Space – the first fifty years

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:

     Name          Born          Died          Age at          Mission    Lunar 
EVA dates    Employer
                                                           first step
1.  Neil        August 5, 1930           38y 11m 15d       Apollo 11       July 21, 1969          NASA

2.  Buzz     January 20, 19303        9y 6m 0d            Apollo 11                                    Air Force

3.  Pete      June 2, 1930               39y 5m 17d          Apollo 12        November               Navy
     Conrad                    July 8, 1999                                                19–20, 1969

4.  Alan      March 15, 1932           37y 8m 4d            Apollo 12                                      Navy

5.  Alan      November 18, 1923    47y 2m 18d            Apollo 14         February                Navy
     Shepard                  July 21, 1998                                                
5–6, 1971

6.  Edgar    September 17, 1930  40y 4m 19d            Apollo 14                                       Navy

7.  David     June 6, 1932             39y 1m 25d            Apollo 15          July 31 –               Air Force
     Scott                                                                                            August 2, 1971

8.  James    March 17, 1930         41y 4m 14d            Apollo 15                                      Air Force
     Irwin                         August 8, 1991

9.  John W.  September 24, 1930  41y 6m 28d           Apollo 16         April 21–23, 1972      Navy

10.  Charles October 3, 1935        36y 6m 18d            Apollo 16                                      Air Force

11.  Eugene March 14, 1934         38y 9m 7d             Apollo 17          December               Navy
11–14, 1972

12.  Harrison July 3, 1935              37y 5m 8d            Apollo 17                                        NASA

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.  

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