N.B. I have posted additional reflections on the lessons of Apollo for sustaining innovation on the CACM blog.
On Sunday afternoon, July 20, 1969, I rode my AMF Roadmaster bicycle to the local Gulf gas station and asked for their cardboard model of the Apollo Lunar Module. (Some of you will recall that it was originally called the Lunar Excursion Module, whence the common name LEM.) I pedaled home in time to watch the Apollo 11 lunar landing later that afternoon, holding the cardboard model of the LEM in my hands.
It was only years later that I came to understand how perilous that landing had been, due to inadequate lunar images for landing site selection, a critical fuel shortage and an overloaded guidance computer with less power and storage than one of today's engineering calculators. As Apollo 13 later showed, the risks were real. Nonetheless, that day remains burned in my memory and it made no difference to me that the images transmitted from the moon were in black and white, because all we had at home was a black and white television.
I was amazed then, as I am now, that NASA had planned for the astronauts to sleep before venturing to the lunar surface. Fortunately for me, the decided to forgo the sleep period and stepped onto the lunar surface while it was still before my bedtime, as a twelve year old.
It Only Seems Miraculous the First Time
As a budding geek and a voracious reader of science fiction, I was convinced then that the lunar landings were the beginning of humanity's long-term commitment to space exploration. Forty years have proven me wrong. As I noted in Innovation: A Plane of Excellence, my friend Thomas Sterling once posed a question that still haunts me, "In which year of birth (1930 or 1970) would one have had the higher probability of walking on the moon?" We know the answer. What really happened?
We all know the "space race" was a creature of the Cold War. After the Apollo 11 landing, public interest waned quickly, the Vietnam War consumed increasing amounts of the U.S. federal budget, and science had always taken back seat to the race itself. (Harrison Schmitt was the only geologist among the astronauts who walked on the moon.) Many people do not realize that the NASA budget was already in decline at the time of the first landing.
Exploration Touches Something Primal
At the request of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), a panel chaired by Norm Augustine is currently reviewing NASA's human space flight program, with a six month timeline to produce recommendations. We can all debate the cost/benefit ratios of human and robotic space exploration, and I will be the first to argue for the power and value of automated exploration. However, there's something primal about being there. It touches something deep in our psyches, to explore and see for ourselves. More to the point, we spend more money on far less important things.
In a Sunday New York Times editorial, Tom Wolfe captured this conundrum, noting that NASA lacked – in his words – a philosopher, someone who could capture the passion and thrill of exploration and relate that to the public. It's simple really; it's a hunger older than history, a passion never fully satisfied – the eternal desire to discover and to know. Let's go back, and then go beyond – Mars beckons.