Make No Little Plans

Jul 20 09

Make No Little Plans

Paul Weinstein

On July 9, 1970 Republican President Richard M. Nixon authorized the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a single, independent federal agency tasked with establishing new criteria to guide American into a cleaner future.

Only three months prior the first Earth Day was called for by Gaylord Nelson, a United States Senator from Wisconsin as a way to educate people about the earth’s complex environment.

What brought about the renewed focus on our environment and the modern environmental movement some 40 years after the end of the Great Depression’s Dust Bowl as well as pioneer environmentalists Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir and Ansel Adams?

The movement has many roots, such as the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire which saw the surface of the river catch fire due to pollutants within the river.

But it should also come as no surprise that the modern environmental movement came on the heels of the “Space Race”. That concerns about our environment crystallized in our national consciousness just months after man’s first foot steps on another heavenly body, less than two years after Apollo 8’s Jim Lovell commented from lunar orbit that “the loneliness up here is awe inspiring. It makes you realize just what you have back on Earth.1

In fact, on the occasion of NASA’s 50th anniversary last October, Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine ranked the top two of fifty most memorable images from NASA’s history not of an astronaut, a flag, star, rocket, spacecraft, satellite or aircraft, but of the Earth. The Earth from space, as photographed by the Apollo 17 crew in 1972 and by Apollo 8 in 1968.

The Earth from here is an oasis in the vastness of space.1

I mention this because of course today marks the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11’s landmark landing on the surface of the Moon, the finishing line of John F. Kennedy’s race pitting the United States’ engineering ingenuity and political influence against that of the Soviet Union’s.

While many will consider the glories of the past today, I suggest instead a look to the glories of the future. In fact, right now the Obama Administration is reviewing NASA’s priorities, should we return to the Moon and set a course for Mars, as outlined by his predecessor? Or focus our interests elsewhere?

The question brings a host of other questions. What are our national priorities today? Tomorrow? Are we best served with an investment in returning to the Moon?

Consider that from 1957 to 1975, the United States spent approximately $100 billion to develop, test and land 12 men on the moon.2 For that investment the world not only directly gained knowledge about the Moon and manned-space travel, but laid the foundation for; weather, communication and global positioning satellites and spurred research in computing and land-based telecommunication initiatives, among other technological spinoffs.

In addition the “Space Race” advanced development and application in existing technologies such as fuel-cells, solar power and batteries bringing about great potential in energy conservation, adding practical scientific knowledge alongside the social concern within the environmental movement.

That’s a significant return on investment for something many people consider political theater.

But can a renewed investment in NASA achieve the same results? I think it can, so long as the Obama Administration uses the following guidelines in refocusing NASA’s priorities:

  • That the government’s most effective roles are in funding new exploration which develops new technologies and basic research.
  • That the private sector needs to be engaged on a broad scale; commercial markets work effectively in refining and re-purposing basic technologies into cost effective services.

It would be fool-hearty, even for a popular liberal President, to suggest that the Federal government can do everything. In fact, the space program works best when the government takes the initial step forward and the commercial interests move in to rebuild and re-purpose. On a basic level this can mean corporations refining new technologies, providing services in support of additional exploration and research to NASA.

However, NASA’s engagement with our economy needs to extend beyond Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The benefits and advancements made and (still to be gained) suggests that while the opening of space to commerce might first directly benefit only a handful of wealthy space tourists, private individuals joy-riding into the outer reaches of our atmosphere is only the tip of a very large proverbial iceberg.

For example, continuing on a theme with the national priority of energy, climate and resource management as it stands the International Space Station is anything but self-sustaining over the long term. Crews are routinely rotated in and out. In addition, fresh supplies are shuttled to the station with waste materials sent back on the return journey on a regular schedule. Long duration flights that lead to permanent settlements, in Earth orbit, on the Moon or even Mars by necessity will push the limits of known science in regards to energy and climate conservation.

While it might require great creativity in applying these learned tidbits of science and technology into marketable products and services, it requires little imagination to see a correlation between self-sustainable manned space stations and a self-sustainable household.

Of course alternative energy would hardly be the sole beneficiary. Computing and telecommunications could see additional benefits. Others such as health-care and the economy as a whole could see significant growth as well. To be sure a manned mission to Mars is hardly “shovel-ready”, but our national issues are not limited to short-term solutions.

While NASA and space exploration many never again capture the hearts and minds of several hundred million, as it did 40 years ago today, that hardly denotes failure. Yet failure to consider the grand impact in productivity and enhancement of life here on Earth in pursuit of manned (and unmanned) space travel will fail, without doubt, in again engaging the creativity of our nation. As the saying goes, “make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.”

1 Lovell, Jim, and Jeffrey Kluger. Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13
. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994. Print. Pg. 52

2 While the last moon landing was in 1972, Skylab used Apollo developed technologies and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975 closed out the “Space Race” between the two nations.