I was born in August 1969, a few weeks after Neil Armstrong’s “small step” onto the moon. Nonetheless, I was a child of the space age, idolizing Armstrong and his fellow astronauts, scrapbooking articles on the Viking landers and Voyager probes, and building lots (and lots and lots) of model rockets. NASA’s feats and American space policy were awe-inspiring.
Yet, from today’s vantage point, it’s hard not to question the Apollo program. Yes, we got to the moon, but to what end? Of the 10 Apollo missions originally planned for the lunar surface, only seven flew, and one of them aborted its landing; the rest were cancelled. It’s as if, once the Apollo astronauts completed their initial science mission and trundled off some 800 pounds of moon rocks, policymakers asked, “OK, now what?” The mission cancellations suggest they didn’t have an answer.
That pattern played out again with Skylab, the United States’ first space station. It hosted all of three missions before it was abandoned like an orbiting foreclosed house and ultimately crashed to earth.
In fairness, other NASA manned missions fared better. The space shuttles (STS) flew 135 missions between 1981 and 2011. (Also worth remembering: two missions ended tragically.) The International Space Station (ISS) continues its manned mission that began in 2000, conducting experiments and observations. And NASA’s unmanned programs have yielded stunning achievements, as have seemingly countless other government and commercial satellites. The unmanned programs, STS, and ISS had answers to the “Now what?” question: conducting ongoing scientific research, providing services (e.g., communications, weather-monitoring, reconnaissance), and delivering and servicing satellites. Those benefits are ongoing; in contrast, Apollo brings to mind the Simpsons spoof, “The Moon of Earth.”