At What Price the Moon?

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?


Wikimedia Commons

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.

X-15 neil E60-6286.jpg

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)

lifting bodies on lakebed.jpg

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.