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US space policy: big universe, small planet

Gerard J DeGroot
15 January 2007

On the eve of the Apollo 11 launch in July 1969, two dominating images of America collided at Cape Kennedy. The first was the huge Saturn V rocket, which symbolised America's wealth, dynamism and sense of adventure. In the shadow of that rocket stood another starkly contrasting image - a donkey-cart brought by the civil-rights leader Ralph Abernathy to remind Americans of the choices they had made.

Abernathy complained about the "bizarre social values" which motivated America to spend $35 billion on an adventure in space, while back on earth one-fifth of the nation lacked adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care. Given such deep poverty, the lunar mission seemed to him obscene.

Abernathy was not a lone wolf. After the riots in the Watts district of Los Angeles in 1965, the McCone commission had warned: "Of what shall it avail our nation if we can place a man on the moon but cannot cure the sickness in our cities?" Apollo was a great deal less popular than commonly assumed. The poor, the unemployed, most blacks, and most women were unenthusiastic. Only once during the 1960s did polls show a clear majority of Americans feeling that the programme was worth the money. Difficult as it is to imagine, throughout the 1960s the Vietnam war was more popular than Apollo.

Gerard J DeGroot is a professor in the department of modern history at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. Among his books are The Bomb: A Life (Harvard University Press, 2004) and Dark Side of the Moon: The Magnificent Madness of the American Lunar Quest (New York University Press, 2006)

In 1969, the theologian Daniel Migliore noted how the moon seemed "to offer its own brand of symbolic immortality. The reach of man into outer space is seen ... as a basic drive of the species toward a yet uncertain destiny." Migliore felt this reasoning was flawed. "Americans are accustomed to transcending the old and the oppressive by spatial movement", he argued. Simply stated, they equate progress with movement. Migliore, like Abernathy, instead advocated a different conception of advancement. "We must make up our minds. Is freedom primarily to be found in spatial migration (to outer or inner space)? Or is freedom to be sought first in shaping a new future for men here on the good earth?"

Neil Armstrong did not agree. According to him, man's first step on the moon on 16 June 1969 would prove to be a giant leap for mankind. His famous eleven words uttered when he stepped on the moon were enormously popular but few stopped to contemplate their logic. Few paused to consider how the small step helped starving Biafrans - then dying in their tens of thousands amid Nigeria's civil war - or blacks in Alabama.

Some highly influential people nevertheless agreed with Armstrong. "When Apollo 11 reaches the moon", Walter Cronkite remarked, "we will have shown that the possibility of world peace exists ... if we put our skill, intelligence and money to it". Werner von Braun, the ex-Nazi space engineer, called the lunar landing "equal in importance to that moment in evolution when aquatic life came crawling up on the land." Richard Nixon, singing harmony, called it "the greatest week in history since ... the creation. Nothing has changed the world more than this mission."

Nixon apparently forgot that cold-war mistrust was the single most important motivation for the journey to the moon. The best of American technology and billions of American dollars had been devoted to an effort to kick lunar dust in Soviet faces. One year after his return to earth, even Armstrong had given up on the giant leap. Asked whether he still believed that the

conquest of space would render war obsolete, he replied: "I certainly had hoped that point of view would be correct ... [but] I haven't seen a great deal of interest, or evidence of that being the truth in the past year."

Apollo was not a beginning, but an end. Nixon, despite his romantic rhetoric, wanted to wrap up the space adventure. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) wanted to go to Mars, but Nixon preferred budget cuts. "We must ... realise that space expenditures must take their proper place within a rigorous system of national priorities", he told the American people. His budget office produced a devastating critique of manned space travel. "‘No defined manned project can compete on a cost-return basis with unmanned space flight systems", it argued. "Missions that are designed around man's unique capabilities appear to have little demonstrable economic or social return to atone for their high cost. Their principal contribution is that each manned flight paves the way for more manned flight."

Congress agreed. Even before the Apollo 11 launch, legislators had been circling like hungry wolves. Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield announced that he would oppose any further space adventures "until problems here on earth are solved". The then congressman Ed Koch (later mayor of New York), confessed: "‘I just can't for the life of me see voting for monies to find out whether or not there is some microbe on Mars, when in fact I know there are rats in ... Harlem apartments."

Also on United States space policy in openDemocracy:

Paul Rogers, "New frontiers: from Iraq to outer space"
(19 October 2006)

The forgotten frontiers

Fast forward to the present. America, it seems - in light of a new "global exploration strategy" unveiled in December 2006 - plans to go back to the moon, and from there to Mars. George W Bush, unable to think of a big idea, has borrowed one from John F Kennedy. The idea has been given credibility by the cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who argues that we must colonise other planets in order to ensure the long-term survival of the human race. Frankly, that's hogwash. The earth is indeed doomed, but where precisely might refugees go? If a spaceship could be built capable of a speed of one million miles per hour, it would still require 4,000 years to reach the nearest star system theoretically capable of harbouring habitable planets.

At our current rate of development (or, rather, disintegration), we will turn the earth into a parched and smoking ruin long before we figure out the problems of colonising distant planets. The implication seems clear: as Migliore argued, the really meaningful frontiers exist here on troubled earth.

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