Summoning the Future By Remembering the Past

By dennis_wingo
August 30, 2010
Filed under
Summoning the Future By Remembering the Past

There is an old saying that those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. However, there is an extension of this in that those who do not remember history are doomed to not repeat what was successful either.

Space policy today is a mess. For years the Republican party pushed an enlightened, commercially-oriented policy that combined tax credits with public/private partnerships to enable a new aerospace industry focused around human spaceflight. In 2004 when the Bush administration came out with the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), policy statements were made and contracts awarded (COTS) that were the first steps in bringing this policy to pass while NASA went forward with exploration beyond earth orbit. When a new NASA administrator (Mike Griffin) came into power in 2005, all of this went out the window.

The new administrator did expand the COTS program, but as a pittance against an “Apollo on Steroids” program that became the centerpiece of the technically complex and financially unsustainable Constellation program. To make things worse, Constellation ignored the $100 billion dollars that American, European, Russian, and Japanese taxpayers had invested in the International Space Station (ISS). Technical challenges became manifest early on and Congress would not fund the budgets required to implement the Constellation program. It was only a matter of time before Constellation collapsed – no matter which party won the 2008 election.

By 2009 the disarray was obvious. With missed technical milestones coupled with inadequate financing, the exploration of the Moon and Mars was slipping farther and farther into the future. When the Obama administration’s FY 2010 budget was introduced it was a breath of fresh air. The unsustainable Constellation program was cancelled and commercial spaceflight was embraced to support the ISS, and technology game changing missions funded that would lower the cost and provide a flexible path for exploration. However, the abandonment of a destination coupled with no real rational for what to do in Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) exploration erased the vision (i.e. sense of purpose) part of the exploration plan.

Since the spring of 2010 a political fight has been underway between the supporters of government-directed space exploration and those who support the new Obama plan. The fight has rearranged the political battlefield with Republicans, who in the past supported commercial space siding with the government jobs argument. The Democrats, who normally support government jobs programs have been supportive of the administration’s embrace of commercial space. This resulted in a stalemate in late summer when the California congressional delegation blocked a move by Constellation supporters to reconstitute as much as possible of the defunct program.

At the core, both supporters and opponents are fighting a fight over who is most deserving of the pork rather than looking forward to see what is best for the nation and our future. Therefore a look at a particular government funded effort to explore and develop our frontier is in order, along with a comparison to the Apollo program as a means to understand what worked and what ultimately failed and provide a framework of what can work in the future for space.

History, Timelines, and the Development of our Nation

Almost exactly 100 years and nine weeks before the famous speech by President Kennedy at Rice University calling for what would be known as the Apollo program, the U.S. Congress, in the middle of a war for the life of the nation, passed the Pacific Railway Act of 1862. The “national” railroad as it was called was chartered by the government had as its core purpose to bind the nation together in commerce and open up the frontier to economic development. The government picked the route, set standards for its construction, and paid milestone payments to each of the two railroads (Union Pacific in the east and Central Pacific in the west). The government provided further incentives in the form of huge land grants on either side of the tracks that could be resold by the railroads at a profit. Another note is that the railroad paid back the government at a six percent interest over 30 years, resulting in a direct profit to the treasury.

Almost exactly 100 years and four weeks from the flight of the Apollo 10 mission, the Central Pacific Railroad, operating in northern Utah laid ten miles of railroad track in a single day, a feat rarely equaled even today. Finally, exactly 100 years and nine weeks from the pounding of the golden spike at Promontory Utah that bound the nation together by rail, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon. From start to finish the transcontinental railroad and the Apollo program took the same amount of time but came to very different ends.

The transcontinental railroad ushered in an era of national expansion, cutting the travel time across the nation from six months to six days. It made valuable what was otherwise useless land in the west, providing a means to bring the crops of Nebraska to New York, oranges and gold from California, manufactured goods from the east to the west, and a vast migration of people. Many other railroads followed and from this beginning a superpower was born.

Technologies developed in the construction and operation of the railroad pushed the civil and mechanical arts to new heights. Steam shovels were first used in Utah on the railroad construction. Time was standardized across the nation as train schedules had to be timed well in order to avoid accidents. Railroad gauge and other standards enabled the mass production and cost reductions for railroad hardware. Many other organizational innovations that the transcontinental railroad brought became infused into American business and are still with us today.

The Apollo program. on the other hand. has not had the lasting direct improvement of the national wealth. It should have had one, but it did not. The technologies that the Apollo program developed have survived but the difficulties of the current Constellation program indicates that we have not retained the corporate knowledge to execute a similar program. A very minor part of Apollo, communications satellites, are today a tens of billions of dollars per year industry but we have frittered away our lead over other nations in this area. We even have a permanently orbiting space station but both the Apollo era and Constellation have ignored such things as a distraction from the goal. What goal? Doing what we did 40 plus years ago on the Moon? Doing the same thing on Mars? This goes to the core of the multiple failures, from Apollo till now of not tying the efforts to economic development.

Without economic development space advocates will never assemble the critical mass of support necessary to bring the power of government to bear on the issue. Without economic development there will never be a critical mass of private capital brought to bear on the issue. There simply are not enough people like Elon Musks, Robert Bigelows, and Jeff Bezos to compare to Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, and Colis Huntington. The economic development of the solar system was the core value that made George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration exciting and worthwhile to the nation. The implementation was horribly done in the most wrong way possible. The Obama plan is the right implementation, but without the core value of economic development starting at the Moon, it is bereft of a moral underpinning.

The arguments for the economic development of space, beginning at the Moon, are there. After decades of tantalizing hints in the Apollo samples, the inconclusive (to some) results from Lunar Prospector and Clementine, it is now hard to dismiss the resource base that the Moon represents. It is the gateway to the rest of the solar system just as the International Space Station is the gateway to the Moon. A rational exploration plan that involves private enterprise from the start will be a startling departure from the last three failed plans (Apollo, SEI, and Constellation). Understanding that the solar system is rich in resources that are needed to maintain and expand a planetary civilization that will approach 9 billion people by the year 2050 is the moral underpinning that is needed. Whoever does develop these resources will be the superpower of the late 21st and 22nd century.

At this time the government is in chaos and stalemate. It is time for private capital to come into the fray, to provide the financing that is needed to take technologies developed, buy laying fallow, and use them to develop a space economy. At least one Senator (Nelson), has recently gotten religion on this and has proposed limited economic zones for space enterprise. It is time to take that forward to the rest of the nation and pass a “Zero G Zero Tax” bill that will flip the switch of capitalism from fear to greed, and bring the funds needed to take the next steps.

When these steps bear fruit, and with financing they most surely will, the economic development of space can move from fiction to fact. We as technologists know what to do, just give us the tools to make it happen.


Kennedy Rice Speech – September 12 1962
Pacific Railway Act Passage – July 1, 1862
Apollo 10 Mission – May 18, 1869
Ten Miles of Rail – April 28th, 1969
Apollo 11 – July 20, 1969
Golden Spike – May 10, 1869