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The Dawning Of Our Downfall
It's been four and a half decades since the dawn of the space age.
Forty five years ago this Friday, on October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial earth satellite, dubbed Sputnik. It was a shot that was not just heard, but literally went, round the world. It set off a train of political events that lumbers down the track (albeit slowly and expensively) to this very day.
In 1957, not even the most visionary of the science fiction writers would have predicted that man would be walking on the Moon only a dozen years later.
Even more inconceivable would have been the notion that, having done so, he would stop a scant three years after that, and not return for decades, and perhaps forever, or at least the foreseeable future. Or that three decades after the last treading of human feet in lunar dust, we would be seemingly further from such a feat than we were then.
But that was the result of Sputnik.
In the late 1950s, we were deep in the midst of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. We were building bomb shelters in our back yards. I have personal memories of going with my father to the bomb-shelter dealer to view their ghoulish wares. I was too young to truly appreciate their implications, but I do remember the drills in school, in which we were to get into the hallway, curled up like the fetuses we were only a few short years prior, and place our arms over our heads, against the inevitable devastation of a potential nuclear blast. A blast that would presumably, in defiance of the laws of physics, just scatter the debris of our school building over our fragile young bodies, rather than penetrating them with deadly radiation...
So when politicians like Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson talked about "not going to bed under a communist Moon," it meant something.
We now know, as a result of documents unclassified only in the past few years, that the Eisenhower Administration wanted the Soviets to be the first, so that a precedent of overflight of surveillance satellites would be established, and they would be unable to complain when we developed our own. But the Administration didn't anticipate the public reaction.
We had been one-upped. Aced. Beaten to the punch.
Choose your own cliche--the point was that the American system of Free Enterprise had been upstaged by the commies, and there was nothing to do for it except to initiate programs to improve science and math education in the schools, and to institute a Government Program to launch a satellite of our own.
Accordingly, the next year, we established a mirror socialist space agency, built on the foundation of a previous government agency that had served well to advance the aviation industry--the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA). The difference was that NACA focused itself on developing needed technology for industry and the military (based on their inputs), whereas the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was focused on an operational goal--to beat the Russians on the high frontier.
Thus did our downfall begin, at least to those of us interested in opening up space.
Space itself became secondary--it was only a symbol of technological prowess. What was important was beating the Soviets at something in this line. This was particularly the case after our myriad failures in even achieving the minimal goal (an orbiting satellite) demonstrated by the Soviets.
And so, ultimately, was the Apollo program born.
Despite the rhetoric of the time, the goal was not to open up space to humanity, or even to the American people. The goal was to show that Democracy was superior to Communism (though sadly, both political systems used the same government-enterprise model for their achievement). The X-15 program, which was developing knowledge and experience in routine space operations, was cancelled, because it didn't hold the near-term promise of showing up the Russians.
Because we were nominally a capitalist nation, America had much more wealth and ingenuity to throw at the problem, and we won. We beat the Soviets to the Moon.
But in so doing, we also lost, because we betrayed the fundamental values of our nation, and in so doing, we established a premature, sterile and unsustainable beachhead on another planet, and then abandoned it.
Today we continue to reap the fruits of that decision.
We have a space program whose purpose is at an extreme variance with its advertisements four decades ago.
It provides jobs, rather than hardware on orbit. "International cooperation" takes precedence over schedule or utility. The engineers working on them proclaim that the Shuttle and the International Space Station are the most complex systems in the world, as though that's a feature in which to take pride (whereas most competent engineers follow the principle of "KISS"--"Keep It Simple, Stupid.")
Forty-five years after the Wright brothers flew their first flight, thousands of aircraft had been built, and hundreds of thousands of people had flown, on routine commercial flights.
Forty-five years after Sputnik, space remains an elite destination--fewer than a few hundred people have visited it.
It's not for lack of interest. Public opinion polls indicate that millions of people would like to experience space flight, if they could afford it. And the lack of their ability to afford it is not a consequence of physics--that accounts for at most an order of magnitude difference in the costs of space flight over air travel.
No, people can't afford it because, unlike almost any other issue in which many people have an interest, their government is indifferent to their wants. It can get away with this because it has told them that it is "hard," and because they've been told that it is for decades, and the belief itself makes it difficult to raise money that might provide any counterexamples, they believe it.
And why shouldn't they? Thirty years ago, fifteen years after the launch of the first satellite, we stopped walking on the Moon. We'd done it several times before, and it was expensive. What was the point? We'd beaten the Russians. We'd shown the superiority of American state socialism over Soviet state socialism. That there might be room for American free enterprise, or the desires of the American people to sample the vistas of the cosmos themselves, was never considered.
Perhaps, after almost half a century, it's time to consider it.Posted by Rand Simberg at October 02, 2002 09:16 PM
I was born five years after Sputnik, just in time to be old enough to see the first moon landing.
In the informational materials of the time, I recall a lot of mention of the "IGY" (International Geophysical Year).
Can anyone recount the history of that? Which country actually proposed it? Was it publicaly planned to launch satellites during that year? Sputnik was I guess a few months before IGY started. How were the two things related?
