The Dark Age of Manned Space Exploration: 1969-2009

Posted by Michael Pinto on Jul 13, 2009 in Science |

The rusting hulk of a Saturn V rocket

Above: The rusting hulk of a Saturn V rocket (now under restoration) is a harsh reminder of a lost golden age of manned space exploration.

As a child who spent most of his life after the Apollo project it’s my humble opinion that over the last 40 years we’ve been living a micro-dark age of space exploration. To me the 40th Anniversary of Apollo isn’t a cause for celebration, but is in fact a funeral for NASA which has been a shadow of its former self.

Like the golden age of television the space race which lasted from 1957 with Sputnik until 1969 with the lunar landings represent a lost which is rusting into mythology. And what are the signs of a dark age? Well if you look at the original dark ages they followed the collapse of the Roman Empire — but what disappeared with Rome was technology (things as simple as clean water) and literacy itself.

My first wake up call to the fact that we’re living n a dark age is that it’s currently predicted that it will take NASA years to return to the moon. In fact chances are pretty good that China will make it there first without any help before the United States is up and running. What makes this depressing to me is that from Kennedy’s 1962 speech to the Apollo landing was done in less than eight years — and most of that technology had to be invented from scratch! In theory we should be able to look back at that 40 year old technology, rebuild the same damn rockets within two or three years at the most and be walking on the moon by 2011 at the very latest.

Although at heart I’ve always known that we were going backwards — the proof is the ancient space shuttle fleet itself. The shuttle program dates to the disco era, and since that time we’ve never replaced it. We’ve watched two shuttle crews pay the ultimate price — the first time I could understand it, but the second time leaves me baffled. But even more baffling is why the shuttle was never replaced over ten years ago. As much as I’d love to blame one party or another we’ve had Presidents from both sides of the asile who only seem to notice NASA when something is going wrong.

Former President Lyndon B. Johnson and then-current Vice President Spiro Agnew are among the spectators at the launch of Apollo 11, which lifted off from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center at 9:32 am EDT on July 16, 1969. The crew, the first of the Apollo missions to land on the moon, safely returned to Earth on 37 years ago this week on July 24, 1969.

Above: Former President Lyndon B. Johnson among the spectators at the launch of Apollo 11, which lifted off from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center at 9:32 am EDT on July 16, 1969.

In fact I hate to say it but the last President who gave a damn about NASA was Lyndon Johnson who was in office 40 years ago today. Due to Vietnam Johnson left behind a mixed legacy, but from where I sit today in the 21st Century he represents a lost age when America dared to do something that hadn’t been done before. And what makes me sad is that we’re still talking in terms of maybe getting to the moon, but the reality is that we shouldn’t be settling for anything less than going to Mars.

So who is to blame for this dark age that we’re now living in? Well I have to say that as Americans we all are — we’ll stand in line for the latest Star Trek film, but how many amongst us has taken just a few minutes to write your local congressperson to demand that NASA’s budget be tripled? We all fall for all of the excuses that there are so many other things to do, well from my point of view everything we’ve done for the last 40 years of government expenditure has been flushed down the toilet over time. The R&D provided by NASA is one of the few budgetary items that earns interest in tech spin-offs.

Now this isn’t to say that there haven’t been some amazing achievements in astronomy during the last 40 years — in fact it’s safe to say that every planet we’ve discovered outside our solar system is a recent achievement. Although to me that’s all the more of an argument why we should be supporting a manned space exploration program: It’s not enough to see the stars, but you’ve got to reach for them.

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