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David's Mental Meanderings
12th October 2002

I lived my early childhood in the days of the Apollo program. I was five years old when Neil Armstrong took the first step on the Moon. I was not yet nine when Gene Cernan took the last. It is probably because I got a glimpse of space travel that I later became a Star Trek fan and that One Small Step inspired the imagination to boldly go where no man had gone before.

I think I appreciate the space program more now than I did as an elementary school child. At that age, everything is awesome and the stuff of fantasy. Now that I am the same age that Armstrong was in 1969, and the same age Cernan was in 1972, I realize the potential we squandered. We should have had a permanent space station, not in 2002, but in 1982. When I think of the primitive technology that put a man on the Moon in the 1960s, I am amazed that we have not gone much further. I am using more technology to type this Meandering than the total resources of NASA could muster in 1969.

On the 20th anniversary of the first Moonwalk, then President George Bush proposed the Space Exploration Initiative. By the time Bill Clinton entered the Oval Office, much of it was dead. Now, after the 33rd anniversary of the One Small Step, you don't hear serious talk about a lunar base or manned Mars expeditions. That's because NASA now has the Human Exploration and Development of Space Strategic Plan. This plan calls for further exploration of the Moon during 2006-11. A manned Mars mission isn't even considered until about 2025.

For Fiscal Year 2003, the President's proposed budget has only allocated $414.7 million for the Mars Exploration Program. This is 2.76% of a total NASA budget of $15 billion. Fifteen billion dollars. Sounds like a lot of money, doesn't it? Well, maybe to you and me it seems like a lot. As Everett Dirksen famously remarked, "A billion here and a billion there and pretty soon you are talking about real money." But let's put this in perspective. In FY 2002, the Social Security Administration spent $492.7 billion. Health and Human Services spending was $459.4 billion. Department of Defense, $303.6 billion. NASA is small potatoes, really. Or to compare Mars with HHS, the former is but .09% of the latter. In terms of the total 2003 proposed budget, the exploration of a whole new world and all the potential it offers accounts for less than .02%. And this is before Congress takes a red marker to it. With this kind of funding, don't bet on 2025.

A look at the federal budget over time shows that from 1997-2002, the budget for education increased nearly 90%. The Health and Human Services budget increased by about 80%. Overall federal spending was up 40%. Over the same period of time, the NASA budget increased less than 10%. This is not accounting for inflation. We are talking real dollars.

For those of you who think things like Moon bases are a fanciful waste of tax dollars, perhaps you haven't considered the full implications. You might not be interested in the purely scientific opportunities, such as giant telescopes so powerful they could read a newspaper on earth or see the surfaces of planets orbiting other stars. But what about generating the entire energy budget of our planet? That would be just using solar power and current technology. But what about technologies just around the corner? The Moon is rich in the isotope helium-3, which could provide the key to developing nuclear fusion. Not only could this power the earth and the Moon bases, but it could become the fuel of space travel, much as nuclear fission is used in submarines and aircraft carriers today.

As Apollo 17 command module America orbited the Moon after the return of Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt from the surface, they received a message from President Nixon. He prophesied, "This may be the last time in this century that men will walk on the Moon" and he was right. As unbelievable as it should have seemed, thirty years have passed without a man so much as leaving earth orbit.

Even before the Apollo program was over, it suffered from the public attitude of "been there, done that." It was suggested that we had been there and even sent a geologist on the last trip, so we now understand it. No one would suggest that by the time the first 14 Europeans arrived in the Americas there was no reason to return. You wouldn't take ¼ of the land mass of the earth and say that it was fully understood by 14 explorers travelling in pairs venturing no more than 5 miles (the first pair no more than 200 feet) in any one direction and for a total of 80 hours and 26 minutes. That's the all time that has been spent on the Moon outside the Lunar Module.

The 20th century stands out as one of the worst in human history. The combination of destructive world wars and violent persecutions in places like Stalin's Soviet Union and Mao's China saw loss of life on an unprecedented scale. In midst of this the Apollo program is one of the great successes. President Kennedy said that by the end of the 1960's the United States would send a man to the Moon and bring him back safely again. This is probably the greatest proof that where there's a will, there's a way.

Unfortunately, the motivation was all wrong. The only reason we went to the Moon was to beat the Russians. Because it was never intended to provide the stepping stone to advancements in technology not possible on earth, there was and has been no attempt to sell it this way. That's why every NASA human space program since Apollo has been under-funded, over budget, and behind schedule.

The result is that science fact is relegated to science fiction and talk of Moon bases and manned Mars missions might as well be talk of warp drive, Vulcans, and the Starship Enterprise. It's not the technology that is lacking. It is the will and the money.

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