Our Space Policies
A physicist who did his undergraduate and graduate work at Columbia University, ARTHUR KANTROWITZ was for ten years a professor at Cornell before he became a director and vice president of Avco Corporation. His concern about our lagging space developments is reflected in the following paper.
THE Soviet Union is endeavoring to exhibit in the most spectacular way possible the superiority of its social system for the development and application of science and technology. The Russian space spectaculars are, in a limited sense, frauds. They are not simple deceptions; I am willing to accept Soviet claims of specific achievement at face value. However, they are designed to conceal the fact that the Soviet Union cannot match America’s historic successes in applying science and technology to the great problems of combating want and disease and ignorance. In this respect, the Russian space spectaculars are frauds.
Consider, however, the military significance of space. At the present time there are certain clear applications of space for reconnaissance and communications, which are important, but perhaps not decisive, in a military sense. But it is my conviction that the elaboration of space technology will lead to new decisive weapons, that the most likely way in which the ICBM stalemate will finally be broken is by space-based weapons.
The recent Russian advance toward the achievement of rendezvous in space has brought Russian scientists close to the capability of multiplying the weight that they can place in orbit in a single launch by the number of vehicles they can rendezvous. For example, rendezvous of some twenty payloads comparable to the Vostok vehicles would give the Russians the power to assemble a vehicle in orbit which could land men on the moon. The achievement of multiple rendezvous, therefore, would make it possible for them to surpass the orbital capabilities of the biggest boosters we are even talking about. The Russians will first have the opportunity to explore the capabilities of a permanent manned laboratory in space. We must hope that we will also have such a laboratory before this capability leads them to a new weapon of decisive strategic importance. In this grim sense, the Russian achievement is not a fraud.
In the past few years we have been seriously attempting to match Russian achievements in space. It has, however, become painfully clear with each successive year that we are falling further and further behind. Thus, we were four months behind the launching of Sputnik I, ten months behind the first man in orbit, and we are now reported to be years behind the Vostok achievement. I find it difficult to believe that we are, in fact, catching up. I find it still more difficult to believe that America cannot excel in this area. Why is it that we can lead the world in so many areas of technology and not in the largescale technology of space?
One of the important roots of America’s excellence in technology has been our deep belief in what Jefferson once called “the free market place of ideas.” In technology this means the provision of a climate suitable for the growth of many competing ideas. This includes not only those immediately credible but the striking and imaginative ideas which require some nurturing to achieve credibility. We do not lack brilliant, farseeing advocates of new scientific and technological adventures. The power of hindsight allows us — and, indeed, many other countries — to exhibit frustrated pioneers who could not find adequate support. In areas requiring only smallscale support, our pluralistic society has a good record of nurturing ideas which broadened the vision of mankind.
The space effort differs from most previous technological adventures in that in many cases demonstration of the power of an idea requires effort on a national scale. Ideas which can be explored and proved on a small scale are still moving ahead more vigorously in this country then anywhere else. For example, in the spacescience area, where, because of the relatively modest requirements for funds, many ideas can be pushed at the same time, we are still exhibiting America’s traditional excellence. However, in the man-in-space area, the cost is so high that there has been an important tendency to adopt the technique of our opponent, who claims that planning by an oligarchy is superior to the free marketplace of ideas. We accept the facile statement, “Let’s pick one idea now and run with it.” Thus, we have seen a small group within our government recently wrestling to find the one best idea for the moon trip. It is my conviction that this policy represents a departure from the competitive free marketplace of ideas which has been responsible for America’s technological excellence. This departure has led to our inability to compete with the Russians.
It is a simple thing to say that since a project is going to be very expensive, we should not multiply the cost by trying to do it several ways. This, however, is a fallacy. Putting the problem so restrictively compels the adoption of the most cautious of available approaches. In attempting anything new, the ability to start an imaginative approach before every step has been demonstrated can save much time and money. We did this in the ICBM program when we started to build boosters, before we knew that the precisionguidance and the re-entry problems had practical solutions. This adventurous decision was reasonable because we simultaneously agreed to pursue several approaches to each difficult problem, allowing these approaches to compete in the early and relatively inexpensive phases. It is a truism that a policy which compels adoption of the most cautious approach to an adventurous problem will be very costly in time and in money.
The present plan in space concentrates an awesome responsibility in a small group of government employees who must invent, advocate, judge, and execute systems to meet national goals. The free marketplace of ideas would cast a group of government scientific officials in the role of judge. They would sit in judgment over the ideas of others, over the many advocates of varying approaches to meet a new challenge. They would listen to the evidence and to the cross-examination of that evidence by advocates of alternate approaches. They would find in some cases that no scientific decision could be reached on the basis of the available evidence. In these cases it would be necessary to continue multiple approaches until new evidence could be accumulated. They would direct attention to the specific questions which must be answered to enable scientific decisions to be made. It would be necessary, of course, for the judge himself to refrain carefully from taking a position on matters before him. Thus, the enormous responsibility of determining directions for our space program could be spread over a much larger segment of our scientific and engineering community. The essential function which must remain a purely governmental one is that of judgment, whereas the function of invention and execution can be delegated. The delegation of these responsibilities to the scientific community as a whole would create the free marketplace.
The role of judge has not been well developed in the history of science. In small-scale scientific work, this role has been less important than that of the brilliant farseeing advocate. This tradition has been reflected in the education of our scientists and engineers, who have had the achievements of great pioneers held up as examples. To extend a free marketplace of ideas to projects requiring resources on a national scale, we will need to develop a corps of scientific judges. We will need to endow these people with the prestige that judgeship has achieved in the legal profession. We will need to endow their positions with authority, so that technical judgments will not be overridden by political authority. We will need, also, to be certain that these technical judges do not extend their authority beyond their area of competence, beyond the answering of scientific questions.
The separation of the vital governmental function of scientific judgment from other highly demanding scientific and semiscientific functions is necessary to prepare America to meet the Soviet challenge to technological competition on a national scale. It will be very difficult to achieve a capability lor scientific judgment reflecting in crucial governmental scientific decisions our full capabilities for wisdom and foresight. It would, however, be much more difficult to develop these capacities if simultaneously, and from the same people, we expect initiative and executive ability, as well as the ability to deal with the body politic.
Extension of the free marketplace of ideas to the space program would attract many of the most creative of our engineers and scientists. It would call forth enthusiasm, without which, as Emerson once said, nothing great can ever be achieved. It would exhibit the power of a free society.