Man needed exactly 66 years to get from Kitty Hawk to the moon. In the 22 years since - an interval fully one-third as long - man has gone nowhere. In fact, he has gone backward.
We can lament the disastrous post-Apollo decisions: abandoning the moon, putting all our launch eggs in the shuttle, creating and discarding design after design for the space station. One might as well complain about solar wind. Twenty-two years are lost, and if we keep blundering we will lose another 20.We had a close encounter with one blunder when the House Appropriations Committee voted to kill the proposed U.S. space station. Only furious lobbying restored it in the full House. But we are early in the budget cycle. The issue is nothing less than the future of man in space. And the most efficient way to destroy the manned space program is to kill the space station.
What is wrong with the space station? The critics make three arguments:
It steals from pressing social needs. The $1.9 billion budgeted for next year is better spent on - the Appropriations Committee tried to move the money to - veterans and housing.
An old refrain: While there remains poverty and homelessness and disease, how can one countenance such diversions of national energy on moon shots, supercolliders or, more recently, a war for Kuwait?
First, this is an argument against any great national venture, because the poor, or some equivalent pressing social problem, will always be with us. Second, many of the space station critics who insist we deal first with domestic problems are the same ones who criticize American business and government for having a short time horizon, for sacrificing the future to immediate payoffs, for destroying our competitiveness by spending today rather than investing for tomorrow. It is hard to think of a more important tomorrow than space. Space is as much the key to the technological, geopolitical, indeed demographic future of man as were the oceans in 1492.
The space station steals from science. Scientists complain that manned space flight takes money away from unmanned research, a far more efficient way of producing knowledge.
The charge is self-serving (these scientists are invariably engaged in unmanned research or some other fiscally afflicted branch of "purer" science), true, and irrelevant. The point of sending men into space is not to gain scientific knowledge - knowledge is gained but merely as a happy side effect - but because it is there.
The moon landing was only incidentally about science. It was about man seeking his destiny. Anyone not moved by the idea of man venturing into the cosmos is, in my view, missing some basic human faculty: the capacity to wonder, the desire to reach.
It is true that manned exploration takes money away from basic space science. But basic space science feeds off the political support generated by manned exploration.
Where do the pure scientists think public support for the Gamma Ray Observatory comes from? If the unmanned researchers get their way and cut the manned program, they will have killed the golden goose. They may get a temporary boost in their share of space research, but they will soon find themselves squeezed out by cancer research and sewer repair.
There are better investments in manned exploration than the space station. Finally, a reasonable objection. Indeed, there are better, bolder ways to explore space. The Stafford commission on the future of space exploration, for example, issued a report endorsing a return to the moon and going on to Mars.
We need a next step into space. We cannot keep sending the space shuttle for return bus runs into Earth orbit. The space station is an improvement over that, but it still falls short of inspiring. After having gone to the moon, are we to return to low Earth orbit, testing bone decalcification and crystal growth? Nice, but not exactly Peary at the Pole.
A moon base is the logical next step. It affords a magnificent platform for science and space industry. It is good training for Mars. And it begins the ultimate adventure: the colonization of another world.
The space station, redesigned so many times, has lost much of its constituency. And it looks as if it will be killed by Congress, if not quickly, then in the worst way, slowly and expensively over many years. So why not a bold new initiative? Embrace Stafford. Trade in the space station for a moon base.
Leave Earth to the nearsighted. Give our children the moon.