It seems like yesterday that we watched the first men to actually walk on the moon. When I was a freshman in Lawrence College (now University), an avid science fiction fan, the woman sitting next to me in Physics 101 asked me what I wanted to do when I graduated. My answer was: “Put man on the moon!” Thus continued the steps I took to become a “rocket scientist” (at age 15 I was the youngest member of the American Rocket Society). Although my post-BA career mostly wound through the military space program I was able to help NASA decide on the cameras to use for surveying the Moon in order to pick suitable landing sites.
And now it’s 40 years later. In the words of Walter Cronkite on the grand occasion of the first landing; “Whew!” What a magnificent sight! Yet much has happenedâ€”and failed to happenâ€”since that day.
For starters, the moon program disappeared after Apollo. Apparently NASA even erased the tapes containing the original video of that famous moon walk. The reason? The Apollo program was instituted mainly to show that the Americans were superior to the Soviet Union in space technology. Having done that, subsequent administrations weren’t interested in spending annual gigabucks on further such frippery (or even saving historic records). The NASA budget dwindled and our space efforts largely became confined to the shuttle,Â space station and unmanned missions to other planets. To the point where now we often depend on the space-muscular Russians to get people to and from the space station.
I, personally, decided to change fields shortly after the moon landing because space had become boring. After years of being the first to do X it became possible to predict what we were going to be doing in space the next year, the year after that, and so on. Down on Earth, on the other hand, matters were growing much more unpredictable. It was time to apply systems engineering and other skillsÂ developed during the space race to the problems here on our small planet. Ultimately I focused on exploring the problems of urban transportation, the environment and energy use.
So where do we go from here?
There is much agitation, particularly on today’s occasion, to revive the manned space program and return to the Moon, send homo sap to Mars, or both. In my opinion the timing for such adventures is simply awful. We would be much, much better served to continue and enlarge our unmanned space efforts,Â at least for the next decade. My reasoning is simple: we can’t afford to devote major resources to manned programs when unmanned programs can produce similar or better scientific results at much lower cost.
If we insist on mounting a new Apollo-like program it should be on developing renewable energy resources and energy conservation technology, not sending expensive, fragile people to the Moon or Mars. Been there, know about that.