Why haven’t we been back?

Bill Whittle observes that it’s becoming increasingly common for young people to question whether we ever landed on the Moon, despite reasonable explanations for their objections:

Now, I have no problem with people who are by default skeptical until they find compelling evidence and a logical argument for a claim. That’s actually pretty wise. But, like Whittle, I do have a problem with people who are too intellectually lazy to examine the arguments and evidence.

Whittle cites a common objection to the idea that we put men on the Moon in the 1960s and 1970s, which is that we haven’t been back since. Like other objections to the Moon landings, there’s a reasonable explanation for why we haven’t been back.

What’s truly astounding is that, in terms of technology, it really doesn’t take anything more than Newtonian physics and 1960s technology to go to the Moon. The proof of that is the mirrors placed on the Moon in the 1960s for experiments called laser-ranging — we use them to accurately measure the distance from the Earth to the Moon by bouncing laser-beams off of them. So, there’s no doubt we sent something to the Moon in the 1960s. But did that include men? There’s good reason to think so just based on the technology available, but there is one other ingredient that’s necessary to pull off a feat like that, and once you know what that is, you will understand why we haven’t been back.

The first thing we need to consider is the historical and cultural context of the Apollo program. The space program of the 1950s and 1960s was an outgrowth of Eisenhower’s powerful military-industrial complex. NASA’s budget at that time represented a whopping 5% of the federal budget (compare that with NASA’s current budget of just 0.5%). Two major wars in which the U.S. was victorious were still fresh in the memories of Americans. Our economy was doing well, and, culturally, the U.S. was still united. We also had a powerful common enemy — the Soviet Union. So great was our animus for the Soviets, that the U.S. at that time was almost singularly devoted — militarily, culturally, and economically — to beating them in the Cold War.

For those of us who were not around in the 1950s, it’s impossible to understand the shock and fear Americans felt in 1957 when the Soviets successfully put Sputnik in orbit. Then there was Yuri Gagarin and his historic orbital trip around the Earth. The Evil Empire, as Reagan would later call it, had made it to space before anyone else, and Americans were fearful that the Soviets would soon dominate space. So, it was determined that we would do everything in our power to beat the Soviets in the space race, and what better way to beat them than by going to the Moon?

Mountains of money and countless hours of manpower went into the Mercury and Gemini programs, eventually leading up to Apollo. But even then, by the mid-1960s, the political and cultural infrastructure supporting the space program was beginning to weaken. It was after the success of Apollo 11, when men finally set foot on the Moon, that the cracks began to show. NASA continued with five of six remaining Apollo missions, because they had already been planned and budgeted, but with the exception of the doomed Apollo 13 mission, the public wasn’t all that interested in these anticlimactic follow-up trips to the Moon.

By the 1970s, the fervor that had kept the Apollo program going was simply no longer there, and going back was of little interest. What were we going to do there that we hadn’t already done? Establishing a Moon base would require dedicating economic and technological resources far in excess what was required for the Apollo missions. Going to Mars was a long ways off. That didn’t much leave in terms of foreseeable goals for manned missions. It also didn’t help that there was an energy crisis at the time, with the emphasis on conserving energy as much as possible. For those reasons, there was little public or political support for continuing to fund NASA at such a high level.

The government shifted priorities and decided to focus on orbiting space stations and satellites, the reusable Space Shuttles, and the much more feasible robotic explorers that could go anywhere in the Solar System for a fraction of the cost and none of the risk of sending human explorers. With this shift in priorities, the military-industrial infrastructure and the technological and engineering manpower that went into designing and manufacturing manned lunar rockets disappeared.

By the 1980s, the Cold War was also increasingly winding down, or at least competition with the Soviets wasn’t seen as such a high priority. When the Evil Empire formally collapsed in 1991, there was nothing against which the U.S. needed to push back. Much like we build body strength by pushing weights, cultural strength is often achieved by pushing back against some external cultural force. But what Americans were pushing back against by the 1970s wasn’t even clear. Gas shortages? The Iranians? Disco? And what do Americans have to push back against today, except perhaps the increasingly confused and demoralized War on Terror? It’s costing the U.S. trillions in the long term, and it has absolutely nothing to do with space. No politician is going to divert any of that money to going back to the Moon.

So, what else is America fighting against? Global warming, trans-fats, a never-ending list of social justice grievances? I hope you see what I’m getting at here. Unlike the America of the 1950s and 1960s, we have no coherent culture. There is no common enemy. More importantly, there are no common values and goals, and no common vision. All you have to do is look at the political landscape to see that we’re a fractured and demoralized nation, and that’s effective death for any culture.

It didn’t take much in the way of physics to land men on the Moon. What it did take was enormous cultural capital — a compelling reason, a monumental economic and technological effort, and the will of a strong, united, and invigorated people. We need a compelling reason to return to the Moon, and the only reason would be to establish a semi-permanent human settlement. Do we have the will to do that? The America of today hardly resembles its former self, so it shouldn’t be surprising in the least that we, as a nation, haven’t taken any meaningful steps towards expanding the human exploration of space.

Fortunately, that’s not the end of the story. There are still parts of America that remain strong and invigorated. One of those parts is in Mojave, California, where there is a burgeoning private space enterprise. Bill Whittle talks about the Free Frontier here:

3 thoughts on “Why haven’t we been back?

  1. Well said.

    And I’d add the NASA of yesteryear placed priority on pragmatic engineering solutions. That takes a different mindset, a different organization structure. You need smart people able to work on hard projects with little interference from management and bureaucracy.

    From an outsider looking in to NASA, it’s the opposite of that. It’s all political games and bureaucracy.

    Or Kubrick was the greatest filmmaker of all time :)

  2. Yes, you’re right; at some point, the process-oriented people took over from the goal-oriented people.

    Also — I think Vox or somebody linked to a study showing this is true — as soon as an organization starts prioritizing goals like diversity and inclusivity over productivity, people lose faith in the ability of the organization to achieve anything beyond that.

  3. That sounds about right.

    Reality doesn’t care about your intentions. The longer you pretend it does, the harder the wake-up call will be.

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