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"We Choose To Go To The Moon." John F. Kennedy

November 22, 2013

By Mark P. Mills

"We choose to go to the moon" President Kennedy said on September 12, 1962 at Rice University. It was a simple, telegraphic phrase in one of the greatest speeches in Presidential history. Those seven words encompassed not just an idea or a program but an underlying philosophy. Those seven words are now locked into history for how they changed the world.

On this somber anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy I offer my thoughts on America's space program. So much about the why and how America reached the moon epitomizes what was, and still is great about this nation.

Space: The Only Frontier

Growing up as a young Canadian, I can credit an American president in large measure for my pursuit of things scientific and technical. I braved mosquito hordes in summer and bitter winter nights to gaze at the moon and stars through a telescope, then pursued physics in university. This was fairly typical of a generation inspired by the Apollo program. Though never remotely a direct part of it, I started my career in companion fields, from microprocessors to fiber optics and missile guidance. Many of my space-inspired generation invented and accomplished much. President Kennedy launched a four-decade era of technology revolutions.

Now with the Obama administration's decision to cancel funding for putting humans in space, America abandons a half-century of baby steps toward mankind's only frontier. We have big problems on Earth to be sure, like health care and energy, but the pursuit of space is both bigger than our Earthly tribulations and important for addressing them.

It was just two months after issuing an executive order to create the grounded and successful Peace Corps that President Kennedy delivered his epochal man-on-the-moon-within-the-decade speech on May 25, 1961. Kennedy surely had no idea how engineers would achieve his simply stated if seemingly impossible goal. Although man had already been in space many times, the moon was 2,500 times further away than distances achieved by 1961.

Space travel was, and remains, fundamentally an energy problem of both the political and physical variety. Getting to the moon required a quantum leap in technology, not the least of which was building a rocket some 20 times more powerful than existed. Perhaps more challenging, to achieve the goal the president had to energize Congress and the citizenry to take on a budget twenty-fold bigger than America's already aggressive funding of the space program. That was, even by today's standards, serious political heavy lifting.

The technology challenge of outer space is easily illuminated. It's not so easy to build machines to get humans beyond our planetary shore. For every pound of astronaut, the astronauts' moon vehicle carried over 50,000 pounds of fuel that was consumed in about 15 minutes, exhausting enough energy to power a town of 5,000 for a month. At this ratio, your Prius would require a fuel tank weighing as much as 1,500 SUVs.

Importantly, landing on the moon was not rationalized on the basis of its practical economic benefits. Kennedy stated simply that it was "time to take longer strides–time for a great new American enterprise–time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key our future as a nation." And it did.

The moon program's effect was profound and far-reaching, inspiring an entire generation of engineers and entrepreneurs. No, they didn't all get government jobs with NASA or in private-sector companies supporting NASA to build the Saturn V rocket, the space capsule, its electronics or the moon rover and all the other related hardware. Most just found the whole idea–the pursuit itself–inspirational and pursued careers in everything from microprocessors and software to nuclear power and photovoltaics.

The dots are not so hard to connect. The U.S. economy was in liftoff mode for most of the second half of the twentieth century. While there were several contributing factors, at the core the accelerant for growth was technocentric innovation. Not space technology per se but that generation of scientists and engineers who brought an unprecedented intellectual energy and excitement to peacetime pursuits. The inventions and new companies created in the shadow of Apollo were manifold, as were the stimulating effects on established but still fast-growing companies like Boeing , Rockwell Collins and Hewlett-Packard , as well as companies that saw their birth or rapid expansion around the moon program like Texas Instruments and Intel.

In the run-up to the ultimate reality TV show live from the moon on July 20, 1969, when a human took the first "small step" for mankind, America churned out more engineers and scientists than at any time in its history. (A similar, lesser bump-up occurred during the early years of the Strategic Defense Initiative, pejoratively labeled by its opponents but then eagerly embraced by its adherents as "Star Wars.") Today we enjoy the fruits of all that technology talent in everything from the Internet and GPS to more efficient and useful tools across the entire commercial and industrial landscape.

The cumulative $150 billion spent on the Apollo program was an integral part of spurring the economic miracle that yielded an economy $8 trillion per year bigger in 2001 than 1961. For every dollar spent on the moon program, society reaped tens of dollars of benefits. Growth from the technology-productivity boom was a direct outcome of a massive influx of engineers. If just 10 percent of those engineers and scientists were sons and daughters of Apollo, their pro rata share of that economic growth would be counted in trillions of dollars. Put another way, to pay back the investment the engineering inspiration of the Apollo program only had to contribute to a fraction of a percent of America's innovation.

