Recently, John Logsdon, the dean of space historians and the author of “John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon,” published a new volume on the history of space policy, “After Apollo: Richard Nixon and the American Space Program.” It is a book well worth reading. Paul Spudis has an excellent review and critique of the book.
Instead of building on the success of the Apollo moon landings, such as building a lunar base or sending astronauts to Mars, Nixon decided to scale back NASA considerably and instead task the space agency with building a reusable space shuttle. The reasons were many and varied, but can be boiled down to the fact that public and political opinion at the time was heavily against new, expensive space adventures. No one was able to tell Nixon why he should expend political capital to pursue space exploration. A practical, unsentimental politician, he declined to do so.
Building a space shuttle, which in theory would lower the cost of space travel, thus making space stations, a return to the moon, and a Mars mission more possible. The shuttle failed in this goal, largely because it was an all-encompassing government project. It took the insight of President George W. Bush 30 or so years later to figure out that maybe the private sector should run a space line and not the government.
As many of you gentle readers know, I once published an alternate history novel, recently reissued as a trilogy, that posited Nixon doing, what is in effect, a John F. Kennedy and proposing an expanded space program. He is able to overcome the objections of liberal Democrats such as Walter Mondale and William Proxmire by selling the Nixon space program as serving détente with the Soviets. Now America and the Soviet Union would explore the heavens together, furthering the cause of peace. Nixon’s real reason is that he intends to spend the USSR into the grave by forcing them into an expanded space race. The detente story is only a cover.
It is received wisdom that there will be another “Kennedy Moment.” The idea is that the Apollo moon landings were a glorious, inspirational feat that brought the world together, at least for a moment, and created benefits both practical and intangible that redound to this day – and we should never do that again. Fortunately, we don’t need to.
A slightly expanded space program that properly paid for going back to the moon and going to Mars, among other things, would not take four cents out of every federal dollar, a figure space opponents like to trot out as their favorite strawman. A lot of what happened on the way to the moon consisted of learning how to fly in space, something we know how to do a half century later. By forming partnerships with international and commercial partners and by spending our money wisely, we can have a space exploration effort worthy of the name for only a few billion more than NASA currently spends. It is not a huge amount of money. Indeed it is a rounding error when calculating the entire federal budget. In exchange, we get the stars, making it well worth the money.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of The Man from Mars: The Asteroid Mining Caper, The Last Moonwalker and Other Stories and The Children of Apollo trilogy .