Saturday, February 27, 2010

The New Frontier and the Final Frontier

President John F. Kennedy addresses Congress on May 25, 1961.

Sputnik was a 23-inch diameter sphere that weighed less than 200 pounds.

In retrospect, Sputnik was the most humble and harmless of spacecraft. Yet its launch triggered mass hysteria in a United States that was only just starting to escape from the paranoia of the Joe McCarthy era. Gripped in a psychological Cold War with the Soviet Union, many people were convinced that Sputnik was spying on them, and perhaps even worse presaged a nuclear Armageddon.

Looking back through the prism of history, we can laugh at the overreaction, but Sputnik's launch was the political cradle for the birth of the Space Age.

Before Sputnik, no one in America cared much about rockets. The United States Naval Research Laboratory was working on Project Vanguard, but it wasn't a national priority until Sputnik beeped.

The early history of the U.S. space program is thoroughly documented across the Internet and in museums across the nation, so there's no need to recount it here.

But it is important to note that it was in that politically charged environment that the U.S. manned space program began. Project Mercury was announced by the Eisenhower Administration in late 1958, but it was President Kennedy who upped the ante. Before a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961 he proposed that "this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth."

His justification?

"No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish."

It's rather astonishing to look back near 50 years later and find such a flimsy justification for what would become one of the most expensive public works programs in our nation's history. According to one source, Project Apollo alone cost about $145 billion in current dollars.

If Kennedy hadn't been assassinated, we can wonder if the United States would have achieved its goal of placing a man on the moon by 1970. Many people at the time questioned why we were spending so much money for what was, in retrospect, a publicity stunt.

In today's era of trillion-dollar annual deficits, a President proposing such a massive expenditure would be widely ridiculed, and justifiably so. If not for the Cold War, it's hard to believe Congress would vote to approve such a project.

Although we've been led to believe his speech was to propose a space race, if you read the text of the speech you find that his Moon proposal was actually near the end of a lengthy address. He was really there to propose a number of new programs, justified as buttressing defense and improving the economy during a recession. Space was a very small part of it.

Kennedy told Congress, "I am here to promote the freedom doctrine." He described the Cold War as the "great battleground for the defense and expansion of freedom today." Let's not forget it was only a month before that the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba failed. The Moon program proposal was part of a larger scheme by Kennedy to distract the nation from its failure, to engage the Soviets in a duel with less lethal consequences for the world.

Guess who said this:

The first and basic task confronting this nation this year was to turn recession into recovery. An affirmative anti-recession program, initiated with your cooperation, supported the natural forces in the private sector; and our economy is now enjoying renewed confidence and energy. The recession has been halted. Recovery is under way.

But the task of abating unemployment and achieving a full use of our resources does remain a serious challenge for us all. Large-scale unemployment during a recession is bad enough, but large-scale unemployment during a period of prosperity would be intolerable.

No, it wasn't President Obama. It was President Kennedy in his May 1961 speech.

You may think those remarks preceded his Moon proposal, but they didn't. Here's what followed:

I am therefore transmitting to the Congress a new Manpower Development and Training program, to train or retrain several hundred thousand workers, particularly in those areas where we have seen chronic unemployment as a result of technological factors in new occupational skills over a four-year period, in order to replace those skills made obsolete by automation and industrial change with the new skills which the new processes demand.

Kennedy realized the Moon program wouldn't do much to solve the current recession. The Moon program would take ten years, if not longer. So it wasn't about jobs, at least in the short run.

In another echo of our times, Kennedy addressed their current budget deficit:

... If the budget deficit now increased by the needs of our security is to be held within manageable proportions, it will be necessary to hold tightly to prudent fiscal standards; and I request the cooperation of the Congress in this regard — to refrain from adding funds or programs, desirable as they may be, to the Budget — to end the postal deficit, as my predecessor also recommended, through increased rates — a deficit incidentally, this year, which exceeds the fiscal 1962 cost of all the space and defense measures that I am submitting today — to provide full pay-as-you-go highway financing — and to close those tax loopholes earlier specified. Our security and progress cannot be cheaply purchased; and their price must be found in what we all forego as well as what we all must pay.

In the rest of his speech, Kennedy proposed a number of domestic and international spending programs, justified by a "world-wide struggle in which we bear a heavy burden to preserve and promote the ideals that we share with all mankind, or have alien ideals forced upon them."

