Cover Story - Summer 2019

Our Fate Is in the Stars

Today’s space program still does amazing things, but nothing like Apollo. It’s time to begin again.

By George Musser | June 3, 2019
Apollo 17, the final lunar landing mission, was the first and only night launch of a Saturn V rocket. (NASA)
Apollo 17, the final lunar landing mission, was the first and only night launch of a Saturn V rocket. (NASA)

The Apollo moonwalkers marveled at the golden glow of the lunar mountains, at the green rocks, white crystals, orange soil, brown patina—a palette of colors so surprising that the astronauts kept lifting their sun visors to make sure it was real. From lunar orbit, the landscape basked in the soft bluish glow of earthlight. Dust and airlessness played tricks on the eye. Bright halos ringed the astronauts’ shadows, distant hills seemed right at hand, the horizon was shrunken. Gene Cernan of Apollo 17 said, “You just stand out there and say, I don’t believe what I’m looking at! 

Almost as unfathomable was the scale of the backroom effort. In documentaries such as Moonwalk One and the recently released Apollo 11, camera footage carries you past row upon row of engineers sitting at launch-control consoles wearing ties and chain-smoking. Some 400,000 people worked on the Apollo program. Corporate giants from General Motors to Playtex, motivated less by profit than by pride, asked to join in. What is striking about President Kennedy’s lunar mission speeches is how unhyped they were. Rather than offer easy choices, he played up the difficulty and the expense—not unlike how Winston Churchill had rallied his nation.

The guidance computer alone was a major industrial project. Its program memory was a kind of handwoven fabric or chain mail, made of thousands of metal beads that textile workers strung onto wires. The mission’s absolute insistence on miniaturization and reliability drove computer technology in a way that the desultory demands of earthbound users never had. It set into motion the exponential increase in computing power known as Moore’s law. As journalist Charles Fishman recounts in his new book, One Giant Leap, today’s laptops and phones are descendants of Apollo.

In space, no one can hear your echo chamber. Those who worked on Apollo were not immune to human foibles, such as being a little too fond of their own reasoning, but the mission came first. Fishman recalls disputes over the mission plan. Engineers in Huntsville wanted to fly directly from Earth orbit to the lunar surface. Engineers in Houston wanted to use lunar orbit as a way station. The meetings got heated. NASA commissioned two studies, with the twist that each team had to flesh out the other’s plan. Making the engineers step into each other’s shoes unstuck the debate, and Huntsville came around to Houston’s approach. That one decision ended up saving billions of dollars.

But as much as the Apollo program inspires, it also taunts. The unity of purpose, the technological virtuosity, and the exploratory achievements seem beyond us today—not just in space, but in every domain. I almost wish we didn’t remember Apollo, because the remembrances fill a void. The space program still does amazing things, but nothing like Apollo. The world has made itself a safer and healthier place, but some problems demand direction from the top, and we don’t get much of that.

You don’t have to be a space lover to think so. Apollo had detractors, especially on the political left, who complained that the money should have been spent on fighting poverty. But there never was a straight choice between the two. We could do both—in fact, we did. As Fishman points out, while the U.S. government was funding moon rockets, it was also thinking big in social policy: the Voting Rights Act, the Clean Air Act, Medicare and Medicaid. When it withdrew from space, it pulled back from such initiatives, too. Public investments of all sorts tend to sink or swim together.

Had NASA kept pace, Elon Musk and others wouldn’t be planning missions to Mars. They’d have moved there already.

Space enthusiasts still debate how the space program lost its way, but what is undeniably sad is the waste. The country had made a huge investment in developing the Saturn V rocket, the most powerful ever. Yet even before the rocket lifted off for the moon, budget cuts forced NASA to shut the production line, and when the Nixon administration ended Apollo altogether, two fully functional Saturn Vs were left to rot. (You can still see one of them at the NASA visitors center in Houston.) Imagine, as NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin did in 2007, that the country had stuck with the Apollo-Saturn system rather than abandon it for the space shuttle. Even NASA’s straitened budgets would have been enough to keep flying twice a year to the moon and four times a year to Earth orbit. At the time, the shuttle may have seemed a better deal, with its promise of weekly departures and lower costs. But as wonderful a flying machine as it was, it was deeply compromised and never delivered on either promise.

Where NASA and its political overlords went wrong, by this argument, was in making the switch from hare to tortoise. The urgency of racing the Soviet Union, after the national humiliation of Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, jump-started Apollo. But NASA was unable to capitalize on those special circumstances, and every president reboots its plans. Had it kept up a slow but steady pace, building on its existing infrastructure, decade after decade, it wouldn’t be struggling to re-create that ability today. Elon Musk and other would-be colonizers of Mars wouldn’t be planning to go to Mars. They would have moved there already.

Three decades ago space advocate Robert Zubrin, building on a groundswell of support from academics and space enthusiasts, laid out how to get to Mars using, more or less, Apollo technology. One Saturn V or its equivalent would preposition an empty ship on the Martian surface, along with an automated refinery to fill the tanks from locally harvested ingredients. Once astronauts were sure their return ride would be ready, they would set out from Earth on a second Saturn. In a new book, The Case for Space, Zubrin argues that Musk, Jeff Bezos, and others who are pouring their fortunes into rocket development—the so-called NewSpace movement—are making this plan possible again. New commercial rockets would allow not just interplanetary travel but intraplanetary travel: suborbital flights from New York to Beijing in under an hour for the same price as a first-class airplane ticket today.