Sour grapes. The collapse of the US space effort after Apollo 11 was by no means inevitable. To be sure, one can spin out countless scenarios in which something or another could have gone differently or better (after all, I published a novel, Children of Apollo, upon that very subject.) What if, for instance, the space race had been to build a space station? Or a lunar settlement? Maybe, given the political contex of the times (Vietnam, race riots, the rise of the extreme left) what happened was inevitable no matter what course was taken (Why are we spending billions on the X-17 space plane when children are starving?).
In any event, I think that to imagine that absent a space race, somehow free market capitalism would have filled the void is to misunderstand the mindset of the late fifties and early sixties. It was just "commonly understood" that space was too hard for anything but nations to undertake. People did not even start to imagine that mindset might be flawed until the earliest the mid seventies with the Otrag effort.
Further, I think that the idea that we're going to get government entirely out of the space business is yet another fantasy. NASA is not going away. In any event, national security concerns will increase government's role as time goes on. The best we can hope for is to have government efforts directed toward areas where there would be more appropriate (i.e., away from running a government space line and toward cutting edge R&D and exploration.) Fortunetly, this may be where the current administration is headed.Posted by Mark R.Whittington at October 3, 2002 04:33 AM
Whew! I was afraid somebody else would catch the "grapefruit-sized Sputnik" mistake before I did (it was Vanguard that was the size of a grapefruit). ;)
Doh! You're right about the satellite size. Comes from posting too late.Posted by Rand Simberg at October 3, 2002 07:51 AM
It's quite wrong that nobody considered private space activities before OTRAG in the 1970s. Boeing considered privatizing expendable launch vehicles for comsat launches in the early 60s, and corresponded with NASA on the subject; and the then-president of General Electric advocated private comsat launches publicaly at that time. I did a Freedom of Information Act request to NASA in the early 80s as part of research for a Reason magazine article I wrote and turned up a number of serious inquiries on the part of credible private companies. So far as I could tell, it was regulatory and policy uncertainty that kept them from pursuing the matter. It wasn't NASA opposition, byt he way; NASA at the time was preoccupied with Apollo and didn't give comsat launches a high priority.Posted by Jim Bennett at October 3, 2002 08:11 AM
Jim - Interesting, though it doesn't necessarily disprove my point because those inquiries were not widely known nor was the concept of private launch services publicaly debated in the 1960s.
It also proves a point I've been trying to make for some time. IF NASA has something else to do besides running a government space line (i.e., the shuttle), then it has no incentive to interfeer with attempts by private companies to address the LEO market. That was true in the 60s, when NASA was-as you point out-preoccupied with Apollo, and it could be true again if we get the space agency out of the space trucking business and back to cutting edge R&D and exploration.Posted by Mark R. Whittington at October 3, 2002 01:26 PM
Didn't Heinlein in some of his stories make reference to a suspension of space travel? Granted, he had humanity further along (people living on other planets). But still, I think he did. e.g., Revolt in 2100.
NASA not go away? In the 60s Soviet dissident Amalrik (I think -- working from memory) wrote a book arguing that the Soviet Union was doomed. I do consider it possible that NASA will eventually be converted to something like NACA used to be.
Mark, I must argue that the post Apollo decline was almost inevitable. Rigid, authoritarian hierarchies tend to dampen interest and accomplishments in whatever field they are present in. Everyone applauds von Braun's rocket science work. Too few notice that the system he worked hard to develop was very dysfunctional.Posted by Chuck Divine at October 3, 2002 01:35 PM
"Public opinion polls indicate that millions of people would like to experience space flight, if they could afford it."
Not to be a party pooper, but isn't that a bit like arguing that millions of people would like to own a Rolls Royce, so we need a government program to make it possible?
Sure people would like a ride in space, if for no other reason than to say they've done it, but how many would be willing to pay more than a couple of hundred bucks for the privilege, especially after the "I've been in space" club becomes non-exclusive?
Now that the gee-whiz factor is fading, you're going to need a better argument than that to get a manned space program in gear.Posted by Bruce Rheinstein at October 3, 2002 02:01 PM
Chuck - Interesting analogy, though I think somewhat flawed. At it's worse, NASA has just been a dysfunctional bureaucracy. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, was the Evil Empire even during its best days.
I think NASA could (and should) be turned into a space version of NACA, at least in part. Cutting edge technology development (and exploration, which NACA didn't do, but NASA could do) is certainly (at least in my opinion) a legitiment function of government. But that's not getting rid of NASA, simply reforming it, which is not too far from what I suggest.Posted by Mark R. Whittington at October 3, 2002 02:18 PM
Yes, Mark, NASA isn't evil.
I made the comparison, thinking to myself, tyranny isn't just evil -- it's stupid and incompetent, too. That's a point too many people miss.
Back in 30s, 40s, 50s and even later, lots of people noted how evil totalitarianism was. The notion that the various totalitarian states were also incompetent wasn't truly appreciated. Many, indeed, thought that such states were the wave of the future because of their superior functioning. I've heard that even the US government, via something called the Price Commission, in 1958 thought the Soviet Union would conquer the United States by 1975.
And, yes, I agree the government has a role to play in exploration. But the exploration must be flexible and in tune with a free, democratic society. NASA currently falls short of that.
All the best,
Chuck DivinePosted by Chuck Divine at October 4, 2002 06:49 AM
Chuck - I have nothing to disagree with in your last post, except again to suggest that comparisons of NASA with the Soviet Union are a little wide of the mark.Posted by Mark R. Whittington at October 4, 2002 10:23 AM
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