The Wrong Stuff

Tom Wolfe on America’s great leap backward after the moon landings:

The American space program, the greatest, grandest, most Promethean – O.K. if I add “godlike”? – quest in the history of the world, died in infancy at 10:56 p.m. New York time on July 20, 1969, the moment the foot of Apollo 11′s Commander Armstrong touched the surface of the Moon.

It was no ordinary dead-and-be-done-with-it death. It was full-blown purgatory, purgatory being the holding pen for recently deceased but still restless souls awaiting judgment by a Higher Authority.

Like many another youngster at that time, or maybe retro-youngster in my case, I was fascinated by the astronauts after Apollo 11. I even dared to dream of writing a book about them someday. If anyone had told me in July 1969 that the sound of Neil Armstrong’s small step plus mankind’s big one was the shuffle of pallbearers at graveside, I would have averted my eyes and shaken my head in pity. Poor guy’s bucket’s got a hole in it.

Why, putting a man on the Moon was just the beginning, the prelude, the prologue! The Moon was nothing but a little satellite of Earth. The great adventure was going to be the exploration of the planets … Mars first, then Venus, then Pluto. Jupiter, Mercury, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus? NASA would figure out their slots in the schedule in due course. In any case, we Americans wouldn’t stop until we had explored the entire solar system. And after that … the galaxies beyond.

NASA had long since been all set to send men to Mars, starting with manned fly-bys of the planet in 1975. Wernher von Braun, the German rocket scientist who had come over to our side in 1945, had been designing a manned Mars project from the moment he arrived. In 1952 he published his Mars Project as a series of graphic articles called “Man Will Conquer Space Soon” in Collier’s magazine. It created a sensation. He was front and center in 1961 when NASA undertook Project Empire, which resulted in working plans for a manned Mars mission. Given the epic, the saga, the triumph of Project Apollo, Mars would naturally come next. All NASA and von Braun needed was the president’s and Congress’s blessings and the great adventure was a Go. Why would they so much as blink before saying the word?

Please read the whole thing. You already know the answer as to why Washington cut back so hard even after we had made this giant leap for mankind: They wanted the money for greater pork-kind.

If you have not read Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, you really should.  It captures the time, the country’s mood and the great sense of wonder most Americans felt when we sent men into space – not just low earth orbit. I remember watching Apollo 11 and I remember wondering why television coverage of the later landings was so spotty (aside from Apollo 13, of course). 

We, as a nation, should be ashamed at our lack of will in this. Wolfe paraphrase something he once heard Wernher von Braun say shortly before von Braun died:

Here on Earth we live on a planet that is in orbit around the Sun. The Sun itself is a star that is on fire and will someday burn up, leaving our solar system uninhabitable. Therefore we must build a bridge to the stars, because as far as we know, we are the only sentient creatures in the entire universe. When do we start building that bridge to the stars? We begin as soon as we are able, and this is that time. We must not fail in this obligation we have to keep alive the only meaningful life we know of.

The entire NASA budget of around $18 billion is just over 1/2 of 1% of the 2010 budget.

We walked on the moon once.

We should be ashamed.

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2 Responses to The Wrong Stuff

  1. feeblemind says:

    I was 13 when N Armstrong set foot on the moon. At that time my best friend and I were speculating on when we would reach Mars because we were sure that would be coming next. We just knew we would beat the 2001 benchmark (A Space Odyssey). Worst case we thought would be 2010, but there was no doubt we would get there. If you had told us in 1969 that we would be no closer to Mars in 2009 than then, we would never have believed it.

  2. martian says:

    I’m with you, feeb. I was 14 that summer. I had also been a space hound since the Mercury program. I started keeping a scrapbook of news clippings around the time of Apollo 3 and kept it right up through Apollo 17. Every boy in those years dreamed of growing up to be an astronaut. My ambition was to lead that first expedition to Mars. I never would have believed it back then if anyone had told me I would be 54 years old and not only have we never been to Mars but soon we will be begging rides from the Russians just to get into earth orbit. I would have said the person saying it was an idiot. Well, so much for the hopes and dreams of a generation.

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