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“Apollo was like a command economy. And a command economy is like being on steroids – your muscles get big but your testicles shrink, so it’s ultimately not sustainable.” – Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit)
Forty-nine years ago today, Apollo 11 began its trip to the Moon. It was my 14th birthday, and the liftoff was the biggest, best candle any 14-year-old could have. It was not the first time men had visited the Moon. Two previous Apollo missions had carried six other men to lunar orbit. It would be the mission where humans would walk for the first time on another planetary body.
Four years later I was sitting before a board of officers deciding whether to admit me to the ROTC program where I was going to college. One question asked was “Where do you see yourself in 25 years?”
My answer was (I was in engineering) that I could see myself as a program manager in charge of developing one of manned orbital platforms we would have then. I explained I figured we would have at least 100 by then, so it would not be that unusual for someone in his early 40s to be heading up that kind of program.
It got me a lot of points. This was a kid who was ambitious but had his eye on an achievable goal. After all, we had been to the Moon two years earlier and already had a space station in orbit. Fifty to 100 more in 25 years? Of course, we would be doing that.
I started in the Shuttle program in 1979 — ten years after we first walked on the moon. If you had told me then that over the next 25 years we would not get further than 400 miles above the Earth’s surface by the time the program ended — and that there would barely be one manned space station when that happened — I would have laughed. That. Was. Not. Possible.
Except, it was.
So, what happened? I believe a large part of the reason was NASA and government intervention in space. Two things contributed to relative inactivity. First, there was the civil servant problem. No civil servant ever got punished for delaying a decision but could get punished (at least in the 1970s through 1990s) for making the wrong decision. So, after Apollo, NASA got very risk-averse. Whatever they didn’t do (beyond a bare minimum required to retain funding) was something that could not bite them and get them in front of a Congressional committee having to answer what were you thinking?
However, the biggest roadblock was the civil servants’ aversion to profit. The idea that someone would make money exploiting space rubbed them raw (especially since they could not). So they put up all sorts of barriers to money-making enterprises. Manufacturing in space? How grubby. How ignoble. Space was there for pure research. So there was little reason for anyone (other than government employees) to go there. (After all, the conquistadors said they came to the New World to serve God and get rich. They were serious in their own ways about serving God. But without the opportunity to get rich that the New World offered, they would have stayed in Europe and served God there. It would have been a whole lot easier.)
That is not to say there aren’t lots of for-profit space activities — think telecommunications and satellite television. But a lot of that was done despite NASA, not because of NASA. And none of it involves anything tangible. (Pretty much everything that comes down from orbit is radio waves, even commercial earth observation services.)
That isn’t to say there aren’t a lot of folks (including myself) who have gotten their rice bowls filled participating in space. It’s just that Reynolds is right. With the government maintaining a command economy in space — focused on research not profit — our exploitation of space is not sustainable.