Even without this private-sector activity, 2004 saw revived interest in manned spaceflight. In January, the Bush administration announced a new mission for NASA that included sending astronauts to the moon, Mars, and beyond. Bush-haters dismissed the initiative as a cynical ploy. But in coming decades, even if the private sector can reach Earth orbit with reduced launch costs, the cutting edge of spaceflight – deep-space exploration – will necessarily be the province of expensive, government-funded programs.
The Bush initiative has now defined the goals for one such program. Furthermore, this is the first time any U.S. administration has set forth a policy of continuing exploration. The agency’s new mission statement fulfills the fondest desires of true believers like Gene Kranz. “The greatest need is for NASA to establish some sense of direction,” Kranz said in 2001. “I would like to see a set of goals for the next 50 years and a plan for the next 20, with a Mars mission set for around 2025.”
The “Report of the President’s Commission on Implementation of U.S. Space Exploration Policy” calls for finishing construction on the International Space Station by 2010, and for continuing research there on how weightlessness and radiation affect human physiology. The shuttle will be retired. By 2008, the U.S. will have developed a new manned vehicle: the Crew Exploration Vehicle, or CEV, which will conduct its first mission no later than 2014 and be capable of transporting human personnel to the International Space Station. Using the CEV, American astronauts will return to the moon between 2015 and 2020. A permanent moon base could exploit the moon’s lower gravity for the launching of future spacecraft. Though no exact timetable has been set, Mars is next.
If we’re returning to space, it’s hardly premature. When Kranz – who still has a high-school term paper he wrote in 1950 called “The Design and Possibilities of the Interplanetary Rocket” – gazes up at the moon on starry nights in the small city near Houston where he’s retired, the sight must be bittersweet. The last man to walk on the moon, Eugene Cernan of Apollo 17, is now 70. All 12 U.S. astronauts who visited the lunar surface will be dead in another generation. A generation after that, most of the global population alive between 1969 and 1972 – when NASA’s six moonshots came to seem almost as routine as the Concorde’s transatlantic flights – will also shuffle off this mortal coil. The Apollo project will then pass into history, like Egypt’s pyramids and medieval Europe’s great cathedrals. When Sir Arthur C. Clarke was asked what event in the 20th century he would never have predicted, he spoke for many when he said, “That we would have gone to the Moon – and then stopped.”
The conventional explanation for why NASA faltered after Apollo is that the U.S. went to the Moon for national prestige; once that goal had been accomplished, there was no incentive to go any farther. Yet the fact that NASA rejected technologies that might have furthered manned exploration is evidence that America undertook the space race for reasons other than bragging rights. The U.S. space program was a product of the Cold War, of a planet so militarized that even at its poles, the great radar networks of NORAD and its Soviet counterpart ranged against each other and nuclear subs cruised below the ice. In this context, the U.S.S.R.’s 1957 launch of the satellite Sputnik potentially extended the battlefield into space. NASA was formed for purposes of American national survival – not prestige.