The rate of technological advance is rarely understood by the man-in-the-street. For example, the time between the Wright Brothers‘ first flight and Neil Armstrong’s first step on the Moon was just sixty-six years. That’s less that my own current life-span. From Kitty Hawk to the Sea of Tranquility — just sixty-six years.
Today is another historic anniversary in the history of atmospheric/space flight. Fifty years ago today, President John Kennedy announced that the United States through NASA would place a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. Virtually everyone who was old enough in 1961, and who had access to news sources remembers that announcement and the thrill it produced. And we did it — twelve times, in fact:
Some of these names are household names, others would only be recognized by die-hard space aficionados. The real problem is, of course, that the last time a human walked on the Moon was thirty-nine years ago.
When Columbus “discovered” the New World, things moved forward from there. The guys didn’t stay for a while, and then pack up their marbles and go home. But that’s exactly what we have done with the Moon and worlds beyond. By any realistic measure, we should have had a continuing presence on Mars for at least twenty years, and even into the asteroid belt. What happened to the progress that took us from Kitty Hawk to the Sea of Tranquility in sixty-six years, and then left us stranded back here for the next thirty-nine years?
In a word: Government. That’s right — Government. NASA is a government project. Initially, it was strongly supported and well funded. It made amazing progress, relatively speaking. But as national politics changed, as political priorities changed, the impetus behind NASA changed, so that we never went back, and we still are not scheduled to go back.
What do you suppose would have happened had the Wright Brothers decided to let the government take over their research and development? Do you believe we would have our present world-wide air travel system? Neither do I. But getting into space is expensive, you might argue. I don’t disagree, but look at what is happening in the commercial space flight world: Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, XCOR Aerospace, Google Lunar X-prize. I suspect that if we had put the project into private hands right at the beginning, or turned it over to private industry after we reached the Moon, we might not have lost thirty-nine years.