Moon Shots and Sputnik Moments: Careful What You Wish For

March 20, 2011
Next month we’ll find references to “Moon Shots” splashed everywhere, as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first human space flight. In May, we’ll celebrate President Kennedy’s announced goal of “sending a man to the Moon and returning him ...

Next month we’ll find references to “Moon Shots” splashed everywhere, as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first human space flight.

In May, we’ll celebrate President Kennedy’s announced goal of “sending a man to the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” before 1970.

There will be no shortage of pundits who will say that all America needs to break out of its current malaise is a new “Moon Shot”. President Obama made reference to such a notion when he spoke of “Sputnik Moments” in his recent State of the Union Address.

While all this sounds good, some realism is needed, especially since NASA's manned-launch program is ending this year with the retirement of the Space Shuttles.

The question should be asked: How is it that in 50 years America went from creating the Saturn V rocket- the greatest single thing ever built- and walking on the Moon, to relying on the Russians to put our astronauts into Space?

The answers lie in President Kennedy’s decision and are instructive for anyone in a leadership position today.

A few months before, in his famous “ask not” inauguration speech of January 1961, the President was quite conciliatory to the Russians, who were already far ahead in Space. Kennedy wanted “to explore Space together”. It fell on deaf ears in Moscow.

In April, the Russians put the first man in Space, widening their lead. The response was overwhelming: European allies questioned American ability and Congressmen believed the Soviets were preparing to “paint the Moon red”.

Two weeks later, the Bay of Pigs fiasco unfolded, further embarrassing the new President. Many were wondering if Kennedy wasn’t already a failed leader. He needed to do something big: to get out of the doghouse and seize the initiative.

The moment came in early May when Alan Shepard became America’s first astronaut in Space. In a frenzy of emotion, seeing a great opportunity to revive himself, the President unleashed a process that led him to call the Moon Shot three weeks later. America was energized and the national goal was set.

However, the next 24 months saw regular concerns emerge from the President about the rising, staggering costs of the Apollo Program and his impulsive decision. In a meeting with his NASA team during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, Kennedy said, “he wasn’t that interested in Space” and wanted to know if there was a way to change course. After the thaw with the Russians began in early 1963, Kennedy clearly was a man who wanted out. The estimated $300 billion price tag for Apollo (in today’s Dollars) was overwhelming Kennedy’s domestic and foreign policies goals. Sticker shock had firmly set in.

His assassination later that year leaves us wondering whether Kennedy might very well have canceled or redrawn the Apollo Program if he would have been re-elected in 1964. We’ll never know. Lyndon Johnson would only consider canceling Apollo “over the Dead President’s body”.

Walking on the Moon in 1969 was one of the great accomplishments in all of human history. No doubt about it. But, as President Kennedy quickly learned, the way the decision was made had repercussions – many of which we still feel today.

America’s burgeoning space program was quickly cannibalized to support the goal of the Moon. Nothing else mattered. A vast infrastructure across the world was constructed to meet the goal, and much of it remains in place today- offering very little real value to American science and costing billions of dollars each year to maintain.

Because of the legacy costs of the Apollo Program, the Space Shuttle Program and International Space Station were done on the cheap and no extra money was available for anything else.

Yes, we landed a Man on the Moon and returned him safely to the Earth. But had we not been so damn rushed to do it, at the expense of all other activities related to space science, we could have done so much more.

Impulse, like pride, has its place. Yet, deliberation and thought for a decision maker will most often carry the day.

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