Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Kennedy launches the US manned flight to the moon effort 50 years ago today

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the speech delivered by John F Kennedy, in which he challenged the US in the 1960s:
I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.
We achieved that goal on 20 July 1969 with the landing of Apollo 11 on the Sea of Tranquility.  We journeyed to the moon several times thereafter, until the final voyage of Apollo 17, which lifted off the surface of Taurus-Littrow valley on 14 December 1972.

Many will point to the Kennedy speech before Congress (a codicil, if you will, to his state of the union speech the previous January) as the articulation of his space programme, built entirely around the flight to the moon, as justification for the sharp decline in the pace of our original expectations.  Overlooked, then, in this argument is Kennedy’s speech at Rice University on 12 September 1962, which outlines a broader and more expansive task:
The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in this race for space.
. . . [T[his generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space.  We mean to be a part of it – we mean to lead it.  For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. . . .
Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it.  He said, “Because it is there.”

Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there.  And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.
In the intervening years since 1972, despite some great accomplishments by NASA, we have nevertheless fallen short of the original vision of our space programme.

Now come three of the most distinguished pioneers in US space aviation history: Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon; James Lovell, commander of the near-disastrous Apollo 13 which returned to Earth under heroic circumstances; and Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, with a column in USA Today accusing President Obama of accelerating the demise of our space effort.
But today, America's leadership in space is slipping.  NASA's human spaceflight program is in substantial disarray with no clear-cut mission in the offing.  We will have no rockets to carry humans to low-Earth orbit and beyond for an indeterminate number of years.  Congress has mandated the development of rocket launchers and spacecraft to explore the near-solar system beyond Earth orbit.  But NASA has not yet announced a convincing strategy for their use.  After a half-century of remarkable progress, a coherent plan for maintaining America's leadership in space exploration is no longer apparent.

Kennedy launched America on that new ocean.  For 50 years we explored the waters to become the leader in space exploration.  Today, under the announced objectives, the voyage is over. John F. Kennedy would have been sorely disappointed.
It is telling that great men of this calibre feel the need to proclaim this so publicly.  Their words bear study and action.  It is also telling that Neil Armstrong is 80 years old, James Lovell is 83, and Gene Cernan is 75, and too soon we will be seeing the only men to walk on the moon dying off from old age.

Rand Simberg, the eternal Cassandra on the subject, has a contrary view, followed by lively discussion.

Update: Lane Wallace, writing in The Atlantic, weighs in.

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