The Dawning of Our Downfall

It's been four and a half decades since the dawn of the space age.

Forty-five years ago tomorrow, on Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial earth satellite, dubbed Sputnik. It was a shot that was not just heard, but literally went, round the world. It set off a train of political events that lumbers down the track (albeit slowly and expensively) to this very day.

In 1957, not even the most visionary of the science fiction writers would have predicted that man would be walking on the moon only a dozen years later.

Even more inconceivable would have been the notion that, having done so, he would stop a scant three years after that, and not return for decades, and perhaps forever, or at least the foreseeable future. Or that three decades after the last treading of human feet in lunar dust, we would be seemingly further from such a feat than we were then.

But that was the result of Sputnik.

In the late 1950s, we were deep in the midst of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. We were building bomb shelters in our back yards. I have personal memories of going with my father to the bomb-shelter dealer to view their ghoulish wares. I was too young to truly appreciate their implications, but I do remember the drills in school, in which we were to get into the hallway, curled up like the fetuses we were only a few short years prior, and place our arms over our heads, against the inevitable devastation of a potential nuclear blast. A blast that would presumably, in defiance of the laws of physics, just scatter the debris of our school building over our fragile young bodies, rather than penetrating them with deadly radiation...

So when politicians like Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson talked about "not going to bed under a communist moon," it meant something.

We now know, as a result of documents unclassified only in the past few years, that the Eisenhower administration wanted the Soviets to be the first, so that a precedent of overflight of surveillance satellites would be established, and they would be unable to complain when we developed our own. But the administration didn't anticipate the public reaction.

We had been one-upped. Aced. Beaten to the punch.

Choose your own cliche--the point was that the American system of Free Enterprise had been upstaged by the commies, and there was nothing to do about it except to initiate programs to improve science and math education in the schools, and to institute a Government Program to launch a satellite of our own.

Accordingly, the next year, we established a mirror socialist space agency, built on the foundation of a previous government agency that had served well to advance the aviation industry--the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA). The difference was that NACA focused itself on developing needed technology for industry and the military (based on their inputs), whereas the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was focused on an operational goal--to beat the Russians on the high frontier.

Thus did our downfall begin, at least to those of us interested in opening up space.

Space itself became secondary--it was only a symbol of technological prowess. What was important was beating the Soviets at something in this line. This was particularly the case after our myriad failures in even achieving the minimal goal (an orbiting satellite) demonstrated by the Soviets.

And so, ultimately, was the Apollo program born.

Despite the rhetoric of the time, the goal was not to open up space to humanity, or even to the American people. The goal was to show that democracy was superior to communism (though sadly, both political systems used the same government-enterprise model for their achievement). The X-15 program, which was developing knowledge and experience in routine space operations, was cancelled, because it didn't hold the near-term promise of showing up the Russians.

Because we were nominally a capitalist nation, America had much more wealth and ingenuity to throw at the problem, and we won. We beat the Soviets to the moon.

But in so doing, we also lost, because we betrayed the fundamental values of our nation, and in so doing, we established a premature, sterile and unsustainable beachhead on another planet, and then abandoned it.

Today we continue to reap the fruits of that decision.

We have a space program whose purpose is at an extreme variance with its advertisements four decades ago.

It provides jobs, rather than hardware on orbit. "International cooperation" takes precedence over schedule or utility. The engineers working on them proclaim that the Shuttle and the International Space Station are the most complex systems in the world, as though that's a feature in which to take pride (whereas most competent engineers follow the principle of "KISS"--"Keep It Simple, Stupid.")

Forty-five years after the Wright brothers flew their first flight, thousands of aircraft had been built and hundreds of thousands of people had flown on routine commercial flights.

Forty-five years after Sputnik, space remains an elite destination--fewer than a few hundred people have visited it.

It's not for lack of interest. Public opinion polls indicate that millions of people would like to experience space flight if they could afford it. And the lack of their ability to afford it is not a consequence of physics--that accounts for at most an order of magnitude difference in the costs of space flight over air travel.

No, people can't afford it because, unlike almost any other issue in which many people have an interest, their government is indifferent to their wants. It can get away with this because it has told them that it is "hard," and because they've been told that it is for decades, and the belief itself makes it difficult to raise money that might provide any counter examples, they believe it.

And why shouldn't they? Thirty years ago, 15 years after the launch of the first satellite, we stopped walking on the moon. We'd done it several times before, and it was expensive. What was the point? We'd beaten the Russians. We'd shown the superiority of American state socialism over Soviet state socialism. That there might be room for American free enterprise, or the desires of the American people to sample the vistas of the cosmos themselves, was never considered.

Perhaps, after almost half a century, it's time to consider it.

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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