The End of the Apollo Culture? What a Shame

by





Last week, John M. Logsdon, in his article “The End of the Apollo Era — Finally?” [Commentary, July 5, page 19], was celebrating U.S. President Barack Obama’s new space policy. He was pleased that we were, in his view, finally abandoning an outdated approach to spaceflight represented by the Apollo program. Has John Logsdon been locked in his ivory tower for the last 40 years? Has he not noticed that the management culture responsible for some of history’s most extreme challenges has been steadily eroding for the past 30 years?

Logsdon indulged in rationalizing for a society that seems less and less capable of measuring up to the motivation, inspiration, challenge, risk acceptance and accomplishments of Apollo — blaming today’s shortcomings on the past. They couldn’t be due to deficiencies in our present-day culture, could they? Those of us fortunate enough to have personally experienced the golden age of spaceflight have watched NASA (along with the rest of our society) as it has slid downhill since the late 1970s. A tragic loss for our country has been the loss of commitment, our willingness to accept risk and desire to be the pre-eminent nation in the exploration of space.

In Logsdon’s judgment, “Apollo’s impacts on subsequent U.S. human spaceflight activities … have been on balance negative.” He sees the Apollo influence as so last century. If Apollo’s impact “on balance” has been negative, why are space program supporters today yearning for the “good old days” for our human space program?

The steady move away from the 20th-century Apollo-era approach to human spaceflight has not been an improvement. A new approach to human spaceflight may make political and/or diplomatic sense in some quarters, but it would come at the cost of exploration and human spaceflight.

International cooperation is fine, but it should never come at the cost of America’s leadership. That leadership is what has transplanted liberty and freedom around the globe. Given the global terrorism that has marked the beginning of the 21st century, I don’t think liberty and freedom have become outdated.

Any political or diplomatic openings should not compromise American strategic space objectives vis-à-vis other space-motivated countries. While Logsdon finds it distressing to contemplate America remaining the pre-eminent space-faring nation, I yearn for the strategic, technological and economic benefits associated with that position.

Logsdon says, “Apollo was aimed at beating the Russians to the Moon; it was not propelled by a long-term vision of space exploration.” Yes, the goal of Apollo was beating the Russians to the Moon, but NASA, the agency, was charged with leading in the exploration of space.

The Apollo model was a lot more than “setting a date to arrive at a specific destination,” as Logsdon refers to it. He doesn’t seem to understand that winning the space race was made possible by the NASA management team. Its management standards, culture and systems at the time made nearly impossible tasks look routine and easy.

That team moved on to develop the greatest and safest U.S. manned spacecraft ever — the space shuttle orbiter. The 1970s also marked the loss of one ingredient essential for space exploration —- a willingness to pay the price. While the utilization of space has maintained a steady upward course, the funding for space exploration has become a poverty case. The lack of political support (translated as funding) we see today can be traced back to the administration of Richard Nixon in the early 1970s.

The space program of the last 40 years may have been initiated by the symbolism of a space race, but our principal return is not symbolic. America’s economy has been driven for decades by the technology we developed to overcome the obstacles we encountered in exploring space.

No one I know at NASA has been trying to “recreate those by-gone moments” of Apollo. Orion may have been a throwback (“Apollo on steroids”), but it was an attempt to optimize the hardware for a specific mission. And if we had the Saturn 5 launch vehicle today, we would not be talking about developing a new heavy-lift launch vehicle. We have been making use of some of the rocket engines and the large infrastructure developed for Apollo. But these are only hardware.

We couldn’t recreate the management culture of Apollo if we wanted to. Virtually everything has changed, including the atmosphere, the politics, the people, the culture and the pride that comes with motivated people.

Over the years, slowly but inexorably, a variety of NASA leaders have changed the culture and filled management positions with those compatible with the new culture. They got their “new ways of thinking, new people, and new means,” as Logsdon quotes Yale University organizational sociologist Gary Brewer saying of NASA. “The innocent clarity of purpose, the relatively easy and economically painless public consent, and the technical confidence [of Apollo] … are gone and will probably never occur again.” When we hear talk of returning to the old culture, it would have to be with personnel who have no experience with, nor understanding of, what that culture was. And we wonder why the public’s enthusiasm has waned? The changes within NASA are a reflection the changes in our society as a whole.

Logsdon, the historian, may have forgotten that the “mystical needs for exploration and conquest” he speaks of have been the driving force in the history of the human race, in general, and America, in particular.

Logsdon thinks we should be excited by “a five-year period of building the technological foundation for the future … followed by another five to seven years of developing new systems based on that foundation.” All of the NASA research programs cited as justification for a hiatus from human spaceflight were pursued vigorously during the Apollo years, and are essential for any healthy program of exploration.

In spite of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s mistaken conclusion in 2003 that “new ways of thinking, new people, and new means” had not happened in NASA’s approach to human spaceflight, precisely the opposite was the case. A whole new culture had been established. The management approach in the days of Apollo would have been much more likely to prevent both the Columbia and Challenger accidents.

The further NASA departed from the spirit of Apollo, the closer it got to mediocrity, until we finally arrive at our present-day human space program. What is it? Can anyone (besides, possibly, John Logsdon) favor the space exploration program of today over that of the 1960s?

You’ve heard it before. It takes three things to explore and conquer space: the technology, the money and the political will to do it. We have never been short on the technology front, but NASA has been on a starvation diet for funds for the past several decades. If the new space policy is allowed to stand, we will be telling the world that we no longer have the political will to lead in space exploration, as well.

 

Walter Cunningham is an Apollo 7 astronaut, author of “The All-American Boys” and numerous articles on space and the environment, and a consultant on space matters.