“We have been trying to relive Apollo for 40 years now.”
I don’t know about you, but when I hear that phrase, it’s like raking fingernails across a blackboard. Nothing gets my dander up than to discount one of the greatest feats in the 20th century. President John F. Kennedy threw down the gauntlet in 1961: we would land a man on the moon before the end of the decade and return him safely to earth. And by golly, we did it!
Why is my initial reaction defensive?
Therein is the danger of using sound bites to communicate a very complicated situation. I hear, “Blah blah negative blah Apollo blah blah.” Hence my reaction, and I’m sure that others may react similarly. Yet underlying this statement are some very important truths that warrant airing. So, for my own benefit, and maybe for yours, gentle reader, I’ll examine the situation in human spaceflight with some comparisons of then versus today.
In other words, let’s cut through the sound bite and get to some truths.
Alignment. The Apollo Program marks one of those seeming rare instances where the political leadership, industry, and the public were near universal in their support for human spaceflight, and with good reason. The climate was one dominated by opposing superpowers demonstrating through various means how one side was somehow better than the other – politically, technologically, idealistically, etc. We were in a race, one that demonstrated “soft power” and world influence through peaceful means. In contrast, today is a different world with different demands. The Cold War is over. It’s a monopolar world (for now). National priorities are elsewhere, leaving the government-run human space exploration effort as one of dozens of government discretionary efforts competing for attention. What was once a standard of bipartisanship, the conversation around human space exploration is devolving into partisan politics. As such, the attention of key stakeholders is influenced by pork-barrel politics and competing special interests, perhaps more so than I’m sure the space community would like to see. Viewed through this lens, today’s human spaceflight effort is suffering from a de-emphasis in the national consciousness and from a lack of alignment among the stakeholders. For us to proceed as if human spaceflight is just as important now to the political leadership as it was in the 1960’s is naïve.
Money. At the height of the Apollo Program in 1966, NASA’s budget was $5.9 billion out of a total federal budget of $110 billion, or 5.5% of the total – a sizeable fraction of the government’s spending at the time. (Expressed in today’s dollars, this would equate to a NASA budget of $32 billion out of a total federal budget of $580 billion.) I’ve heard this called “war-time spending without shooting bullets.” Today, NASA’s budget is $19 billion out of a total federal budget of $3.6 trillion, or 0.52% of the total. That is not a typo – as a percentage of the overall federal budget, NASA now commands a factor of ten less than what it did at the height of Apollo. The good news (if you can call it that) is that since 1987, NASA’s budget has been more or less constant when expressed in today’s dollars, hovering around $17 billion plus or minus $2 billion. One would not be remiss in assuming that NASA’s future budget is more than likely to continue the flat trend rather than to ramp upward; at least, that is what I would assume. (Others may argue that with an increasing deficit and national debt and with a greater percentage of the budget tied to non-discretionary spending, all future discretionary spending is at risk.)
So, we have a two-faceted challenge: one of alignment – getting the attention of key stakeholders in an increasingly distracted world – and one of living within a flat budget. This clearly is not the world of the 1960’s.
To move forward, we need more than sound bites.
We need to “recapture the spirit of Apollo” by bringing together all the stakeholders – political and technical; within the space community and in the general public – with a compelling and affordable approach to human space exploration while embracing the hard truths about competing national priorities and fiscal realities. The challenge for human spaceflight – creating an affordable and sustainable human presence in space in the current climate – will be incredibly hard. Yet as Kennedy said in his 1961 speech at Rice University, we choose to go to the moon, not because it is easy, but because it is hard. This new challenge will be every bit as hard if not harder than that we faced in the 1960’s.
I love a good challenge… do you?