As a child I was inspired by the 1954 Disney Television Show Wonderful World of Color Mars and Beyond with former SS Hauptman, Verner Von Braun. And, in high school and college, I was enthralled, as we all were with the Space Race, the Apollo Program and Moon Landings.
The Space Race was a diversion from Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) and the hair-trigger brinkmanship of the Cold War and the Berlin and Cuban Missile Crises which terrified both JFK and Khrushchev.
It was a clever misdirection from an arms to a civilian race, although there were plans for a secret military moon base, which would prevent a nuclear first strike by staging nuclear ICBM’s on the moon. Since the Moon was days away, a surprise first strike could not knock them out and they could retaliate against the Soviets. Rickover’s untraceable nuclear submarines were developed and performed the same function, and a military moon base, and all its costs was unnecessary. It is unclear, at least to me, whether Kennedy was the sole author of this misdirection or whether the idea came from others.
It is also unclear, at least to me, whether JFK had other, permanent plans for the Moon and, had he lived, that we would be there today.
NASA, which had been born as a semi-military program, and an as such, with the highest priority of an arms race, was born in a military industrial climate of cost is no object or limitation. With Kennedy’s death and the continuation of the Cold War by other means... Vietnam... the moon was forgotten, except by NASA scientists, and essentially defunded. NASA went on, in large part due to the bureaucratic genius of spreading pork into every state and congressional district in the nation, but still retained the culture of cost plus military government type operations.
Its greatest success was in providing the technological backbone for civilian space operations in communication satellites, and military surveillance. Actually, its most important benefit was in interrogating and increasing our understanding of the earth.
With a government-run and funded operation, which included arguably the worst media propaganda and public relations campaign in history, relatively few people came to care about its activities and even the idea of a lunar base became irrelevant to the general public concerned with wars and economics.
NASA limped along, starting and stopping, generating papers, dependent upon the shifting winds of national politics. The military acquisition type cost structure insured that it would always be looking for administration hand-outs for new programs which, while scientifically interesting, had little resonance with the general public. It also codified the thinking that space operations were tightly held and fantastically expensive.
In fact, the three great space initiatives of the Bush and Bush Jr. era were non-starters based on the fact that NASA administrators and scientists could not conceive of programs to be done on do-able budgets. These Presidents announced, then had to humiliatingly withdraw space initiatives. George Bush, senior is quoted as “I got set up!”
Another indication of missed opportunities is in the fact that while Moon Walkers brought back moon rocks, those rocks sat in Johnson Space Center for 30 years before it was realized that they held Helium 3 and that it might just be a valuable commodity...that, with the reasonable funding of fusion research, He3 production might be a fundamental reason for a lunar colony and change the production of energy on earth.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy is in the story of James Hansen, who in 1988 found that climate change would be our greatest threat, but who was inexplicably forced out of NASA, with his work buried and discounted. Why and how that happened is a great mystery to me. And now, another NASA scientist has (rather casually) stated that our coming climate disaster could reduce the world population by as many as 10 Billion people by 2100. That’s Billion with a B. World War II, our greatest known disaster, cost (only) 70 Million deaths....while other credible scientists talk of “Extinction”.
Again, the near criminal incompetence of NASA media failed to alert the world public to what we now know is our greatest crisis, a failure that permitted the great petroleum companies to obfuscate and discount the threat for over a critical 25 years. Their great propaganda machines, and the wholesale capture of an entire American political party has permitted despoliation of the planet for the profits for a few, along with a continued growth of the military industrial complex for a succession of oil wars in the absence of any vestigial political threat from the Commies.