This is part two of a four-part series.
Who can resist the poetry of Humanity's Timeless Outward Urge? Space is the endless frontier, we say--it's in our genes. It's the next inevitable step in evolution. It's our species-level insurance against global disasters. It's the spread of life and intelligence from a pale blue dot to the 99.9...% of the cosmos that isn't Earth. Throw the bone, cue the music, match dissolve to orbit: thank you, Mr. Kubrick.
It's all profoundly moving. It may even turn out to be true. But it's an obstacle to progress, if talk of Humanity persuades us that most actual human beings share our enthusiasm. (Or would, if only there were enough Leadership, enough Vision, enough space advocacy conferences). Zoom in from evolutionary time to the United States, 1965-2005. There's a consistent pattern in polls throughout those years. If people are asked "Should the nation do X in space?" a majority often says yes. But when asked to rank government activities by spending priority, a larger majority puts space way down the list. They did so at the height of Apollo (roughly 4% of federal spending), and they do so today (at the less than 1% typical of the decades since).
A lot of energy goes into lamenting that, and arguing over what went wrong after Apollo. Try Occam's razor instead: perhaps we enthusiasts are part of a majority in thinking new achievements in space are admirable, but a minority in the priority we put on achieving them with tax money. Try facing facts: the pace from Sputnik through Apollo was an exception, not the norm. It was enabled by military missile technology that had already done the hardest part of the engineering. It was funded in a unique Cold War period when everything the US and USSR did was part of a global contest. And Apollo itself was aimed at a specific "flags and footprints" victory within that contest. It was never meant to be a foundation for sustained expansion into space, no matter how much we wish otherwise.
So let's stop wondering who took away Humanity's birthright after Apollo 17. Let's assume that political leaders, who have the strongest possible motivation to assess what the public wants and will pay for, were doing just that in the 1960s, and have been doing just that ever since. To put it bluntly, public support for publicly funded space activity is a mile wide and an inch deep.
That doesn't mean space enthusiasts should stop organizing, proselytizing, and lobbying. It means that we should focus our advocacy on immediate and near-term steps, with realism--not frustrated cynicism--about funding, space policy, and what goes into the sausage. It means that we should stop raking over the past for scapegoats and "roads not taken." (Good night, DC-X... good night, National Aerospace Plane...) And it means that while there may be a planet-killer asteroid out there, until it shows up we're wasting our time trying to sell a lunar or Martian or L5 insurance policy to a species that didn't see the need for a tsunami-warning network in the Indian Ocean until December 27, 2004. As for CO2--no, not going there.
Soon after Apollo 11, Wernher von Braun told an interviewer: "The legacy of Apollo has spoiled the people at NASA. They believe that we are entitled to this kind of thing forever, which I gravely doubt. I believe that there may be too many people in NASA who at the moment are waiting for a miracle, just waiting for another man on a white horse to come and offer us another planet, like President Kennedy."
What von Braun said then describes too many of us today. He was not only a remarkable engineer and manager, but a cagey navigator of politics and policy. From Berlin and Peenemunde to Huntsville and Washington, he worked through 35 years of crash programs and budget doldrums. He had a central role in 45 years of communication (and mis-communication) between space enthusiasts and the larger public.
Nobody had the Vision deeper in his bones. Nobody understood better what can and can't be expected from governments in making it happen. In 2005, how many of us have learned from his experience?
Monte Davis is a science and business writer living near Philadelphia. He helped launchOMNI and Discover magazines, and has observed the path from lab to market for twenty years as a communications strategist and writer for leading corporations in IT, telecomm, engineering, and pharmaceuticals.
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