Campaign '08, NASA, Other

The last man on the new plan

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to participate in a “bloggers’ roundtable” organized by the Discovery Channel with Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan. the event was intended to promote their current documentary series about the space program, “When We Left Earth”, but the door was open to other questions about Cernan and the past and future of the space program. So, I asked him his thoughts on how the key players—NASA, the White House, and Congress—were doing on the Vision for Space Exploration to date, nearly four and a half years since its announcement, and any concerns he might have about the upcoming change in administrations.

Cernan, while disappointed with the slow pace of activity, was generally pleased with what the agency and key political actors have been doing. NASA, he said, “has done what they could right with the funding they have available.” As for Congress, “There’s a lot of support in Congress, on both sides of the aisle” for continuing to spend money on space, he added. In response to an earlier question, though, he said that the Shuttle-Constellation gap bothered him “quite a bit” but that he wasn’t sure what could be done about it.

Turning to the presidential campaign, Cernan became more critical. “Right now you haven’t heard one word in either primary, or probably won’t in the general election, about space,” he said. (One can argue that, while space hasn’t gotten the attention of big issues like Iraq or the economy, it has been mentioned more than one might have anticipated going into the campaign.) You do hear a lot of talk about education, he said, but education requires activities that will stimulate people to want to learn, such as space.

Cernan was particularly concerned with Barack Obama, saying that he would “basically… slow down the space program”, an apparent reference to the statement in the campaign’s education policy about delaying Constellation for five years. “I think it would go further than that, I think it would be slowed down for a decade or so,” he said. “For a number of reasons, quite frankly, I’m just not, for lots of reasons, politically and ideologically, as well as the space program, I’m not too excited about the potential of him being the President of the United States.”

Cernan was more optimistic about McCain, noting their shared background as naval aviators. “I think he’s got a better appreciation for the significance of technology” because of that experience, Cernan said.

Politicians in general, though, he said, don’t appreciate the impact Apollo had on the American people forth years ago. “The politicians of today, particularly the candidates for the presidency, have got to realize what that [Apollo] did to the American people at a time when we were down on ourselves.” Later, he said, “quite frankly, I’m not so sure we’re not in the same place today as we were then” and thus in the need of a morale boost like that provided by Apollo.

“Going back to the Moon and going on to Mars is going to be an international program, but we need to be the guy out front,” he said. “And if the presidential candidates don’t realize that, it’s going to be a long, hard summer.”

21 comments to The last man on the new plan

  • “…what that [Apollo] did to the American people at a time when we were down on ourselves.”

    Sorry, Gene, but speaking as someone who was profoundly excited by the process of Apollo and profoundly thrilled by the landings themselves… for all that, it really didn’t make me feel better about the war in Southeast Asia, or assassinations, or urban riots, or the emergence of the domestic “culture war” that’s still with us today after many morphings, or the economy tanking under the load of tax cuts + guns + butter + Great Society + Apollo.

    All those things really weren’t fungible, as the economists say: they involve many independent axes of capability and judgment, so a plus here doesn’t counter a minus there. I think most people in 1969 were aware at some level of the logical type error in “If we can put men on the moon, surely we can [cure cancer] [eliminate poverty] [bring peace on earth]…”

    Even in 1961, JFK’s “we do it because it’s hard” [i.e. to feel good about ourselves] wouldn’t have won Congress’s support without the parallel Cold War message of “we do it to soothe the sting of Sputnik and Gagarin and the Bay of Pigs, to show the world that our system can out-perform the USSR’s.” Except for those who have adopted the Yellow Peril to replace the Red Menace, to believe that what we do or don’t do in space is the #1 determinant of how Americans feel about their country, or of how the country is seen around the world, is to occupy (with a handful of aging astronauts) a strange little bubble.

  • GRS

    The strongest impetus for Apollo was the perceived threat of Soviet technological might. Unlike others, I also feel that this was the principal motivator for the politicians at that time, as opposed to crass political opportunism. (Although this was probably not the case for LBJ.)