As he reached the end of his address, Kennedy spoke briefly of his hope for disarmament, then moved into discussing space.

He acknowledged "the head start obtained by the Soviets with their large rocket engines," and said "they will exploit this lead for some time to come." We must remember that Kennedy's bold proposal was made in the Cold War context of the time. "We go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share," he said.

We've all seen and read the clip of his Moon proposal, but never what came afterward.

Kennedy proposed additional funding to "accelerate development of the Rover nuclear rocket. This gives promise of some day providing a means for even more exciting and ambitious exploration of space, perhaps beyond the moon, perhaps to the very end of the solar system itself." That sounds very similar to Obama's proposal to have NASA focus on 21st Century space propulsion systems, such as an ion engine. Kennedy also proposed more spending for communications and weather satellites, technology we take for granted today.

He acknowledged the cost, and also the possibility that, like most government programs, it would wind up over budget and behind schedule. He remarked, "If we are to go only half way, or reduce our sights in the face of difficulty, in my judgment it would be better not to go at all."

In addition to the Cold War, another reason we had nationwide support for the space program was the political genius of the Space Center system created by Lyndon Johnson. He was chairman of the 1958 Senate committee charged with creating a space agency, which eventually became NASA.

There's really no season to have Space Centers scattered all over the country, other than to perhaps argue that during the Cold War the entire program couldn't be obliterated by one nuclear strike (although you'd think we'd have more to worry about than one nuke). NASA launched from Cape Canaveral because it was already government owned property, and because its unique geographic features offered the advantage of splashing exploded rockets into the ocean. But there was really no compelling reason to have a Space Center in, say, Houston or Huntsville other than politics.

The idea behind the Space Centers was to give many politically critical states a financial stake in the future of the space program. Representatives always have, and always will, vote to bring jobs to their districts, regardless of partisan stripe or political ideology.

In the 1960s, that made sure the funding was there for Apollo regardless of the expense or the dubious national priority.

In subsequent decades, though, the Space Center system has been a political albatross for NASA, just as the military-industrial complex has been for the Pentagon. Government contracts are justified as jobs programs, not necessarily as national priorities. When the Pentagon wants to kill an unneeded aircraft, tank or weapon, the congressional representatives fight to keep the program alive so jobs aren't lost in their district — which gives them something to brag about at election time.

We're witnessing that phenomenon now, as Senators and Representatives from Space Centers line up to oppose the Obama Administration's proposed 2011 NASA budget. Republicans and Democrats in those districts have set aside their partisan differences to protect voters' jobs. Outside those districts, though, there isn't much protest.

I'm saving the Obama proposal and political reaction to it for future blogs. My intention with this entry is to explain how it is we got to where we are today.

The political legacy of the 1960s space program resonates today. People want Obama to make another JFK-like speech, declaring a destination and a date for it. But the times are different. We're not in a Cold War, our former enemies are now our partners, and the justifications made in 1961 for the space race no longer exist.

I'd love to see us spend $100 billion a year on space, but I also realize it's not going to happen. We now have trillion-dollar annual deficits, and it's going to get worse in the next decade.

Outside of the Space Center districts, there isn't much political support for a government-funded space program. A January Rasmussen Reports poll found that 50% of respondents want the U.S. to cut back on space exploration. 38% think the private sector should pay for space, 35% think the government should, and 26% aren't sure.

Despite all the howls of protest in Space Center districts, the poll shows that outside of those sites no one cares much. An aide to a Republican member of the House space subcommittee once said to me, "Public support for the space program is a mile wide, and an inch deep." People like to watch rockets go up. They don't want to pay for it.

Kennedy gave a second famous space speech, at Rice University in Houston in 1962. His most famous quote from that speech is:

We choose 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 ...

Overlooked, however, is the context.

The date was September 12, 1962. Kennedy was in Houston to promote
Democratic congressman Albert Thomas
, who was up for re-election in less than two months. Thomas was chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee, and was instrumental in steering NASA's Manned Spacecraft Center — what we know today as Johnson Space Center — to Houston.

Kennedy needed Thomas's support in Congress. Thomas's political career was tied to the space program. And that's why Kennedy gave that speech in Houston.

We're taught to believe that Kennedy was a space visionary, but the truth of the matter is that he was a shrewd politician who gambled that a Moon program would help him get re-elected in 1964.

The political times are different now. If you're waiting for any President to repeat Kennedy's speeches, you're going to have a long wait.

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