters in the courtroom describe a somewhat shocking scene. Lawyers had completed their questioning when Judge Murray Snow announced he had some questions for Arpaio. After a series of queries, Snow asked: "Are you aware that I've been investigated by anyone?"
After more than a year of rumors and speculation, Bruce Jenner publicly came out as transgender with four simple words: “I am a woman.”
“My brain is much more female than male,” he explained to Diane Sawyer, who conducted a prime-time interview with Jenner on ABC Friday night. (Jenner indicated he prefers to be addressed with male pronouns at this time.) During the two-hour program, Jenner discussed his personal struggle with gender dysphoria and personal identity, how they shaped his past and current relationships and marriages, and how he finally told his family about his gender identity.
During the interview, Sawyer made a conspicuous point of discussing broadly unfamiliar ideas about gender and sexuality to its audience. It didn't always go smoothly; her questions occasionally came off as awkward and tone-deaf. But she showed no lack of empathy.
Today was the latest installment of the never-ending Clinton scandal saga, but it won’t be the last. Yet in some ways, the specifics are a distraction. The sale of access was designed into the post-2001 Clinton family finances from the start. Probably nobody will ever prove that this quid led to that quo … but there’s about a quarter-billion-dollar of quid heaped in plain sight and an equally impressive pile of quo, and it’s all been visible for years to anyone who cared to notice. As Jonathan Chait, who is no right-wing noise-machine operator, complained: “The Clintons have been disorganized and greedy.”
“All of this amounts to diddly-squat,” pronounced long-time Clinton associate James Carville when news broke that Hillary Clinton had erased huge numbers of emails. That may not be true: If any of the conduct in question proves illegal, destroying relevant records may also have run afoul of the law.
Our patient—we’ll call him W.B.—is a 56-year-old father of three who, until last year, had always been healthy. He had worked his entire life, in jobs ranging from automotive repair to sales, taking great pride in providing for his family, even though doing so had recently meant combining three part-time positions. All of that ended in February 2014, when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. A neurodegenerative disease characterized by progressive muscle weakness, ALS leads to the loss of all voluntary movement, difficulty breathing, and, in the end, death.
W.B.’s life was turned upside down by the diagnosis. But once the initial shock passed, he began researching his condition intensively. He learned that he was unlikely to survive five years, and that in the meantime his quality of life would diminish dramatically. With limited options, many patients retreat. But, quite bravely, W.B. had other ideas. After much consideration, he decided that if he was going to die, he would like to try to save another person’s life in the process, even if that person was a stranger. And so last May he approached the University of Wisconsin’s transplant program, where we are surgeons, as a prospective organ donor.
There is a tendency, when examining police shootings, to focus on tactics at the expense of strategy. One interrogates the actions of the officer in the moment trying to discern their mind-state. We ask ourselves, "Were they justified in shooting?" But, in this time of heightened concern around the policing, a more essential question might be, "Were we justified in sending them?" At some point, Americans decided that the best answer to every social ill lay in the power of the criminal-justice system. Vexing social problems—homelessness, drug use, the inability to support one's children, mental illness—are presently solved by sending in men and women who specialize in inspiring fear and ensuring compliance. Fear and compliance have their place, but it can't be every place.