    The grandiose arguments first promulgated by Von Braun and echoed by Griffin, Cernan et al are not sufficient for investments on a national scale. I have no problem with people placing their personal fortunes on the line to pursue what they view as a noble special goal, such as putting humans on the Moon and Mars ASAP. But I do oppose the government funding it when it cannot be justified against less costly alternative approaches to ensuring national security and economic well-being.

  • MarkWhittington

    The past can often be seen in rose colored glasses or perhaps with time come perspective. Whichever.

    I suspect that there are a lot of people in their sixties who sneered at Apollo when it was happening, who now remember it as the greatest thing ever accomplished in their lives. I think the fact that we did land on the Moon during a time of war, riots, and rampant liberalism suggests that maybe we’re worth something as a species after all.

    The pity of it all is that we stopped. So maybe the malaise won out after all, at least for a time. It is still a black mark on our civilization.

  • Apollo, Apollo, Apollo.

    It’s always about Apollo.

    Sorry guys, but I’m really not interested in fixating on the past. I was about 2.5 years old, propped up in front of the TV when we landed on the Moon. It’s not real for me, it’s history.

    I don’t deny the achievement or lessons to be learned. But it’s tough to make forward progress when you’re stuck looking backwards.

    I’m more interested in tomorrow’s Moon (see, for example, the Lunar Library at OotC) than in yesterday’s Apollo Moon.

  • The situation with Obama is unacceptable. I think his vision of hope for the future and space exploration go hand in hand. He needs to be convinced of this fact. I have been reading space politics, and other space community sites for a few years now. It is clear most, 90% maybe, of the people actually involved in the space business are republican. I have read so many of the “McCain is or only hope” posts, it makes me sad. Sad because if that is the case, we (space fans/industry folk), are all screwed. McCain voted with Bush lock step, and any association with G-Dub is a political death sentence, not to mention the “we’ll be in Iraq for a hundred years ” comment. Mark my words, Obama will be the first African American president.

    Where does that leave our beloved space program?
    Screwed? No! I say.
    The right people with the right credentials need to sit Obama down, and fix upon him the new vision for space exploration.

    Please take this in the right direction. If you don’t agree about Obama as president, fine. I’d like to discuss ways to get to Obama’s mind set. Which arguments do you think might resonate with him?

    My thanks to the Space Politics people for all the articles and information.

    This statement from Cernan might touch Obama’s sensibility:
    “You do hear a lot of talk about education, but education requires activities that will stimulate people to want to learn, such as space.”

  • Someone

    A brief information source for those too young to remember Apollo and the impact it had on America’s spirit in 1968 and 1969…

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/moon/peopleevents/e_1968.html

    The Event that Saved 1968

    Newsman Walter Cronkite remembers the year of Apollo 8: “The whole 1960s really culminating in 1968 were the most terrible decade, undoubtedly, of the twentieth century and very possibly our entire history, even including the decade of the Civil War. America was divided as it never had been since the Civil War and by the Vietnam War, by the civil rights fight.

    “Everything seemed to come to a head in ’68. There were the assassinations of two of the leaders of the more liberal causes. Bobby Kennedy, shortly after winning that election in California that probably would have put him over the top as the presidential candidate that year, and Martin Luther King , of course, in Memphis, was a terrible blow to the entire cause of civil rights. By the summer of ’68 the Democratic convention turned out to be a terrible shambles of violence and counter-violence by the Chicago police… By December the country was pretty far down.”

    That is what Gene Cernan was referring to.

    But course we know that PBS just wants to make America feel good about ourselves.

    BTW, least we forget, Senator McCain’s dad, Admiral McCain played a key role in making Apollo 8 happen.

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/moon/sfeature/sf_inside.html#d

    American troops were fighting in Vietnam and the Navy was planning to give Christmas leave to as many sailors as possible. But to retrieve the capsule, NASA required the cooperation of the Commander in Charge of the Pacific fleet (CINCPAC).

    ……..

    In Hawaii, Kraft addressed an amphitheater full of captains, admirals and generals from every branch of the military. The man he had to convince was Admiral John McCain, CINCPAC, whose fighter pilot son was being held as a Vietnamese prisoner of war.

