Last Man Out: The End of Lunar Missions

In an episode from the iconic original “Star Trek” series, Captain Kirk must convince his frightened crew to adopt a daring course of action that might destroy the Enterprise but also holds the potential to vastly expand the realm of human knowledge. “Risk is our business,” he reminds them, “that is what our starship is all about.” His plea  exemplifies the confidence and courage of America’s early space program. President John F. Kennedy famously challenged the nation in 1961 to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, a feat achieved by 1969.

Sadly, this year we observe the 50th anniversary of what signified the retreat from this boldness: in 1972, Eugene Cernan was the last astronaut to walk on the moon. In many ways, the rise and decline of the space program is reflective of the less self-confident society we have become. 

The emergence of space tourism and the humdrum regularity of SpaceX rockets taking off and returning makes it hard to grasp how formidable and dangerous the prospect of reaching the moon once was. When Kennedy announced his challenge, we had not sent a man much over 100,000 feet above Earth, a far cry from the required 225,000 miles to reach the moon. The astronauts would land on the surface of an alien satellite, not knowing if their spacecraft would sink into it. If they missed the moon, they would propel deeper into space with no hope of rescue. The success of the mission hinged on the perfect interworking of multiple computer systems (primitive by our standards). If the Eagle could not return to the mothership, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would die a slow death from suffocation. Like Dwight D. Eisenhower on the eve of D-Day, President Richard Nixon had two speeches ready, one to commemorate their heroism, the other to announce their tragic deaths.

The perilous nature of the program became vividly real on January 27, 1967, when a flash fire engulfed the Apollo I command module during a training test. All three astronauts: Roger Chafee, Gus Grissom, and Ed White died instantly. Grissom, ironically, had already escaped a near-death experience in 1961 during a splashdown of the Mercury Liberty Bell 7 when it blew out the hatch door, and he was submerged in the ocean. The Apollo I accident led to exhaustive investigations by a NASA review board and a U.S. Senate committee. The program was delayed while important changes and improvements were implemented. Yet even this tragedy could not stop its bold trajectory and mission. 

And bold it was. The plan was to reach Apollo 20 with 10 lunar landings. This would be followed with even more ambitious undertakings. Astronauts would reside in campers on the surface of the moon, utilize state-of-the-art drills to probe beneath its surface and even navigate it with lunar flying vehicles. 

Soon enough, however, the Apollo I fire and ballooning federal deficit driven by the burgeoning costs of the Vietnam War and the Great Society began to erode support for the effort. In 1968, Congress approved only 25 percent of Lyndon Johnson’s proposed budget for the space program for the 1968 fiscal year. After Neil Armstrong made his famous step on to the moon in July 1969, the cuts only continued. The Apollo 13 accident in 1970 heightened the pressure to end manned missions, increasingly considered too dangerous. It whetted critics’ argument that the money was better spent at home on social programs. President Nixon grudgingly agreed not to cancel the Apollo 16 and 17 missions, so Cernan’s 1972 walk spelled the end. 

 From there, NASA transitioned to the Skylab space station from 1973-1974, the Apollo-Soyuz project, with its famous 1975 link-up of American and Russian astronauts, and finally the space shuttle program. The fatal disasters of the Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003, however, contributed to its shutdown. Though cost was a factor, NASA’s chief historian Bill Barry stated: “The proximate cause of the end of the shuttle program was the Columbia accident.” 

So the United States simply outsourced space travel to Russia, forking over an average of $86 million for each seat to and from the International Space Station in what the Russian space chief Dmitry Rogozin sarcastically referred to as “delivering its [NASA] astronauts on a trampoline.” It meant we had no way to maintain our presence in space without the Russians. By contrast, the Discovery shuttle became a museum piece in the Smithsonian and thus a relic from a more adventurous era. Why worry? The Russians were now our partners. What could ever go wrong with that?

Thankfully, private companies, most famously SpaceX and Blue Origin, are filling the void and reigniting galactic travel. Ambitious plans for mining asteroids and colonizing the moon, and even Mars, abound. Space tourism, something out of a 1950s sci-fi novel, has now become reality. The unbridled optimism and embracing of risk is being reborn. 

Unfortunately, just as was the case in the 1960s, a small, but vocal cadre of activists are revving up their grievance engines to shut it down. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) gave one of his ritual denouncements of income inequality (his three homes, of course, do not count), sermonizing: “Space travel is an exciting idea, but right now we need to focus on Earth and create a progressive tax system so that children don’t go hungry, people are not homeless and all Americans have health care.” Lost on Sanders is the fact that the space industry creates thousands of jobs, generates enormous tax revenue, and leads to the sort of discoveries that elevate people out of poverty and fund the very federal programs he adores. 

Not to be outdone is NASA’s own Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Working Group, which decries human space exploration as a continuation of Western colonization. Activists insist further space exploration will only bring environmental degradation and destructive resource extraction from other worlds. Even if Mars turns out to be a lifeless planet, it should be left alone in its virginal state for fear of disrupting its “evolution” as a barren rock.

For the social justice warriors, space is not the final frontier, but rather a closed one. 

Moving away from the realm of science and channeling the “1619 Project,” they assert that colonial expansion and the trans-Atlantic slave trade created our modern world. Of course, in keeping with their line of thinking, the development of natural resources and industrialization have never improved living standards in non-Western societies. This is something middle class citizens in Argentina, Kenya, and Singapore would be surprised to learn. 

From its inception, budgetary concerns have always haunted the space program like a specter. This is true now more than ever and makes it a much harder sell to the public than it was in the heady 1960s. Even as our daily lives increasingly depend on data bounced off satellites and unfriendly powers are developing a new generation of space-based weapons, a national sense of urgency remains lacking. Perhaps because in contrast to the America of the previous era, there is much less faith in our nation as fewer and fewer see their country as exceptional or preferable to others. By contrast, Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise were frequently imperfect yet never shied away from risk or doubted they were a force for human advancement.

Exploration represents and remains a cornerstone of the American character. Space travel is but a continuation of a linear process that began with Lewis and Clark’s quest for a northwest passage. We must rekindle that same self-confident national spirit if we are to embrace a new set of daunting challenges as bravely and fearlessly as a previous generation once did. 

About Danton Kostandarithes

Danton Kostandarithes holds a B.A. in classics from the University of Georgia and a Ph.D. in American history from Tulane. He currently teaches high school in Jacksonville, Florida.

Photo: Space Frontiers/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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