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One Small Step for Science?

The celebration of the Apollo 11 anniversary renews the debate over the scientific value of manned space exploration.
August 18, 2009

This summer, as the world looked back 40 years to the day man first landed on the moon, many were also looking forward and wondering when he would return. There has not been a lunar landing since 1972, and as the glories of the Apollo 11 mission were recalled–the audacity of taking a walk on the moon, mainly to show that it could be done at all–there was a call for renewed commitment to manned space exploration. But critics question why we would make such an enormous investment again when almost all our scientific objectives can be met with unmanned rockets and rovers.

Safe return: Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin head back up to the Apollo 11 command module, manned by Michael Collins, after 22 hours on the moon.

This is not a new debate, of course. Forty years ago, in the issue immediately following the successful lunar landing, Technology Review devoted two pages to a dispatch from the legendary journalist Victor Cohn detailing a contentious and surprisingly public tussle between scientists and NASA officials in what should have been the agency’s finest hour.

The inquiring scientist–to the lovers and leaders of America’s space program–is a kind of anointed hitchhiker. You can’t fly without him, but you keep him in the back seat.

This became abrasively apparent last summer when, at the height of the success of Apollo 11, a set of key scientists’ resignations were received by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. At the same time, the very lunar scientists who were so thrilled to get lunar samples were complaining sadly that “N.A.S.A.’s glad enough to say a mission is ‘for science.’ But as far as really doing science–‘Sure, they say, take too much time, if, if, if.’ In other words, for the flight planners and engineers, getting there and back is the big job. They don’t see science playing more than a secondary role, which can be dropped when it gets in the way of a mission.”…

Ever since Apollo 11–among other things, certainly a very expensive geological field expedition–there have been pointed symbols of scientists’ lowly position in the N.A.S.A. pecking order. More than a week after the landing, Dr. Shoemaker–PI for all lunar geology and rock collecting–still had not officially received any of the photos taken on the moon, though he was supposed to figure out precisely where the rocks were picked up. His group was 14th on the priority list, far below the press.

Dr. Shoemaker got his first photos from Jules Bergman, ABC science editor, and with this and other information he was able to tell the mission controllers just where the spacecraft had landed–an unexpected dividend; the rather hairy landing had left N.A.S.A. mappers puzzled.

(For a fresh look at the photos NASA used to plan the Apollo missions, see “Surface Restoration.”)

Shoemaker himself would soon leave NASA, convinced that the Apollo project would never achieve its scientific objectives. A longtime advocate for the space program, he now became a prominent critic, complaining that NASA engineers saw the lunar landing as an end in itself rather than as the beginning of the agency’s true mission. “We are now,” ­Shoemaker wrote in October of 1969, “in the embarrassing position of having a system that is very good for getting to the moon and getting back, and difficult to use for anything else.”

NASA engineers may have objected that getting humans safely to the moon and back was not as trivial or incidental an accomplishment as Shoemaker and others were making it out to be. But the public too, then as now, was more interested in the journey than in the results. All the same, in the end it may have been the disgruntled scientists who saw the future of space exploration more clearly.

“The vehicle everyone wants,” says one scientist, “is an automated vehicle, to be left behind on one flight, sent on a TV-guided traverse with an automatic scoop to pick up samples, then sent to a point to meet astronauts on the next trip.” Neither this concept nor a simpler one is yet “in the program.” One well-informed scientist says, “It’s another case of scientific priorities and budgeting always coming last.”

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