Once upon a time, a President thought that taking humans "to the Moon and the planets beyond" was not only good for the economy of the country, but also would push US technology decades beyond everybody's else. He was right.
That President was John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Of course, he also wanted to go to the Moon to beat the Soviet Union and win a political war, but there were a thousand more reasons to make that trip. All of them were good. As a result of his political will, the Apollo program became the most complex, most advanced, most successful, most beneficial technology endeavor ever taken by the United States of America.
The economical benefits
It put the country decades ahead in every aspect of technology, and its effects, the technologies that came directly out of it, are now an indispensable part of our world: From the development of new metals and microprocessors, to clothing and medicine, the Apollo program touched every single aspect of our lives. Those developments are responsible for your smartphone, your desktop computer, your television set, and even your winter underpants.
But most importantly, the Apollo program inspired generations of kids to become scientists and engineers, indirectly pushing technology even further. Humans were going to the fucking Moon! How cool is that? I can't think of a more inspiring challenge than to conquer the stars, and those kids thought the same.
Like the program itself, that inspiration also brought long term benefits to the US economy. It made American universities thrive with new talent eager to push technology forward. We—not only America, but the entire world—are still enjoying the benefits that those students and the ones who followed brought to all of us decades after Apollo ended. Those kids went to work at IBM, Microsoft, Apple, Google, Boeing, Lockheed, and the thousands of high tech companies that bring us the amazing technology that we use on a daily basis.
A big mistake
So while some people may want to convince you that President Obama's decision to fundamentally kill NASA's manned space program is a great move for the future of space, I'm here to tell you that all that is bullshit.
First, it's an excuse for a President who has failed to deliver on his promise of a better space program. His proposal is not better than what we had before. Actually, it's only good for the private space sector which, incidentally, for the most part is just reinventing the wheel that NASA and the Soviet Union space organization invented decades ago.
Even if you agree that the Constellation program wasn't going anywhere—many people disagree, like those who created the video above—you can't have the US manned spaceflight program disappear in favor of private space cabs to Earth's orbit. Even Burt Rutan—the poster child of private spaceflight, creator of Spaceshipone and Spaceshiptwo—agrees that this is an incredibly bad idea:
That is not a "NASA plan"; it is the proposed budget from the White House. It will likely be revised by the Congress. I am for NASA doing either true Research, or doing forefront Exploration, with taxpayer dollars.
Ares/Orion is more of a Development program than a Research program, so I am not depressed to see it disappear. I am concerned to see NASA manned spaceflight disappear, since they provided world leadership in the 60s and part of the 70s. The result was America's universities being the leader in cience/Engineering PhDs.
Many American kids will be depressed by the thought that our accomplishments will not be continued and thus America will fall deeper away from our previous leadership in Engineering/Science/Math. I believe our future success depends on our ability to motivate our youth.
I would support a restructuring of goals and funding so NASA can be allowed to perform like the 60s on space Research and on Exploration. There is not a shred of evidence that the President sees any value in those goals.
Rutan made those comments yesterday, and I can't agree more with him. It's good to see him—of all people—saying this out loud, especially while the rest of space private companies are gloating about how Obama's "think small" plan will increase their benefits in a big way.
Astronaut Tom Jones—who have been to space four times and has no interest in the private sector—has the same thoughts:
What student would pursue a career in space science or astronautics with the knowledge that the country is turning away from leadership in space?
He also argued in that no private company has launched any astronaut into space and won't be doing that for a very long time—a time in which we will depend on Russia. SpaceX, the only company launching something into orbit has a dismaying 40% success rate. How many years until the private sector reaches the same success rate as NASA? How many years until they put people in orbit? How many decades until a private company gets us to Mars? It just makes no sense except for those hoping to benefit from the move in the short term. A while all this happens, NASA's science programs are only getting a couple extra crumbles, not the core of the money.
Inspiring a new generation
In a world of fast forward, short attention spans, and materialism above all things, we need humans in space. Not just tweeting from orbit. But out there, on the Moon and Mars. And if the United States can't do this on its own, that's OK. In fact, that would be perfect: NASA should work together with the European Space Agency, the Russian Federal Space Agency, JAXA, and anyone who wants to achieve the greater good and really push humanity forward.
And yes, we need the satellites and the probes and the telescopes, absolutely, but you can't replace humans with probes. Not because humans would do a better job, but because robots photographing things is not the same as being there. Being there like everyone on Earth arrived to the Moon when Neil Armstrong put his foot on it.
From a bean counter point of view, if you do it right, the economical and technological benefits will be as great as those brought by Apollo, now and in the future. From the point of view of anyone who thinks that the world is about more than counting beans, the benefits are even more obvious than that. The fact is that photographs taken by robots neither push technology forward nor inspire entire generations or bring economical and technological benefits that reverberate through decades to come. That's what the humans in Apollo did.
Maybe Obama needs to watch the entire JFK's We Need to Go to the Moon speech, at the Rice Stadium in Houston, TX in the fall of 1962, and remember that the reason the United States chose to go to the moon:
We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
Kennedy ended that speech with this:
Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, "Because it is there."
Click to viewWell, space is there, and we're going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God's blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.
I can't possibly add anything else to his words.