Guest Blog: Human Spaceflight on the Brink of Extinction? What Might We Learn from the 1967 Planetary Science Crisis

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Senior space community advocates, leaders, members and pundits have been disagreeing and debating and reaching no consensus in a very public quarrel over the future of human spaceflight. This argument has become so desperate that for the first time since the beginning of the space age, the United States has the potential to end the current human spaceflight program indefinitely without clear plans for a follow-on. Is U.S. human spaceflight on the brink of extinction? Since President Obama’s declaration on Feb. 1 — announcing that the Constellation program would end and the United States would rely on an emergent private sector for access to low Earth orbit — numerous high profile spaceflight advocates have come out on both sides of the debate.

In April Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan, and Jim Lovell famously sent the president a letter warning that the proposed change to human spaceflight “destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature.”

Proponents of the plan, among them Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin, counter that the president’s approach will return NASA to its roots as a research-and-development organization while private firms operate space systems. Turning low Earth orbit over to commercial entities could then empower NASA to focus on deep space exploration, perhaps eventually sending humans to Mars or elsewhere.

The debate has largely been over maintaining a traditional approach to human spaceflight with NASA dominating the effort, owning the vehicles and operating them through contractors. That was the method whereby America went to the Moon; it has been proven successful over nearly 50 years of human space exploration. Then there are those from the “new space” world that emphasize allowing private sector firms to seize the initiative and pursue entrepreneurial approaches to human spaceflight. Advocates of the more traditional approach believe that the other side will sacrifice safety; the entrepreneurial approach criticizes the forces of tradition with large, over-budget, under-achieving space efforts. There is no resolution.

Nothing like the rancor of this debate, its longevity, it’s very public nature and its intensity has taken place in the history of human spaceflight. It reminds me of an important lesson learned about politics by the space science community in 1967.

In that instance, based on recommendations from planetary scientists, NASA’s Office of Space Science had formulated a $2 billion program (in 1960s dollars) to search for life on Mars known at that time as Voyager (not to be confused with Voyagers 1 and 2 that went to the outer planets). At the same time Homer Newell, leading the NASA science program, canceled plans for missions to other planets. While a few scientists supported the Voyager mission, many thought it too risky and expensive. A public dispute spilled into the Capitol before the general public.

In the summer of 1967, because of conflicting testimony from scientists and a general shortage of funds due to the cost of the Vietnam War and the needs of the Great Society, infighting among space scientists prompted presidential and congressional questioning and eventually forced NASA to cancel the Voyager project.

In the fall of 1967, frustrated by the congressional action and irritated at this strife, NASA Administrator James E. Webb stopped all work on new planetary missions until the scientists could agree on a planetary program. Thereafter, the scientific community went to work hammering out a mutually acceptable planetary program for the 1970s. Retrenched and restructured, a program emerged that led to a succession of stunning missions throughout the 1970s, even as budgetary pressures and reduced political support remained.

The space science community learned a hard lesson in practical politics from the Voyager fiasco. Most important, they learned to resolve their differences in internal discussions, not in public complaints to the media or in testimony before Congress. They also learned that while strong scientific support could not necessarily guarantee political support for a mission, lack of agreement among the space science community would certainly ensure a program’s demise.

It may be that the current crisis in human spaceflight will become the same type of teachable moment for the space community. Failure to reach an internal position in support of a path to the future has fostered the current state of unrest and contention in the policy debate. While the dramatic nature of the shift proposed makes consensus exceptionally difficult, the very public fight ensures continued controversy aired in the media and on Capitol Hill with only a modest chance of success.

If those who care deeply about the future of human spaceflight cannot reach agreement as to a path, why should those tangentially involved, at best, care either? Public opinion polling has long stated that the general public likes space exploration, but that its support is like the Platte River — a mile wide and an inch deep. Hence the difficulty of obtaining even modest increases in the NASA budget every year. This is especially apparent in a context in which the U.S. during the last few years has expanded significantly the national debt even as the nation is unwilling to make funding available for NASA to see its Constellation program through to fruition. What is the problem with $3 billion more per year for NASA when the deficit is so large already? This situation portends deep difficulties for human spaceflight; only a united approach can ensure the future of human space exploration.

The 1967 space science debacle was only resolved when the science community united to support a plan for the future; is resolution in the current debate over human spaceflight only solvable through a convergence of the space community’s priorities? If so how does this convergence take place? Does leadership come from the White House, from NASA, from a professional organization, from some other source? A lot is riding on this process. Obviously, profits for corporations are at issue, but so too is the future of humanity in space.

I sincerely hope that an initiative to bring the parties together for discussions will be successful. Failure to achieve consensus could mean that decisions over the future of human spaceflight might take courses unacceptable to the space community as a whole. Will those committed to human space exploration have to learn the hard lesson of cancellation of its major program as did the space scientists in 1967 before convergence? I hope not. For any new approach to succeed, however, those interested in human spaceflight will have to change perspectives, priorities, and approaches. They do not have to change their values and goals — an expansive future for humans in space — there is agreement almost to the last person on those. While this change will certainly be difficult, it is also critical for a robust future.
 

Roger D. Launius is a senior curator in the Division of Space History at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington. Prior to that he was NASA’s chief historian. Before coming to NASA Launius served in a variety of historian positions with the U.S. Air Force. He earned an M.A. and a Ph.D. in history from the University of Louisiana at Baton Rouge in 1978 and 1982, respectively.