    …….

    “There was complete silence in the room for maybe five seconds. McCain was smoking this big long cigar, and all of a sudden he stood up and threw it down on the table.

    “‘Best damn briefing I’ve ever had. … Give this young man anything he wants.

    FYI Senator McCain’s father was a strong supporter of Apollo, As he told the Apollo 11 crew, as noted by James Hansen in First Man, he would have given anything to have taken their place on a flight to the Moon.

    Personally I think this explains a lot about Senator McCain’s tough love for NASA, namely his disappointment in NASA failing to live up to the potential demonstrated in Apollo. Imagine what someone like Admiral Steidle would accomplish in salvaging the VSE as NASA administrator?

    Senator McCain may not be as eloquent as Obama, but people who are doers versus talkers rarely are.

  • Donald Ernst

    As some one who was 11 at the the time of apollo 11, who has always supportted manned space flight and has done a life time of study on the subject, I can tell you in my oppinon that the only time Americans have supported the space program was right before Mercury and during Mercury. By the time the Gemini phase started, support dropped rapidly. At the time of Apollo about 30% of the population supported it. Another 30%-40% was indifferent, unware or slightly hostile. The rest were solidly againist it. These ranged from the hippies that would evolve into our current envriomentalist fanatics to people like my grandparents who just could not understand it and were I think afraid of it.

  • Bob Mahoney

    Mr. Ernst,

    What is the source of your data?

  • Data Man

    Data? Wh needs data? He doesn’t need any data when he can just make things up as he goes along. His use of the terms ‘hippies’ and ‘environmental fanatics’ should have been your first hint.

  • Ken: Apollo, Apollo, Apollo. It’s always about Apollo.

    Well, yes, Apollo is known to have worked in achieving its stated goals, both politically and technically — which is more than we can say about most of the other strategies that have been proposed or attempted to achieve large goals in space. Maybe there _is_ a technical and political lesson or two there to be learned

    – Donald

  • We’re seeing here the takes of various generations on NASA, Apollo and to some extent what followed.

    Cernan was born in 1934. He’s old enough to remember WW II and Korea. He became an adult in the 1950s — a relatively quiescent time in American history. Brown vs. Board of Education and urban renewal were starting to shake things up, but the real explosions happened in the 1960s.

    Cernan and people his age saw the United States overcome adversity as young people, whether it was the Depression or WW II. The beginning of the space age was literally the harbinger of a future without limits.

    Even some of us born somewhat later (1945 in my case) grew up with a sense of incredible futures. That started changing in the 1960s because so many things that affected us started going wrong. The large expansion of higher education awakened minds — but all too often without the resources needed to fully develop said minds. Vietnam finished ripping the country apart. The stagflation of the 1970s was a real killer for young adults. Many of us thought our lives were going to be worse than our parents.

    The post Apollo generation hasn’t seen the triumphs we older people have — except as history lessons. It’s interesting to me that two new heroes of the NewSpace crowd are Elon Musk and John Carmack. Musk showed some rebelliousness in quitting a physics Ph.D. program in two days. And Carmack? Well, he wound up a juvenile home in his teens for stealing computers from school. He dropped out of college after one year to make a living creating computer games like Doom and Quake.

    If these mutterings interest you, try reading my blog posting A Few Observations. It has considerably more analysis comparing the generation born in the 1940s and the post Apollo generation.

  • Well, yes, Apollo is known to have worked in achieving its stated goals, both politically and technically — which is more than we can say about most of the other strategies that have been proposed or attempted to achieve large goals in space. Maybe there _is_ a technical and political lesson or two there to be learned.

    But its goals, and the urgency of meeting them, were different than today’s, as are the political and budget constraints. Which is why Griffin’s attempt to redo it is turning out to be such a disaster. And in fact we’ve only had one strategy since, which was based on Apollo’s success–give NASA a mandate to build some huge new system, and provide it with budget, but never quite enough. There is a fundamental flaw with this strategy, and giving NASA the lead on VSE was the administration’s biggest mistake.

