Time to Be Great Again
by: Homer H. Hickam, Jr.
Wall Street Journal
July 20 is the 30th anniversary of a great moment in American and world history when a human climbed gingerly down an aluminum ladder attached to a spindly, fragile spacecraft and, for the first time, set foot on a chunk of the solar system not of this world. Neil Armstrong accomplished with one step President John F. Kennedy's call to greatness in a 1962 speech at Rice University to "go to the moon and do the other things," that would demonstrate American spirit and resolve. Armstrong's boot print in the dust also fulfilled countless speculations over centuries on how the feat might be accomplished, and which humans might go to the moon and what they might find there. At the time, the world celebrated the astronauts' courage and the extraordinary drama of humankind at last accomplishing what seemed impossible. Looking back, however, we've come to realize that Armstrong's extraordinary step was far more than a daring escapade and the completion of the dreams of science fiction fans. When his boot crunched down onto the moon's regolith, Neil Armstrong, a taciturn engineer, slammed shut the hopes of the old Soviet Union to dominate the world and ended the sneering overconfidence of Marxists planet-wide. If the United States of America could go to the moon and still do the other things, such as keeping its defenses strong, and working diligently for the betterment of its people, and providing a beacon of freedom to a weary world, how could a group of loutish dictators spouting tiresome communist and socialist slogans compete? They could not, and did not, and so the long, slow collapse of world communism began. For this reason, if none other, Apollo 11 should be celebrated with all the energy our country and the world can muster. Good triumphed over evil with a demonstration of soaring grandeur. No one will ever be able to take that away from us. The citizens of the United States did all that we said we would do.
Now, thirty years after our finest moment in space, it is tempting to compare where we were then and where we are now and carp about the present state of space capability in this country. We are not engaged in what I and many of my colleagues in the space business would consider a great off-world endeavor. The International Space Station is of some mild interest but it is perceived by many of us as a political program more than a serious mission to open up the solar system. It's a station to nowhere, fixed in the wrong orbital inclination to be used as a jumping off point to the moon or the planets. It's also primarily designed to study what we already know, that weightlessness is not good for the human body over the long haul. We're tired of the space shuttle, too, and its lock on human spaceflight. Barely able to struggle into low earth orbit, the shuttle is the only means we have to get people into space. The shuttle is far too expensive and complex and dangerous to ever carry any but well-trained NASA astronauts into space. The rest of us who would like to go are relegated to the sidelines, to cheer each half-billion dollar shuttle launch to the same old place in space, again and again.
But rather than complain, I prefer to look at the bright side of our space program. For instance, the International Space Station (ISS) is going to give us some great training on how to assemble complex structures in space, something we'll need to know when we decide to build some deep space rocket ships with a place to go. True, there are cheaper and easier ways to learn this singular lesson but if we must build the ISS, we might as well gain from it what we can. There are some nice spin-offs to ISS, too. The one I like the best is the development of a neat little spacecraft presently called the X-38. The X-38, being built in-house by NASA to be used as a lifeboat for ISS astronauts, is going to be a versatile space people-hauler. The old shuttle is also admirable in my view. It was built somewhat out of desperation when the Nixon administration decided to pull the plug on Apollo and scrap the great Saturn V moon rockets. Instead of rolling over and playing dead, NASA instead sold the concept of an orbiting cargo truck. To build this vehicle required an amazing feat of engineering but NASA did it. By any measurement except economy, the space shuttle is a great bird, extremely capable and versatile. Although most of its missions are perceived as routine by the news media and therefore the public, in fact many of the shuttle missions have been filled with drama and great accomplishments. Although they do tend to blend in our collective memories, shuttle astronauts have performed valiant and admirable tasks in orbit, especially including the launch and repair of the Hubble Space Telescope, the shuttle era's greatest achievement. The Hubble has unlocked many of the secrets of our universe, something even Apollo never pretended to do. As a long-time NASA engineer, I feel no shame for what the agency has accomplished during the past three decades. We've done everything we were asked by our leaders to do. Our only shame is that we have pretended that was enough.
Ten years ago, at the twentieth anniversary of Apollo 11, President Bush proposed a mission to "go back to the moon, this time to stay." It was not a serious proposal and nothing ever came of it. I don't expect President Clinton to propose anything serious on this anniversary, either. Perhaps it's because our leaders think if they called the American people to greatness, they might just get a busy signal. That's too bad because in so many ways we are far more capable than we were back in the 1960's. For one thing, we're much richer and we're no longer engaged in a costly and brutal series of cold and hot wars. Also, our communications and computer systems, vastly superior to those of three decades ago, make the design and construction of spacecraft faster, better, and cheaper. It's ironic and sad that just when our wealth and technological skills could make space flight relatively easy, neither we or our leaders seem to be intellectually and morally prepared to take up the challenge.
But I don't believe it. I think we're better than that. I believe we're going to go back to the moon and soon. Of course, I don't think we should try to recreate Apollo. Apollo was designed to be a one-shot affair that self-destructed in the end. Often, I hear the old Apollo managers congratulate themselves for coming up with the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) technique to go to the moon. LOR, which meant that everything was carried aboard one rocket and discarded along the way, was a short cut that was selected over Wernher von Braun's Earth Orbit Rendezvous (EOR) method. Dr. von Braun wanted to first build a space station in earth orbit and then use it to outfit a moon ship. Old Wernher, these LOR enthusiasts laugh, just didn't get it. In fact, old Wernher did. He knew that building a space station capable of constructing a ship in orbit would put a permanent infrastructure in space that would beckon other missions to the moon and beyond. The LOR designers created Apollo missions that left nothing behind but bootprints and discarded rocket stages. After the last Apollo capsule landed, there was nothing left in space that future moon travelers could use. Instead of an Apollo-like lunge, I propose we next go to the moon as part of a long-term plan that makes each mission a stepping stone for the one that follows it. The first thing we need to do is to build some of the big new rocket engines on the NASA drawing boards in my town, Huntsville, Alabama, Rocket City, USA. These are actually space drives that use fission, fusion, and anti-matter power. We are quite capable of building them and when we do, the moon and the solar system will be within reach for all of us.
But, however we do it, why go to the moon and beyond at all? One important reason, I believe, is because the solar system is awash with energy resources, the new gold of the twenty-first century. For instance, the moon is covered with a magical isotope called helium-3. Helium-3, it turns out, is a perfect fuel for fusion reaction, a likely candidate for a primary energy producer on our planet in the next fifty years. The main reason to go, however, is that there are economic and social advantages that always accrue to countries that choose to be great. For the sake of our future, we must make that choice.
I therefore challenge our next President to call America again to greatness and proclaim, as John Kennedy did, the existence of a higher purpose for our country, one that will include a program to unlock the wealth and energy of the solar system for the benefit of all mankind. We will go to the the moon, this time to stay, and then keep on going out while doing all the other things we must do to stay a successful society. We will be great once more, moving with confidence and purpose, pausing only to look back every July 20 to a special time when a man named Armstrong put his boot down on a dusty plain in a far away place and made our world, and our solar system, forever a better place to live.