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Because It's Hard

Forty years ago this month, John F. Kennedy made his famous Rice University speech, in which he supposedly laid out the rationale for the Apollo program.

The words are noble and inspiring, but in some ways also false or misleading. They set the United States off down the wrong road, at least for those Americans interested in a vibrant space policy--one that opens up vast new economic, political and spiritual opportunities for humankind off planet. Here is the paragraph that I have always found most troublesome:

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, 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.

There are two problems with it. One is that, though the words are lofty, they don't really stand up to any critical analysis. "Because it is hard" is not, in and of itself, a good reason to do something.

It would be hard to move Pikes Peak from Colorado to Florida. It would be even harder to build a life-size replica of the World Trade Center with used q-tips. Those things would also serve to "organize and measure the best of our energies and skills." That doesn't make them worth doing.

No, there should be intrinsic reasons for these national endeavors. The journey is important, but so should be the destination. Unfortunately, it wasn't, as evidenced by Kennedy's reason for choosing it. There were two main options in the early sixties as goals for the space race with the Soviets: a space station, or a Moon landing. Wernher von Braun, the nation's leading rocket engineer, told Kennedy that he couldn't guarantee that we could beat the Russians in building a space station. So the Moon it was.

And the fact that the destination wasn't important is the second problem. It is why our space program is, and has been, relatively moribund for decades. We seem to remain hung up on doing it just because it's hard.

Yes, there is no doubt that in 1962, sending men to the Moon was hard. Astronomically hard.

We had barely learned how to launch a man into low earth orbit. We had no experience with space operations. We didn't know how long man could survive in weightlessness. We didn't know what the composition of the lunar surface was like. We didn't understand the radiation environment between the two orbs. We were still learning how to miniaturize electronics, and computers still used discrete transistors for processing, and iron pellets for memory.

There were a lot of things that we knew we didn't know, and there were even more things that we hadn't even learned that we needed to know, and didn't.

But that was then, and this is now. Unfortunately, we still reach back to that speech for a crutch, and it still provides a flawed foundation for our space policy.

"Because it is hard" has long become a convenient mantra for the current way of doing business.

When things don't go right, "because it is hard" always provides the people doing them with a convenient excuse for failure -- even forty years on, and even in the face of obvious management disasters. They can ask for billions of dollars for a new program, "because it is hard." And when it screws up, they can say, "see, we told you it was hard--we just proved it. Apparently, you have to give us even more money."

It makes it harder to get other funding sources, or try other approaches, as well. "Because it is hard" means that only a government agency can do it, and any investor who puts money into a private space venture might as well throw it on the table in Vegas, or onto the compost pile.

"Because it is hard" means that very few get to go into space, and that the only way to do it is the NASA way--study your math and science, figure out what kind of personality traits and characteristics they want, apply to be an astronaut and then hope that, against all odds and the other hundreds or thousands of applicants, you're accepted. Then hope that they eventually get from a three-person station to a six person station and you actually get a chance to fly sometime before you have grandchildren and retire.

But there's a problem with this argument. "Because it is hard" doesn't really explain why you do a controlled flight into the terrain of Mars, destroying a hundred-million-dollar probe, because one group of engineers is using metric, and the other is using English units.

"Because it is hard" doesn't provide an excuse for pouring a billion dollars into a single hangar queen in Palmdale, Calif., called X-33, that had so many risky (and unnecessary) technologies in it that its failure was almost assured from the beginning.

It's not 1962 any more. It's the 21st century. We have more computer power in our kitchen toasters than the Apollo capsule had. We have new materials that were barely imaginable then. We've learned more about the space environment in the last couple decades than we had learned in all of history leading up to that point.

Folks, it's not that hard any more. The only thing that's really hard is getting people to think about space in a different way, and raising the money for the real market. That market is the millions of people who actually want to do things in space-- as opposed to simply assuring jobs in certain Congressional districts and supporting foreign policy objectives (goals which can be accomplished without actually launching anything, as the space station program proved for a decade and a half).

After four decades, we need to give the "space is hard" mantra a rest. Try these on for size.

"Space is fun."

"Space is adventure."

"Space is new resources."

"Space is American free enterprise."

"Space is freedom."

"Space is important."

Letters

I got a lot of response to my debunking of the Buzz Aldrin altercation hoax a couple of weeks ago. It was almost universal applause--Buzz should know he has a lot of fans out there. A couple of people pointed out to me, in reference to my offer to buy Buzz a beer, that he (like all proper red-blooded All-American heros) doesn't drink. I knew that--I just made the offer because I'm a cheapskate, and knew I wouldn't have to pay up.

Here are a few samples.

John Manton writes:

Thank you. Conspiracy theories and the lunatics behind most of them drive me crazy. The conspiracy theories are so difficult to stamp out... always having to prove stupid that something did or did not happen and such. I enjoyed your turning it around on Bumpkin Bart.

Of course, my email will become part of the next conspiracy... that you fabricated it to support your position.

Kevin Parker wrote:

Just wanted to say I loved this column. I can't imagine anyone not being on Aldrin's side on this.

Joel Osbourne was pleased as well:

...thanks for that wonderful article. I'm also a student of astronautical engineering, I'm still continuing to study, and my university, Arizona State University, will be launching our second satellite in late January of this year. For that we are most proud, and it's because of people like you that we continue our work, not for the works of Bart Sibrel, local night school graduate.

A "Michael" pointed out that:

While I enjoyed your article about the dust up with Aldrin and the jerk, I noticed your comment about astronauts being "smaller than average in stature." Aldrin, according to what I've read, is 5'10 -- actually an inch or two above average height -- and all of his contemporaries in the program were within an inch one way or another of 5'11, making some six feet which is well above average.

Now Michael, you're not going to let a few facts get in the way of a good conspiracy theory, are you? You'd put vast legions of TV producers and book publishers out of business.

And from Japan, Jack Strahan offers:

So, here I am in Tokyo and I read Bad Astronomy and there's a link to your article about the lack of belief in Buzz Aldrin's boxing ability. Thank you. I have notified the Los Angeles D.A. that I am willing to fly there and testify to my belief that Dr. Aldrin was scientifically incapable of punching the idiot...um whoever. Really nice article, lifted my spirits, and I really do mean thank you.

Brian Morris comments:

Just read your article about Buzz Aldrin and that nut Bart Sibrel. I watched Buzz walk on the moon when I was five and it never lost its thrill. I've read around 25 books on the history of NASA's golden era and know for a fact Buzz walked on the moon.

To see this fruit cake Sibrel stalking these heroes is worrisome. Don't we have anti stalking laws? If Buzz had been a 20-year-old Hollywood starlet lured to a fake interview and ambushed like this, Bart Sibrel would already be locked up for stalking. Glad to see your article telling it like it is.

Jay Windley offers:

I read with great amusement your send-up of the vicious attack on Buzz Aldrin's fist by Bart Sibrel's face. I became actively interested in these conspiracy theories about two years ago and have put together a web site which many find most useful in addressing these odd claims.

Of course, there's always one joker in the deck...

I challenge you to view Mr. Sibrel's documentary and "Moon Movie" and then to honestly report your findings -- Dean Marcaurelle, Altoona PA

And I challenge you to get an education, and then a life, Dean. I think you'll find it a much greater challenge, though my sitting through an hour of unscientific, ignorant dreck does seem like a mighty achievement in itself.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

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