  • Rand, I don’t disagree with most of that, but most of us here do seem to be looking for some new Apollo project to lead to cheap access to orbit, rather than letting it evolve from the existing vehicles by creating bigger merkets for them. If you are going to do the former, you’d better look at how it worked in the past. I agree that Apollo is not a good model for here and now (thought NASA’s problems with the VSE have more to do with the technical solution chosen by Dr. Griffin than with the idea of the VSE as it was being implemented by Mr. O’Keefe).

    – Donald

  • Donald Ernst

    Mr. Mahoney,
    As I stated in my above message, this is my opinion based on my personal memory of the time and from a lifetime of intense interest. I have read of polls taken at the time although I hardly have them at hand. Iam just commenting on the article, not attempting to score in some debate with data man.
    There is a book which might shed some light on this subject, I’ve never read it and I have not searched the net for a copy but it’s called the Reluctant Spacefairers, I don’t the author or publisher but it was written in the !960′s or early 70′s.

  • Someone

    Meanwhile a more recent poll shows support for NASA and exploration.

    http://sev.prnewswire.com/aerospace-defense/20080617/LATU50917062008-1.html

    The 2008 Gallup Poll shows more than 52 percent of those surveyed would support an increase in space exploration funding.

  • …most of us here do seem to be looking for some new Apollo project to lead to cheap access to orbit, rather than letting it evolve from the existing vehicles by creating bigger merkets for them

    Well, I’m not. I think that those who are are fooling themselves, and have not learned from history.

  • Sorry, the second graf in the post above was mine. The first was Donald’s.

  • Bob Mahoney

    Mr. Ernst,

    I’m not out to score points in a debate. I just wanted to know your data source because my own impression and readings (I too am a lifelong spaceflight devotee, albeit 5 years behind you on the age scale) disagree with your opinion/assessment, in particular the notion that 30 to 70 percent of the public might have been hostile to space exploration by the mid-60s. I am always wary of cited polls (as Disraeli said, “There are Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics”), so when you quoted such specific numbers that went against my own impressions I was curious regarding their source.

    Contrary to your recollections/impressions, I believe (based on my own early recollections & extensive reading) the public was still enamored of spaceflight and the virtue of technological progress right up and through Apollo 11′s landing. While they may not have been following every detail to the extent they had during Mercury (in part due to the media’s lessening of their coverage and the lack of freshness to the exploits), most still viewed Gemini and Apollo as something we ought to be doing and they paid attention when major milestones were achieved.

    Perhaps your perceptions have been colored by then-media coverage of politicians and activists such as Walter Mondale & Ralph Abernathy, who were able to hook the ears of journalists in search of contrary copy for their newspapers. Abernathy’s protest march on Cape Canaveral during the launch preparations of Apollo 11 garnered some press but it hardly represented 30-60% of the American people.

    And I would offer that the anti-technology bias of which you speak didn’t pervade the greater public’s mindset until the early to mid-70s, after the environmentalist movement (an underlying tenet of which had always been that industrialization & technology are bad) had (ironically) made huge inroads into the public’s consciousness on the coat-tails of Apollo 8′s December 1968 Earthrise image.

    While some older folks have always distrusted “newfangled technology” (I have an aunt who can offer an earful on this point), until the early-to-mid 1970s the majority of Americans still held to the belief (culturally, it was almost “American” to do so) that advancing technology would improve our standard of living and serve to protect us militarily. [The shock of Sputnik was all about this mindset and how it had been shaken to its roots; it didn't get dislodged as an American value/presumption until the strife of the late sixties gave way to the malaise of the early 70s—colored, in part, by the anti-technology attitudes of the growing environmentalist movement and the seeming inability of our high-tech military to win decisively in Vietnam, both of which didn't grab hold of the wider public until 1972-73.]