Sometimes you get the sense that Zubrin and others reverse the causality of their arguments. How nice it would be for space flight to be cheap—therefore it must be so. It’s easy to be skeptical. Too easy. Zubrin is over-optimistic, but he has to be. Otherwise you can’t get anything off the ground—or do anything in life, really. If people were being rational, they’d never apply to selective colleges or start families, either. Perhaps the real question about NewSpace, though, is whether it is repeating the mistake of acting like hares when we need tortoises. Too much rides on a few men; the projects have yet to transcend their founders. American business is as bad as our political culture at playing the long game.

Human consciousness glimpses the flow of events through a narrow crack. We directly perceive events that occur over a second or so, and our attention span stretches to minutes, if we work at it. Anything faster or slower is an abstraction to us. In so many other ways, technology expands our native perception and lets us see things that are smaller, bigger, farther, fainter. But when it comes to temporal awareness, technology has narrowed our range. Why does it always drive us faster? Couldn’t it also slow us down? Our conception of the present moment suited the setting in which we evolved, but it is hindering our survival today. For lack of temporal prostheses, it’s no wonder we have trouble staying the course in space or dealing with slow-building problems such as climate change.

When people 50 years hence look back on our era, what will both inspire them and make them wistful? I think they will see today as a golden age of discovery in many areas of science and technology, but especially in astronomy.

In 1981 the Cornell University astronomer Martin Harwit analyzed the pace of discovery in his discipline. He counted 43 major discoveries, from comets (recognized as such in 1577) to gamma-ray bursts (discovered in 1967). Nearly two-thirds had been made since 1900. Indeed, the state of cosmic ignorance in 1900 is hard for us to appreciate today. Back then, the other planets in our solar system were little more than dots. People had not looked beyond visible light to ultraviolet, x-ray, and radio spectrum. They did not know that stars are giant nuclear reactors, that we live in one galaxy among billions, or that the universe is expanding.

Astronomers made those discoveries by extending the range of their observations: wider swaths of spectrum, higher resolutions, spans of time both longer and shorter, new species of particles. In short, they explored not just physical space, but also possibility space. Harwit defined a new discovery as a phenomenon clearly distinct from anything else in possibility space. Not only was the pace of discovery increasing, but so too was the pace of rediscovery—when a known physical phenomenon is found in a new region of possibility space—indicating that there is only so much novelty out there. Harwit concluded that astronomers had already made about a third of the discoveries they ever would. His estimate counts the known unknowns, or to be more precise, the knowable unknowns. For astronomers to discover something, a particle or other vector of information must reach us on Earth and leave a trace in our instruments, and there are only so many types of these.

Harwit’s book Cosmic Discovery fell out of print but was reissued this year by Cambridge University Press. In a new foreword, he says his analysis helped NASA justify its program of Great Observatories: the Hubble Space Telescope and its counterparts for gamma rays, x-rays, and infrared light. The agency wasn’t just launching telescopes higgledy-piggledy. It was systematically searching possibility space. Astronomers now survey the sky by every means known to physics, including neutrinos and gravitational waves. I caught up with Harwit, and he said the rate of discovery since 1981 has quickened in line with his prediction. How lucky we are to be living through peak astronomy.

The pace of discovery has transformed two branches of space science in particular. Cosmology, which considers the universe in its entirety, has gone from loosely constrained theorizing to a precise quantitative science. The vast bulk of the universe, it seems, consists of wholly new kinds of substances: dark matter and dark energy. They have proved delightfully resistant to explanation. Astronomers have tried to capture particles of dark matter using special detectors. No luck. Many thought the Large Hadron Collider would generate the stuff. It hasn’t.

Meanwhile, astronomers have discovered more than 4,000 planets, and counting, beyond our solar system. The unanticipated diversity of these worlds will keep theorists gainfully employed for generations. Astronomers are measuring their atmospheric composition, and the day is not long off when we will have pictures of continents and oceans on some distant Earth. And that is our surest route to discovering life elsewhere in the universe—or casting doubt on it.

What makes cosmic life such a mystery, on a par with dark matter and dark energy, is that, arguably, we should have seen it already. Living things had plenty of time to evolve and fill the galaxy before Earth was even a coagulating dust ball, yet we have found no evidence of them: no traces of visitation, no confirmed radio transmissions, no waste heat. Harwit’s analysis heightens this puzzle, known as the Fermi paradox. Astronomers have gone through a sizable fraction of what the universe has to offer and still haven’t seen anything they can’t explain through natural causes.

It is unsettling. Either we are the first, or aliens are hiding out of fear, or intelligent beings always self-destruct. If you think our present political leaders are scary, imagine a galaxy full of them. Scientists such as Seth Baum, Adam Frank, David Grinspoon, and Robin Hanson see a lesson here for humanity. If we are staring out into a giant graveyard, it does not augur well for our own future. But if we were to detect advanced life forms elsewhere, it would give us hope that we can find a way out of our own crises.

We don’t know how all this will turn out, and future generations will envy us for that. But they will have no shortage of things to thrill them in their own time. Astronomy has a finiteness to it because it relies on passive observation; its possibility space is fixed. But other sciences are open-ended. In biology, evolution never ceases to create fresh surprises. In physics, experimentalists are free to invent new materials and even artificial atoms. One day, if the constants of nature can be manipulated, as many physicists suspect, we might learn to create entire new realities to explore. Not every generation may get to see a human walk on the moon, but each will have good reason to lift its visor and wonder whether what it is looking at can possibly be real.

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