Moon Landing Plus 40 – One Last Step for Mankind?

Reflecting on the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon, Megan McArdle wonders why the space program lost its momentum.  Jim Henley reckons it’s because “space travel is expensive, dangerous, unprofitable and (medically, biologically) kind of” problematic.

I’m old enough to have been alive for the moon walk but too young to remember it.  I admire the adventurism and have a sense nostalgia for it and very much enjoyed “The Right Stuff,” “Moon Shot,” and “From the Earth to the Moon.”   I even got enthusiastic about the first couple of flights of the space shuttle.

Alas, space flight now has the romantic appeal of commercial air travel.  Despite being dangerous as hell, shuttle missions have been ho hum for twenty years; they’re only interesting when they’re tragic.  The space station has only slightly more drama than any other scientific laboratory.

In the old days, our astronauts were heroic men culled from the ranks of military fighter pilots and test pilots; now, they’re mostly technicians.  As rigorous as the selection and training process is — and, again, as risky as actually heading off to space is — most of those who go off to space are the functional equivalent of those of us sitting in the passenger section of a Boeing 777 typing away on our laptops.

Space may be the final frontier but, absent some incredible advance in technology, there are no great manned missions in our near future.  How much of an advance over walking on the moon would walking on Mars really be?  And anything beyond Mars is so far away that it simply doesn’t make sense to try to send human beings there, since it would take years.

Oh, and scientists would rather have the money to fund better telescopes and more efficient ways of studying space.

Frankly, I’m more anxious for the next “Star Trek” movie to come out than I am for the next big manned space project. Although, if we develop warp technology and the Vulcans initiate first contact, I could change my mind.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. JKB says:

    Besides, we’re broke and space flight has an enormous carbon footprint. There is the rockets but also the chase planes, plus the energy consumed by the ground infrastructure. And let’s not forget all those long runways built around the world, just in case the shuttle runs into problems.

    All this for what economic return? In the past, it was a moral imperative in the battle against the Soviets but now that we’ve been to the moon, it is just a very expensive playground for a few dozen scientists with limited return on capital invested. Rich countries can indulge non-productive pursuits, but debtor countries have creditors to pay.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    All this for what economic return?

    Have you checked what proportion of our present economy and, even more importantly, the growth in that economy comes directly from the space program?

    As to “we’re broke”—nonsense. Check the numbers for goodness sake. This is an economic downturn not a cataclysm.

  3. Triumph says:

    The whole idea that men actually went to the moon is an even bigger hoax than Al Gore’s “Global Warming” scam.

  4. Frankly, I’m more anxious for the next “Star Trek” movie to come out than I am for the next big manned space project.

    Mankind is doomed.

  5. mw says:

    No worries. Man’s exploration of space, return to the moon and the colonization of other planets will happen. It is just that it will likely be more optimistic, higher growth, more forward-looking countries than the US that will be the ones doing it. It is more important for us to subsidize failed automobile manufacturers so that we will all have the 35 MPG cheese box death traps we so desperately need for our morning commute.

  6. Michael says:

    All this for what economic return?

    Are you kidding? The place is (literally and figuratively) a gold mine!

    Mankind is doomed.

    No, but I’m afraid America may be.

  7. Ok, bear with me.

    One of the often underappreciated mythologies of America’s founding and rapid growth was that there was always a frontier to spur on those whose ambition and drive could not be met within the constraints of the established towns, cities, societies and cultures. This reinforced the strong streak of individualism we pride ourselves on and helped America avoid much of the sort of class driven stratification that so dogs Europe. The frontier provided the room to grow and experiment and was no mean contributor to what is often called American Exceptionalism.

    Today, the frontier is gone and I see America starting to develop the rigor mortis of Europe as we are Balkanized through the introduction of class struggles (thanks Karl!), and ever greater portions of life require a permit granted by a government bureaucrat. As Captain Kirk once said, “Space, the final frontier.” It is only by opening another frontier that humanity will empower the free spirits and daredeils who aren’t willing to live their lives by another’s leave to dream, invent, rise, fall, thrive, create, and partake freely in the ultimate libertarian lifestyle. And space isn’t just the final frontier, it’s the only frontier left.