    BTW, according to the review at the following link (I haven’t read the book myself either), “The Reluctant Spacefarers” does NOT appear to be a reference that would shed light on (much less support) your points.
    (http://ocw.mit.edu/NR/rdonlyres/5D9FE549-0CFE-4042-B54B-AFFBDBDEF6D0/0/bok_rev_gillespi.pdf)

    I personally still hold McDougall’s “The Heavens and the Earth” to be a superior reference, in particular when read in concert with the NASA History Series (especially the program & center histories). [Speaking of references, Cernan's "The Last Man on the Moon" is an enjoyable read that provides excellent insight regarding his own outlook at the time.]

    As for the other primary theme of this thread, I too am all for expansive exploration and exploitation of the solar system, but I’m not out for an “Apollo-like Program” per se. As Rand notes, Apollo definitely isn’t the model. Apollo existed and succeeded in its way because it was of its own time, a very unique set of circumstances (geopolitical, cultural, technical) that aren’t likely to repeat themselves. “Spaceflight and the Myth of Presidential Leadership” (edited by Launius & McCurdy) is an excellent reference addressing this question and how it fits into the greater historical tableau.

    But to bring about more extensive solar system exploration (govt & private), we’re going to have to do a better job of engaging the public. While I disagree with the chronology and precise estimates of Mr. Ernst’s assessments regarding public opinion on space, I don’t disagree with the core of his overall point.

    It has been a long time since the public has clamored for major efforts in space, and without (at the least) more public interest, we will continue to face an uphill battle securing public monies, implementing coherent strategies, and generating tech-leveraged innovations that will advance our moving outward to explore new destinations and exploit immense resources—and thereby improve life for everybody.

    Warmest regards.

    Bob Mahoney

  • anonymouspace

    “FYI Senator McCain’s father was a strong supporter of Apollo, As he told the Apollo 11 crew, as noted by James Hansen in First Man, he would have given anything to have taken their place on a flight to the Moon…

    Senator McCain may not be as eloquent as Obama, but people who are doers versus talkers rarely are.”

    Where’s the logic chain? Exactly what has McCain done here that would qualify him as a “doer”? Giving a junior credit for something his father did (especially 40-odd years ago) doesn’t turn the junior into a “doer”.

    McCain was one of my two two picks for the Republican candidancy, but let’s not give credit where no credit is due.

    “Personally I think this explains a lot about Senator McCain’s tough love for NASA,” namely his disappointment in NASA failing to live up to the potential demonstrated in Apollo.”

    McCain has been tough on NASA, the VSE, and NASA Administrators in the past, but there’s no evidence that it has anything to do with personal disappointment over the end of Apollo. McCain has a well-established track record fighting wasteful government spending and is well-known for his temper. Either or both of those factors are much more likely to be the cause of McCain’s criticism of NASA, the VSE, and various NASA Administrators.

    “Imagine what someone like Admiral Steidle would accomplish in salvaging the VSE as NASA administrator?”

    Steidle has taken the Rogers Distinguished Chair of Aerospace Engineering at the Naval Academy. It’s not clear that he would leave that commitment to be NASA Administrator (or for any other position). Aside from an unsubstantiated statement in the comments section of this blog that Steidle is advising McCain and a common naval aviator past, there’s nothing else that connects Steidle and McCain. If Steidle were advising McCain on NASA, presumably we would have seen a substantive space policy statement out of the McCain campaign that is consistent with Steidle’s approach to the VSE. We havn’t. And if Steidle is advising McCain, advice doesn’t necessarily equate to political appointment. It’s not even certain that Steidle is a Republican. He was not a political appointee in his prior position at NASA.

    I like Steidle a lot, but I wouldn’t get my hopes up. As much as it pains me to say so, there’s probably just as good a chance or better that Griffin, a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, will remain Administrator under a McCain Administration.

    FWIW…

  • Donald Ernst

    Mr. Mahoney,

    That was a well written response and I thank you for your insight on this subject.

  • SoutherDeb

    “I think he’s got a better appreciation for the significance of technology” because of that experience, Cernan said.

    Does he realize McCain doesn’t know how to use email or computers? Taking this out of presidential politics, can anyone appreciate “the significance of technology” when they’ve said – more than once, in public – that he doesn’t use computers and has no interest in learning?

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