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Wed, May 25, 2011

Guest Editorial: So… Where Are We Now?

50 Years Ago, JFK Challenged America To Reach The Moon

Aero-Analysis/Opinion By Wes Oleszewski

May, 25th, 1961, exactly half a century ago, President John F. Kennedy stood in front of a joint session of the United States Congress and openly challenged our nation to land a man on the moon and return him to the earth within a decade. At that moment very little of what would be needed to get a human onto and back from the lunar surface existed. Engineers had not even agreed on the method by which to fly there. The United States had only one man-rated booster, the Mercury Redstone, and it did not even have the power to place a spacecraft into orbit. NASA's administrator, James Webb, had only been in office for three months and six days when the lunar challenge was made and nearly every engineer who worked on Project Apollo had yet to be hired.

Kennedy Delivers Moon Challenge 5.25.1961

President Kennedy's speech contained more than just the challenge to go to the moon. In fact the address was titled the "Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs." It covered areas such as economic and social progress at home and abroad, national "Self Defense," our military and intelligence shield, civil defense and so on. Overall, the speech had nine subjects and "Space" was the ninth. When Kennedy got there, he not only made the challenge, but he also detailed the cost and asked the Congress specifically for the needed funds. He also warned about the lead that the Soviets had in the spaceflight capability. Then he went beyond the objective of landing on the moon and pointed toward the future. He said, in part: "I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshalled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment."

He then went on to say: "Let it be clear--and this is a judgment which the Members of the Congress must finally make--let it be clear that I am asking the Congress and the country to accept a firm commitment to a new course of action, a course which will last for many years and carry very heavy costs: 531 million dollars in fiscal '62--an estimated seven to nine billion dollars additional over the next five years. If we are to go only half way, or reduce our sights in the face of difficulty, in my judgment it would be better not to go at all.

"It is a most important decision that we make as a nation. But all of you have lived through the last four years and have seen the significance of space and the adventures in space, and no one can predict with certainty what the ultimate meaning will be of mastery of space.

"This decision demands a major national commitment of scientific and technical manpower, materiel and facilities, and the possibility of their diversion from other important activities where they are already thinly spread. It means a degree of dedication, organization and discipline which have not always characterized our research and development efforts. It means we cannot afford undue work stoppages, inflated costs of material or talent, wasteful interagency rivalries, or a high turnover of key personnel.

"New objectives and new money cannot solve these problems. They could in fact, aggravate them further--unless every scientist, every engineer, every serviceman, every technician, contractor, and civil servant gives his personal pledge that this nation will move forward, with the full speed of freedom, in the exciting adventure of space."

With this speech, JFK ignited moon fever in the United States. Engineering degrees began to be the thing to get and the nation began to build its pride around its space program. There was no talk of can't or won't and NASA management was decisive in the program's direction. Perhaps the only flaw was the rush to beat Kennedy's deadline. At its peak, NASA's funding was about 5% of the national budget. Estimates are that some 350,000 people worked in one way of another on the Apollo program. From the guys who poured the cement that made the foundations of the needed facilities to the women who sewed the space suits- thousands of contractors got a piece of JFK's challenge. Even when the Apollo 1 fire cost the lives of 3 astronauts and caused the program to stumble, the quality and quantity of the engineering that could be tapped set the program back on track. Thus on July 20, 1969 Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon and the within four days they, along with Mike Collins returned safely to the earth.

So… where are we now, 50 years after JFK's challenge? In just a few months the final Space Shuttle will be launched from the Kennedy Space Center. The instant that the bolts blow and it leaves the ground, for the first time in three decades the United States will have ZERO autonomous means of sending astronauts into space. Additionally, for the first time in 50 years, the US will have no stated, mandated objective in space. We will in fact, no longer be a space fairing nation.

Our only access to a $100 Billion dollar asset, the International Space Station, a platform largely paid for by US tax dollars, will be by way of buying seats aboard the Russian Soyuz spaceflight system- which was developed by the Soviet government. Those seats, which were in the past sold to "tourists" for $22 million each, and have during shuttle operation been sold to NASA for as much as $55 million. Recently the Russian announced that now those same seats will cost NASA $64 million each and after 2014 the price may have no contractual limit.

Politically, we find our nation's human spaceflight program not only at the mercy of the Russians, but neutered by our own leaders. We have a president who is openly dismissive of lunar exploration, who wants all of NASA's human spaceflight earth orbital responsibility immediately handed over to private "commercial" start-up companies and who seems to believe the best way for NASA to explore beyond earth orbit is to sit around and study the issue for at least the next five years, or more. Although the Congress has rejected the president's human spaceflight notions and has mandated that a new heavy lift manned booster program begin last January, the president has an ace up his sleeve that he is using to gum up the works. Serving at the pleasure of the president is his NASA administrator, Charlie Bolden. Although Congress dictates to NASA what the agency must do, the implementation, or in this case, non-implementation or those actions are under the direction of the administrator- who serves the president. Thus, nearly nothing has been done by the agency to head in the direction that the Congress has required by law.

The contrasts of the nation's human spaceflight program between 1961 and 2011 are polar opposite. In 1961 we had a president who set the nation on a clear path, toward a clear goal with the intent to make America the leader in human spaceflight as well as to inspire wide spread technical innovation and bring out the best of the skills and minds of the people of the United States. He gave that task to a NASA administrator who said can-do, will-do, must-do and proceeded to make it happen. In 2011 we have a president who, in his last two budget requests, set no clear goal for NASA, or the nation in the area of human spaceflight and set no clear direction plus seems fully intent to surrender the nation's leadership in human spaceflight to the Russians and the Chinese. He is served by a NASA administrator who, while testifying in front of Congress said "…if you asked me today to go to Mars, I'd tell you I can't do it." One wonders what the future may have been, if James Webb had established such a can't-do attitude.

Thus, 50 years ago our nation started on a bold path that developed the technology that would take us to the moon, establish the Skylab workshop and later went on to develop and operate a Space Shuttle- only to have it all frittered away in a leadership void. Although blame for our current waste of a half century of spaceflight efforts and benefits must be spread across the later Bush administration as well as the current Obama administration, the current president had the opportunity to stand up, be bold and inspire the nation with a renewed clear direction and goal in human spaceflight.

Instead he voted "present."




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