Monday, September 05, 2005

They Don't Make Heroes Out Of Metal And Microchips

This summer has been a season of space advocacy society conferences starting with the Space Access Society, then the Space Frontier Foundation, and concluding with the Mars Society. Each society has its own agenda for the development of space. The SAS is about cheap private access to space, the SFF is about building a spacefaring civilization starting on the moon, and the Mars Society is about exploring and settling the fourth rock from the sun. What they all share is a commitment to sending humans to space not just robots.

On the drive from Boulder home to San Diego after the Mars Society conference my fellow members of the Mars Society of San Diego and I stopped at Meteor Crater near Winslow, Arizona. The site is an impact crater in the Arizona desert where long ago a meteorite hit the Earth. Today it's a park where the crater is preserved and a museum tells visitors about meteors and meteorites and craters. It is one big hole in the ground.

There is no particular reason why this location should have anything that commemorates human space exploration but in the entry courtyard there is an Astronaut Wall of Fame that lists the names of all the American astronauts.

You can search in vain for a list of the robots and unmanned probes that the United States has sent into space. They don't make Walls of Fame for robots that get sent to outer space. Walls of Fame are built to honor heroes and it takes flesh and blood to be a hero. It's humans in space that people care about and it's humans in space that inspires others to support space.

Dr. David Livingston talked about this a bit in a presentation he gave at the Mars Society Conference. His talk described the results of his economic study of the costs and benefits of government spending on the Apollo program versus spending on other public works projects. In this case, the Federal School Breakfast program and Hoover Dam.

This post is not intended to relate all of Dr. Livingston's conclusions on the relative merits of the three programs. But one conclusion he drew about the merits of government spending on human space exploration is important. Dr. Livingston concluded that the Apollo program continues to provide economic benefits to the American economy, and other economies, 30 years after the program ended.

Besides the technological spinoffs, Apollo continues to provide benefits because it was an inspirational program that created a generation of people who were motivated to choose their careers because of what Apollo accomplished. The contributions of this Apollo generation are felt today.

Dr. Livingston's research led him to conclude that the capability to inspire is the hallmark of a successful government space program. Although he didn't exactly put it in these terms, what I think he was talking about, was that Apollo produced heroes who inspired others to follow the trail they blazed.

The American space program has limped along since Apollo without a destination and that has been its failure. Its astronauts have gone nowhere interesting and have been reduced to playing the role of glorified delivery drivers. Although some people may have been inspired to join the space program because of the space shuttle or the space station, one wonders who really wants to be part of a human space program that does little more than send people up to space carrying supplies and back down to Earth carrying trash. In fact, what the post-Apollo American space program really seems to have done is to drive those people who were inspired by Apollo to look elsewhere to get into space. Witness Space Ship One, Virgin Galactic, the private space societies, and the stirrings of the new alt-space industry. Those motivated to going somewhere in space have been forced to seek their own way.

What effect the Vision for Space Exploration will have remains to be seen. It is still in its infancy and it has not yet created the heroes that Apollo created. Also the polarization of American politics threatens the Vision because it is at risk of being seen as President Bush's idea rather than the natural expression of America's frontier spirit.

But the dream is alive for some. Witness this engraving in the lower corner of the Astronaut Wall of Fame at Meteor Crater.



Excellent insights, and great conclusion. On to Mars ... and beyond!
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