Monday's post deserves to marinate for a while longer, but I'm compelled to point out that today is the 40th anniversary of the landing of the final manned mission to the Moon. On Dec. 11, 1972 Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt became, as of today, the last humans to set foot on the Moon, beginning a three day mission. Cernan, who was the last to leave the lunar surface and aware that all future Apollo missions had been canceled, said:

I'm on the surface; and, as I take man's last step from the surface, back home for some time to come – but we believe not too long into the future – I'd like to just [say] what I believe history will record. That America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return: with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.

The Apollo program gave way to the brief and ill-fated Skylab program and then the Space Shuttle. Despite the great fanfare with which the latter program ended recently, in scientific terms it was a poor substitute for Apollo, Gemini, and Mercury. It signaled NASA's transition – in the 1980s, coincidentally enough – to a delivery and maintenance service for government and private sector satellites. Not quite as exciting as walking on the Moon (which, of course, can be criticized on the basis of its scientific value as well) and sadly indicative of a shift in national priorities.

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17 thoughts on “WAITING ROOM”

  • I wonder if in its own way that it's telling/fitting that the scuttling of the grand endeavour of the space program came with the rise of what would be the modern GOP.

    Could you see Ike doing the same w/o a more compelling reason?

  • Middle Seaman says:

    Do we have national priorities? It's easy to claim that we have none. We went to two major wars in the last 10 years. Neither served any obvious purpose. Neither advanced any goal, value or priority. 99% of us prioritize survival while 1% maximize the resources, including money, they can hog.

  • I'm not sure that there is a compelling scientific reason to go to the moon /right now/. There are many reasons to go in the future, but given the current state of technology, the benefits just aren't worth going right now.

    NASA hasn't exactly become little more than a maintenance service for satellites. Did you hear of Curiosity? What about Spirit/Opportunity? These achievements aren't as big of a deal publicity-wise as the moon landings were, but they are significant boons to the scientific community. In a few years, we'll have the James Webb telescope, a thing that no other nation has even endeavored to build.

    When we have a new launch system in place (2018, IIRC), that will be the time for us to head to the moon/mars.

    @Xynzee The reason we stopped going to the moon is because we quickly realized nobody else was going to manage to do it competently and we weren't really getting anything else out of it at the time. The moon landings happened because of the cold war. It should come as no surprise that as soon as the cold war ended, the political support for that program collapsed completely. Certainly is a fitting timeframe for the rise of the new GOP, though.

  • While NASA's manned missions have become, as you say, a maintenance service for satellites, their non-manned missions have continued to do remarkable, and important, science since the end of Apollo: Voyager, Hubble, Galileo, Cassini, the Mars rovers, etc. We know much more about our solar system now than we did 40 years ago, and it's because of NASA.

    Whether our technocratic overlords think that's a worthwhile investment and continue to fund NASA into the future…well, that's an open question.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    For a little over 100 years, we were a "CAN DO!" nation.

    Since the early 70's, we've become a "No. We can't afford to do that!" nation – except for wars. THOSE we can always find the money for – or borrow it.

    We were once a great nation. Not perfect, by any means – but at least we aspired towards perfection.
    Fifty years of ever-lowering taxes, and increases in loopholes, have now made us the wealthiest country, with the greatest income disparity.

    Nobody wants to pay taxes.
    It's just that previous generations understood that they were the price we all had to pay for a civilized and productive society.
    Apparently, that cost is too high for our present Galtian Overlords, Plutocrats, and Oligarchs.
    They'd 'rather rule in Hell, than serve in Heaven.'

  • "There are many reasons to go in the future, but given the current state of technology, the benefits just aren't worth going right now."

    The thing is, the act of going to the moon will end up producing technology that will make it "worth it". Just like last time – though it would help matters along if a more ambitious program.

    The entire Apollo program cost about $100 billion over 15 years, in today's dollars. We're still reaping the benefits of the advances made in science and engineering from that feat – for one sixth of the defense budget inside of a single year.

    Manned spaceflight and the associated technological miracles it produces might be the most productive dollar that can possibly be spent, in my opinion.

  • Making this political (and, as usual, being behind c u n d gulag):

    1) I think that one of the grudging acknowledgments I have to offer Reagan was that he encouraged Americans to be proud. Isn't it ironic that the manned space program is a (relatively) cheap way to accomplish this, given how much the GOP opposes it?

