I have just finished reading Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff for the third time. Unlike previous reads, however, this one was for a class. An interesting choice, I thought, since every time I’ve ever referenced the book in a paper I’ve been chewed out for using a non-academic source. My retort has always been that The Right Stuff fills a void that standard academic history texts can’t fill: Wolfe brings the human element to the forefront of his retelling of the Mercury program, not to mention brilliantly captures the surrounding excitement that gripped the nation.
In reading The Right Stuff, I kept the question of rationales for the pursuit of manned spaceflight in the back of my mind. Though I’ve certainly been conscious of the enthusiasm within America during the early space program prior to this reading, it struck me that the collective will of a nation to achieve a technological end is something firmly in the past. I’ve said before that I am part of a generation for whom spaceflight is the norm; the Space Shuttle has always been around, longer than I have in fact. But how many people actually care? Spaceflight (and specifically NASA’s past, present, and future missions) is on my radar, but can the same be said for the average American who’s paying for it?
Let me use the proposed manned missions to Mars as an example. Steve Pyne and I were recently talking about the proposed plans to terraform Mars in anticipation of a human migration off the Earth. We both share the opinion that such an undertaking would not make the best use of NASA’s funds or resources. Terraforming an expensive and difficult proposition, and a manned mission is likewise expensive and dangerous. There just isn’t sufficient reason to justify such an undertaking right now. And so I started to wonder: when would be the right time for a program on such a grand scale?
I’m not convinced that natural human curiosity or the need to pursue immortality of the human race is enough motivation to really make a manned Mars project happen. Does this kind of technological undertaking, on the scale of the Apollo program, need an adversary? Is this the drive that will turn the theories of a Mars program into reality? The desire to know more about the solar system and the universe is nothing new. Serious proposals for interplanetary flight have been around for over a century. Scientists published their proposals and theories and in many cases founded or joined rocketry clubs like von Braun and the Verein fur Raumschiffahrt (Society for Space Travel). But it wasn’t until the space race that these rocketry pioneers were able to translate their theories into practice and really send rockets into interplanetary space. It’s like Wolfe said: funding makes the bird go up. No bucks, no Buck Rogers.
But even if there was suddenly an adversary big enough to divert huge percentages of government funding to the space program to make a Mars program a reality, it wouldn’t be sustainable. Once the feat was accomplished, funding cuts would kill any future applications, just like with Apollo.
So, what environment is needed to sustain a manned space program? If the average American displayed “Apollo-era enthusiasm” for man’s continued presence in space, would a Mars program be in the works? I am of the opinion that there are too may problems that need fixing to justify the money to send a handful of men to Mars, even if it is an awe-inspiring technological feat. I would sooner get behind Canadian-style healthcare in America than a manned mission to Mars… but I digress.
Maybe a bunch of wealthy Texans wanting to get in the history books should band together and privately fund a NASA-based Mars program. Yee-haw.