There's a risk in walking too far down the accountant's investment-payback path. If NASA and subsequent presidents have made mistakes in justifying an exploration budget, it has been in attempts to count immediate and obvious benefits. (I'm ignoring here the entire panoply of vital national security benefits.) No pedestrian toting up of economic "spinoffs" from, to put it unkindly, space pens and Teflon to desiccated space ice cream, can justify the costs and risks of human exploration of outer space.

Sure, we can point to tens of billions of dollars a year now in direct benefits from such things as better weather forecasting, communications and resource exploration satellites, to the ubiquity of Google Earth epitomizing GPS-based systems from farming and construction to container tracking. These are important, and increasingly so, but these are now conventional, utilitarian uses of near-Earth orbits, the nearby shallows of deep space.

The debate now underway over whether to privatize the utilitarian aspects of putting stuff in low-Earth orbit is beside the point. Reaching the Moon was as much about the utility of space as Vasco de Gama reaching India in 1498 was about ensuring the existence of the $60-billion-a-year Maersk Company today with its global fleet of container ships.

The maturation, whether today or soon, of the utilitarian uses of near-Earth orbit is really a debate about whether the necessary vehicles are more akin to aircraft carriers or container ships. The former remains properly the purview of governments, the latter the private sector. I'm not so sure the transition is ready, and while it will come, it is beside the point. Building up the utility function of low-orbit missions, whether privatized or not, is about as exciting as building earthly utility power plants. It's important, not inspirational, and not really, in the grand scheme, all that hard.

Speaking to the students of Rice University in 1962, Kennedy said that the moon shot's engineering challenges had to be taken on "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." And it did.

None of the specific economic fallout from Apollo was anticipated by Kennedy or NASA nor was that the program's zeitgeist. The moon was the frontier that followed Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepherd setting "foot" in near-Earth orbit.

Mars is the next step into the limitless frontier, but Mars is 200 times further away than our Moon. It would require a rocket at least 10 times better than we have today. It would be hard, and it would cost a lot. Sound familiar?

Mars is another planet for goodness sake. Our moon is merely the dead clone of Earth from a long-ago cosmic collision. Going to Mars might even inspire a new generation of engineers and scientists.

We want a practical rationalization for reaching Mars, so how about our need to inspire the next great wave of innovation-driven economic growth? Man cannot anticipate most radically new technology, and he cannot ham-handedly micromanage it, but it can be fostered and inspired. It will in turn drive productivity and economic growth. It is an obvious truth that the only way we'll emerge from this Great Recession is to grow our way out of it.

Last year President Obama directed the Augustine Commission to look at the U.S. space program. Nothing in that largely media-ignored October 2009 Final Report sounded like Jules Verne pie-in-the-sky with regard to a Mars mission. No new physics is needed to get there. Sure there were lots of appropriate committee-like caveats and caution noting we couldn't do it with "current technology." I suppose Kennedy was told that, too, but at least we have visibility on how to do it. Indeed, the rocket needed may be the prototype of the so-called plasma Chang Drive that could get a spaceship to Mars in two months, instead of a year. Sounds like something from Star Trek, but it's not. (Google it.)

Then there's the money. The daunting estimate is a cost over the coming several decades some threefold more than the combined costs of the Apollo and Shuttle programs. Again, that's familiar territory. Perhaps in this age a president would form a multinational alliance, a much more inspiring coalition than those forged to fight wars. The U.S. could shoulder a third (resulting in a total cost, in GDP-equivalent terms, less than the moon shot) and our Chinese, Indian, Russian, German partners the rest. Early-stage costs would be relatively modest. Of course, costs would ramp up. It could be a hard sell.

We should go to Mars precisely because it is hard, because it is Mars, and because getting there is visionary.

Call me sentimental, but solving the human-on-Mars problem is a lot more exciting than solving the challenge of scrubbing carbon from smokestacks–or fixing health care. We'll do the others if we need too, but I'm betting Mars will inspire creativity in Michigan, Mumbai and HangZhou. You can bet it will inspire more people like astronaut Ron McNair.

I never knew Ron McNair, the only physicist on the Space Shuttle Challenger's Jan. 28, 1986 flight. I do remember vividly the day of his tragic death, watching with millions of others the live broadcast of the horrific explosion 73 seconds after launch. I suspect I know what compelled fellow physicist McNair to pursue the risky astronaut corps. While he grew up in South Carolina, picking cotton for summer work, the fact that he was the world's first orbital cinematographer tells you everything. He was the chief cameraman for the award-winning film The Space Shuttle: An American Odyssey, which premiered 25 years ago last month.

Movies, like astronauts and presidents, can be inspirational. Clearly that's what Ron McNair wanted to do, too, and that is what we need now more than any single economic elixir.

Original Source:



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