    2) The GOP loves war. For the life of me, I assume that future wars will involve space and computer systems. But I am skeptical that we're at a stage where we couldn't benefit from some hands-on adjustments to the space weapon set-up…

    3) Still, with adequate robotics, I have to wonder whether manned space flight is actually superior to unmanned, for scientific benefit, at this point.

  • I feel as if we could justify the expense of further manned missions if only for the sake of morale. At this point it would be like a Christmas dance at a homeless shelter, but I know I could use it. Not only (hopefully) to recapture what CU calls the "Can Do!" spirit (oh, for a nation of SeaBees!) but just as respite from despair.

    Our unmanned missions are a lot of bang for the buck, but if we don't make progress in sending humans safely into space, we are missing one of the greater purposes of the exercise. We need a permanent lunar space station. I'm not talking about Newt's moon colony — more like a combination science station and travellers' cabin. A place from which long-term experiments could be run and photovoltaic sails could gather power. Even thinking about it makes me happy, actually.

  • I'll refer you to Stephen Weinberg, nobody's fool, who has stated that manned space flight is largey a boondoggle. The Hubble and the like are producing pretty serious science, and didn't require manned space flight at all. (The Hubble was repaired by astronauts, yes, but at a greater cost than building and launching a new satellite.) Chin up! We have indeed seen a sad shift in national priorities, but NASA is still pretty awesome even if launching satellites doesn't capture the imagination in the same way.

  • Nitpick: It's Harrison Schmidt. Nowadays he's a right wing science denier. Quite looney, as a matter of fact. So I guess going to the moon didn't teach him much at all.

  • mel in oregon says:

    there's no reason at this time for a space program except to intercept asteroids or comets such as apophis which has a 1 in 250,000 chance of hitting earth. if it does though the destruction would be devastating. a space program 1-200 years from now would be great, because that would mean we have probably solved most of the life threatening problems we are now facing such as nuclear war, the cooking of the earth, the population explosion & the destruction of all our resources. but to waste money on it now, & ignore the myriad of problems we now face is total insanity. i know this is an unpopular view opposing all the "dreamers" who have very little understanding of science, history, finance or the stupidity of american national priorities, but in time you'll come to understand the overwhelming logic of this position as china becomes the world power, the dollar is no longer the world's currency, & america then suffers from hyper-inflation. we have to realistic & understand that rightwing lunacy is occuring at this time in america. this isn't the first time it's occured, it happened in rome, germany & other empires. the best chance for america is another revolution whereby we would have a democracy instead of the near fascist system we are currently evolving into.

  • @ middle seaman –

    You say we have no national priorities, but then go on to articulate them: 99% of us prioritize survival while 1% maximize the resources, including money, they can hog. Our national priority is the new feudalism.

    @ mel
    I've come to believe that everything you say is in some way wrong. Hyperinflation – that is a hoot!

    The reasons for a space program would be discovered as the program unfolded. We are still reaping the benefits of the last one in ways that were unimaginable in 1955.

    And in what way is it wasting money? Can we only do one thing at a time? When Ike was Prez – and remember, he was a serious deficit hawk – we had the space program, the Marshall plan, finished rural electrification, and build most of the interstate highway system that was conceived during the new deal.

    Coming out of WW II we had higher debt/GDP than now. Some "fiscal cliff" we're facing.

    What we need are marginal tax rates like we had in the 50's and 60's. Four decades of taxes cuts and lax regulation have given us huge wealth disparity and a stagnating economy. Thank you Ronald Reagan. Thank you G. W. Shrub.


  • @mel,

    What I'm hearing is that despite the hostile environment you imagine Earth will be in the future, you think there's no merit in a program that discovers technology that makes living and thriving in extremely hostile environments easier?

  • Surely there are /some/ benefits to sending humans to the moon. There certainly would be some technological discovery to go along with it. And don't get me wrong, I think the publicity alone is definitely worth whatever cost we would have to sink into it. However funding is a limited resource. In order to properly fund such a program, we'd have to raise taxes. A thing that is believed to be unpopular (at this point, I think almost everyone is ready to accept higher taxes) and is thus politically impossible.

    I think right now it would be better to focus on unmanned exploration – better satellites, better solar infrastructure generally, more probes to more planets…None of it sounds groundbreaking, but doing anything in space moves us forward.

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