Forty years after Apollo 11: three lessons for spaceflight

The space program can benefit from public support, but government leadership is key.

This NASA image, dated May 1, 1969, shows the Apollo 11 crew: Neil Armstrong (left), who was the first man to step on the moon; Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin (right); and Michael Collins. Apollo 11 launched 40 years ago – on July 16, 1969.

Forty years ago Friday, three Apollo 11 astronauts were en route to the moon and a rendezvous with history: Two of them would become the first humans ever to set foot on another celestial object.

That effort holds lessons for today, space-policy specialists say, as the US ponders its next moves in human spaceflight.

One key lesson is the need for governmentwide commitment to a program, once a president charts a course, suggests Norman Augustine, who currently chairs a presidential committee reviewing options for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's human-spaceflight program.

When President Kennedy set the goal of putting a human on the moon, the relevant government agencies lined up behind it, as did Congress. Also important, the commitment "was backed up by budget organizations and by the budget itself," Mr. Augustine explained during a press briefing Friday to provide an update on the committee's work. "It was really a national commitment."

Since then, he continues, presidents have set goals for the space program. But those declarations haven't garnered the same level of support. And presidents and Congress have been unwilling to put the taxpayers' money where their space goals are.

"That puts NASA in a terrible position," Augustine says. "Whatever we do, we have to have a budget that underpins that which we set out to do. Anything else, I think, is a disservice."

Another lesson: Broad public support for the space program is nice to have, but government leadership that can marshal the key players, including active spaceflight enthusiasts outside government, may be more important.

After scanning poll results during the heyday of the Apollo program, spaceflight historian Roger Launius noted that more often than not, more Americans said no to spending money to send humans to the moon than said yes.

In April 1970, the results of a Harris Poll were so stark that if they'd been for an election, the nos would have won in a landslide. That was less than a year after Apollo 11's spectacular success.

General support for Apollo spiked in 1969, only to significantly fall by the end of the program in 1972. At that point, roughly 40 percent of Americans agreed that Apollo was worth the cost. Nearly 60 percent felt the US was spending too much on space.

A third lesson: Geopolitical context may not be everything, but it counts for a lot. Historians note that Kennedy went to the moon because it was a competition the US thought it could win in its global ideological battle with the Soviet Union. It was better than a shooting war, which in all likelihood would lead to devastating nuclear exchanges.

Today, no single overarching rationale for spaceflight has captured as wide attention as did the desire to avoid nuclear annihilation.

Still, specialists find plenty of reasons to support a robust civilian space program, with human spaceflight as a component.

Earlier this month, the National Academy of Sciences' Space Science Board issued recommendations on six strategic goals for the US civilian space program. One goal: "to expand the frontiers of human activities in space."

The board concluded that "a preeminent US civil space program with strengths and capabilities aligned to tackling widely acknowledged national challenges – environmental, economic, and strategic – will continue to make major contributions to the nation's welfare."


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