The Wrong Stuff
When Apollo 17, NASA's final lunar-landing mission, ended 30 years ago this month, any-thing seemed possible. After all, it had taken only eight years to go from Yuri Gagarin's first orbit of the Earth to Neil Armstrong's first step on the Moon. Sure-ly by the dawn of...
The Wrong Stuff
When Apollo 17, NASA's final lunar-landing mission, ended 30 years ago this month, any-thing seemed possible. After all, it had taken only eight years to go from Yuri Gagarin's first orbit of the Earth to Neil Armstrong's first step on the Moon. Sure-ly by the dawn of the 21st century we'd have established a lunar base and left boot prints in the rust-red sands of Mars.
Alas, things didn't turn out that way.
Apollo was many things: a technological tour de force, a triumph of the human spirit, and a boon to planetary science (see page 118). But first and fore-most it was a weapon of the Cold War. Once the United States beat the Soviet Union to the Moon, most people lost interest in space flight. About the only thing that has prevented the wholesale abandonment of the space program in the U.S. is politicians' desire to keep federal dollars flowing to NASA facilities and aerospace companies in their districts.
Of course, that's not what the space agency's managers and their supporters in the White House and Congress have said publicly. In the 1970s they said that the Space Shuttie would reduce the cost of launching people and payloads into orbit by a factor of 10 or more. In the '80s and '90s they said that the International Space Station (ISS) would revolutionize manufacturing processes, produce a cure for cancer, and promote world peace. In reality, the shuttle offers the world's most expensive trip to orbit. And little useful research will be done aboard the ISS unless more modules are added and its crew is expanded from three astronauts to seven. The station's current occupants spend most of their time fixing balky equipment. As for world peace
Don't get me wrong: I'm a big fan of space exploration, both piloted and ro-botic. I just wish it were conducted with more honesty. Astronomers have to bend over backward to provide scientific justifications for robotic missions costing a few hundred million dollars. Yet the ISS gets tens of billions on empty promises.
ril bet it would have cost less to build a Moon base or send humans to Mars than we'll have spent by the time we wise up and pull the plug on the ISS. And either of these efforts — surely even more global than the ISS — would have been guaranteed to advance science even as it helped sustain the aerospace industry.
As far as I know, NASA isn't planning to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the end of Apollo. This is probably for the best. In 1972 we had three guys exploring the Moon, making discoveries. In 2002 we have three guys circling the Earth, making repairs.
8 December 2002 | Sky & Telescope