Commentary: Emergency Exit
Give the U.S. space program a mission that means something: saving the species.
- By William E. Burrows
- Air & Space magazine, November 2002
To the nautical imagery that has helped symbolize the Space Age—rocket ship, space port, Mariner, Magellan, “this new ocean”—add “becalmed,” the word that best describes the U.S. space program’s stagnation.
The blueprint for the Space Age unfolded in October 1951 at the Hayden Planetarium in New York. There, Wernher von Braun presided over the First Annual Symposium on Space Travel, and the small galaxy of visionaries in attendance laid out the plan against which all subsequent plans have been measured. Its heart was the “conquest” of space by men who were to fly shuttles on a series of missions to build a doughnut-shaped station rotating in permanent Earth orbit. Most importantly, the station would itself be an embarkation point for an expedition to start a colony on Mars. The phenomenally ambitious program was depicted in eight installments in Collier’s magazine from 1952 to 1954 (at 15 cents an issue).
In this plan and in later embellishments by thinkers like Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Gerard K. O’Neill, and Carl Sagan, moving into space was seen as an expression of manifest destiny. But it was subverted by President John F. Kennedy’s decision in 1961 to send astronauts to the moon. Apollo was the greatest feat of human exploration in history, an unparalleled technological and managerial tour de force, and a sensational propaganda triumph. But it derailed the grand scheme. Its impact was so great that it forever defined the U.S. space program, transforming it into a series of imitative, relatively short-term goals devoid of overarching purpose.
The space program started to go out of focus on December 14, 1972, when Gene Cernan, the last man on the moon, packed up and went home. It has drifted since then—with the few notable exceptions of robotic planetary exploration, such as Voyager’s epic grand tour, and the triumphs of the Hubble Space Telescope.
The perfect example of how not to do a space program is the International Space Station. Its tortured history epitomizes the quagmire we are now in. President Bush has unilaterally reduced the station’s structure and crew size, infuriating the European Space Agency and sending a message about the thing’s very low priority to an equally indifferent public.
If the U.S. space program is to recapture public enthusiasm and restore unwavering government support, it needs a truly compelling goal. And there is one: planetary defense.
Earth’s treasure can be safeguarded by creating a safe place for life and civilization’s collective record off the planet. That single, overwhelmingly important goal can be achieved only through reusable spacecraft that enable continuous access to space.
The array of threats to Earth, both natural and man-made, is formidable: thermonuclear war; any of several kinds of apocalyptic terrorism, notably nuclear, chemical, or biological; the mutation of a virus—an airborne HIV, for example; a major accident or series of them involving nuclear weapons or nuclear power plants; global warming. Even a limited nuclear war would result in terrible atmospheric and other environmental contamination and planet-wide social and economic upheaval.