    Maybe I read too much science fiction when I was younger, but did you notice how even George Lucas put his space opera heroes on the fringe of scoiety and outside the tightly controlled Federation?

    Ok, bearing point over. Or Bear Down, Chicago Bears, or something.

  8. Alex Knapp says:

    Although, if the Vulcans land and give us warp technology, I could change my mind.

    Vulcans don’t give us warp technology. They make first contact because they detect the warp signature from Zephram Cochrane’s ship…

  9. An Interested Party says:

    …why the space program lost its momentum…

    No more Cold War…no more enemy to beat in the space race…

  10. Steve C. says:

    Do you know what makes this baby go?


    Yeah, no bucks, no Buck Rogers.

  11. JKB says:

    Well, I was raised by my grandmother who came of age during the Depression and she taught me if you’re continually borrowing to meet your consumption, you’re broke. Not only broke but selling your future.

    Charles Austin – The problem is an individual can’t venture out into the space frontier. Strictly limited by law to the select few doing what the government dictates. Now earlier frontiers were first explored via sovereign funding but the potential was realized by individuals seeking their own visions and futures. When space is opened up to all to seek their dreams and fortunes, then we should pursue further exploration.

  12. anjin-san says:

    Going to mars at this point is senseless. We need a reliable orbital capability and a real space station. From there you develop an industrial base, either in orbit or on the moon. From there, out into the solar system. All sorts of resources and opportunities not yet perceived await. The ever growing population of the human race is not going to survive all that much longer bottled up on this planet.

    But some of the above commentators are correct, this country no longer seems to have the vision or drive to get the job done, so it will probably fall to someone else….

  13. RKV says:

    Perhaps you all weren’t paying attention to what Elon Musk and his team did this week. $9 million gets your satellite to LEO now folks. And Steve, no bucks, no Buck Rogers, baby! Shut down NASA. Let Burt and Elon do the job. Infotainment and gummit engineering jobs aren’t what we need. We’re at the point where the Spaniards were, when royally sponsored missions were replaced by those of venture capitalists.

  14. Randy Beck says:

    “space flight now has the romantic appeal of commercial air travel”

    That’s because we’re not going anywhere.

    But we haven’t stopped exploring. It’s just not as much fun when unmanned probes do it.

  15. ken says:

    Why has it lost its momentum? Well, Megan should know. It lost its momentum when people used the same reasoning that they could not vote for someone because they trashed the first amendment (yeah, ignore that it was stupidly upheld by the Supreme Court) and voted for someone that trashed every other amendment…and made it clear that they would shred the Constitution from day one. Sorry Megan… no sympathy for those that keep wondering what happened when you are the living embodiment of the answer.

  16. Dave Schuler says:

    I’m sorry that you grew up in an environment of such ignorance, JKB. Debt and broke are not the same thing. By that standard we’ve always been broke since we’ve always had a national debt and anyone who takes out a mortgage to buy a house is broke.

    Broke is when you borrow to pay off current expenses and have no assets or prospects for paying. We’ve got lots of assets and excellent prospects for paying.

    Right now nationally and in this comments thread we’re engaged in a discussion about differing priorities for spending and different people can have different opinions without one being evil and the other good. Merely different priorities. However, hysteria and handwringing aren’t a positive contribution to the discussion.

  17. Trouble says:

    I had just turned 5 at the time of the Apollo 11 landing, and still remember it like it was yesterday.

    Why keep exploring? Exploration is our first, best destiny as a species. Otherwise, we’d all still be living in the Rift Valley.

    I have thought about this quite a bit and still have no explanation for the loss of national and cultural nerve that occurred after 1969. History will look back at that year as a time at which, having just accomplished the most stupendous feat in human history and while standing on the cusp of even greater things, America inexplicably and spastically turned inward upon itself.