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An Evanescent Memory of Exploration

by Shane L. Larson

On February 27, 2011, Frank Woodruff Buckles passed away at the age of 110.  Frank was the last surviving American veteran of World War I. The United States was in the war for 19 months.  In that time 116,000 Americans were killed, and more than 204,000 wounded.  In totality, more than 16.5 million people were killed during the four years of the war.  At the time, it was called “The Great War” because until World War II, no one could imagine a more terrible conflict or a more terrible cost in human lives.  With Frank’s passing, the United States’ involvement in the devastating conflict passes from direct experience into memory.  No longer will the Great War be relayed through the eyes of one who saw it; instead, it will be relegated to the history books, and spoken of from the dry voice of history like the War of 1812 and the Spanish American War.

In 1901, the year of Frank’s birth, a young 19 year old named Robert Goddard had started indulging his passion for aerodynamics, a passion that would ultimately lead him into the field of rocketry.  In 1914, the first year of The Great War, Goddard was awarded two of the first patents in rocketry, cementing ideas that would lead to the space age and the human exploration of space.  As a young man, Goddard had been enchanted with the idea that humans might make a journey to space and visit other worlds using rockets. Goddard passed away in 1945 (3 weeks before the end of World War II), before the first rockets ever plied the vacuum of space. But ultimately his dream was realized, and between December of 1968 and December of 1972, nine voyages were made from the Earth to the Moon.  In all, 24 American astronauts made the journey across the gulf of space, and 12 walked on the surface of the Moon as part of Project Apollo.

Today, Project Apollo is 40 years gone, and of those 24 astronauts, 6 have died.  Of all the rest, none is younger than 74.  The only humans ever to leave the Earth and walk the shores of another world are slowly passing away, and soon, the memory of of the voyage to the Moon will also pass into history.  Project Apollo was arguably the greatest technological achievement in human history, an exploratory endeavour to carry humans beyond the confines of Earth that was many decades ahead of its time.  But here we stand today, 40 years hence, with no permanent human presence beyond our small blue marble, and no ambitions to go.  In June of this year, the space shuttle Atlantis will make her final flight, and America’s manned spaceflight technology program will come to an end.

As a society, we have let the wonder of those few evanescent moments of exploration slip away from us.  We have forgotten the grandeur of the Moon’s desolation, and let go of the memory that the exploration of beautiful places is good for the spirit.  Instead, we worry about the costs of projects like Apollo, and have whittled away our investment in exploration into almost nothing.  This deinvestment in exploration has been done with much political posturing and grandiose swaggering in the name of fiscal responsibility, but with a complete and callous disregard for what these programs cost and return to our country.

Project Apollo is often historically depicted as a political action, a demonstration of technological supremacy driven by the Cold War with the Soviet Union that had risen out of the ashes of World War II.  All told, the program employed 400,000 people and the United States invested $25.4 billion in the endeavour, approximately $65 for every man, woman and child currently living in the United States today.  For each of us, the cost of Project Apollo was only 16 cups of Starbuck’s coffee, less than a third the cost of an iPod, less than a monthly satellite TV bill, and only about 1/10th the average yearly cell phone bill of a typical US citizen.  These are easy cost comparisons to make, and probably a bit misleading because let’s face it: most three year olds don’t have cell phone plans, though quite a few watch quite a bit of satellite TV.  The truly misleading part of these cost comparisons is that they only represent the money saved out of pocket, and do not consider the economic returns of the program — when the fiscal axe is dropped on programs like Apollo, the economic returns are usually totally ignored.

Consider the Apollo Lunar Module.  Before Apollo, nothing as complicated as the Lunar Module had ever been constructed, nor had any machine ever been built with such stringent design requirements.  NASA and their industry partners spawned a new technology known as CNC (“computer numerical control”) machining to make the parts for the moonships.  Today, CNC machines are standard pieces in every precision machine shop in America.  Conservative estimates suggest that there are about 75,000 machining firms in the United States, employing more than 200,000 machinists and generating gross revenues in excess of $37 billion per year.  In less than one year, the American economy uses Apollo derived technology to generate enough money to pay for the entire decade long investment in Apollo.

In order to keep the spacecraft warm on the voyage from the Earth to the Moon, NASA had to develop a metal-bonded polyurethane foam insulation.  After the end of Apollo, this same foam was used to insulate the Alaskan Pipeline, keeping the oil temperature high enough that it remains fluid on the long journey from Prudhoe to Valdez.  This has allowed the production and delivery of 16 billion barrels of oil since 1977, with a gross revenue of $710 billion.  In the almost forty years since the end of Apollo, this single piece of technology has returned to the US economy more than 25 times the entire decade long cost of the Apollo program.

These are only two examples out of many technologies that have quietly infiltrated everyday life since the last walkers left the Moon.  The technology derivatives from the space shuttle program are just as numerous and have borne just as much economic benefit.  The ultimate return from America’s space program is probably incalculable, both in terms of dollars and in terms of the less tangible threads of common memory.  It has yet to be understood what the absence of an American manned spaceflight program will do to our future.  Forty thousand generations of our ancestors have led us to this place in history.  We have demonstrated the ability to transcend the limitations of the tools Nature gave us to climb trees and walk the savannah and instead journey beyond the confines of Earth using the foresight and computational power of our brains.  But that same mental tool is squandering all of our long and proud heritage, forgoing the memory of all that could be attained in favor of short term political gains without regard to the wider consequences of those actions.

On the voyage home from the Moon in April of 1972, mission commander John Young remarked, “We have seen more in 10 days that most people would see in 10 lifetimes.”  In the past 10 days, how much of your life has flashed before your eyes?  How deeply has your memory of what you did yesterday changed the world?  As the Apollo astronauts slowly succumb to time’s inevitable march, what becomes of those memories of walking on the Moon?  When the last Apollo astronaut dies, no longer will the voyage from the Earth to the Moon be relayed through the eyes of those who saw it.  Instead, we leave to our children images of the fantastic voyage from the pages of a history book, hoping fervently that their imaginations and creativity will be inspired by the memory of 12 pairs of boots that once walked the surface of another world.

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