POLITICS NOVEMBER 19, 1966
Now that the goal of reaching the moon is within sight, it is time to make a realistic appraisal of the future US space program. Conditions have changed since the day in 1961 when President Kennedy announced Project Apollo. President Johnson does not have the political elbow room to make such a $30-billion decision. The war in Vietnam and the changed domestic scene force the nation to allocate funds on a priority basis.
A critical question faces the US space agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Project Apollo seeks to place Americans on the moon in two or three years and takes up about three-fourths of NASA's $5-billion budget. Because of the long leadtime in NASA work, some of the Apollo contractors have just about finished their jobs. If no follow-on program for Project Apollo is authorized, 100,000 space workers will be out of work in another year. A powerful producer of NASA appropriations has been the space exploits of the Soviet Union. But the influence of Soviet competition is waning and after men land on the moon it will diminish further.
The question of what to do with the US space effort after Apollo really translates to: "What is the value of man in space?" This turns on the relative value of men and instruments.
I confine myself to civilian uses of space, and take the position that there is very little use for man in space if one considers the comparative cost of manned. and instrumented, space missions. Our modern technology with its emphasis on microminiaturization can cram many sensors, data-processing equipment and transmission gear into a small package. The single greatest discovery of the Space Age - the Van Allen radiation belt--was made with only a 30-lb. payload.
Spacecraft designed to take men on extended journeys must provide weighty life-support systems and safety mechanisms. Saturn V weighs 3,170 lbs. fully fueled at launch time. The command capsule to be returned to earth weighs five tons. The thrust required for such a prodigious space vehicle is supplied by burning hydrocarbons and hydrogen with liquid oxygen. This propulsion technology, directly descended from the V-2 of World War II, involves huge tanks, pumps and mechanisms. That's why the space program is so expensive.
Given a choice, most scientists would substitute instruments for men. Scientific, data are acquired by instruments, rarely by man's sense organs. In orbit, he becomes a caretaker of instruments and his very presence on board "bumps off" a ton or so of apparatus which could be put to experimental use.
NASA colonization of the lunar surface would appear to be a logical sequel to Apollo. Presumably this would involve ferry trips from earth to moon, and establishment of semi-permanent lunar stations. A NASA official told a congressional committee last year that it might be profitable to mine gold on the moon. A Saturn V capable of returning a ton of gold to earth has a price tag of about $100 million. To be economic, this space vehicle would have to be available at onehundredth this cost.
I believe that the NASA manned space program must be cut back. I do not see how President Johnson could come to any other decision. Manned spectaculars must give way to instrumented programs, and we must relate space spending to national science policy.
Prior to World War II, the government followed a rather tight policy of non-involvement with the physical sciences. There was no research and development budget as such. Some research funds went to agriculture, but there was little hint in the federal budget that some day $16 billion would be earmarked for research and development. First Hitler, then Stalin, then Khrushchev was responsible.
But no fourth personality has appeared on the world scene to jolt US spending still higher. Mao Tse-tung's Yangtze swim might have had a Sputnik-like impact if he had walked across the river. US reaction could have been to authorize a multi-million-dollar program on anti-gravity research, code-named Project MacArthur. Mao's inability to levitate leaves US research lacking an external stimulus. No sharp increases are in sight for its funding. Given a negative decision on post-Apollo, the R&D budget may turn down for the first time in the past two decades. The globe-spanning reach of ballistic missiles, the uncanny nimbleness of electronic computers and the awesome power of thermonuclear weapons symbolize an ability of applied science to overfulfil military requirements. In effect, the output of science is saturating military demand. The fairly constant military R&D budget for the past six years reflects this fact.
We must keep these facts in mind as we look at NASA's future. Our photographic reconnaissance of the moon was undertaken primarily for support of project Apollo--to help scout out the feasibility of landing on the lunar surface. Photographs have given scientists information about small craters far beyond the resolving power of earth-based telescopes. This information is interesting to scientists, and valuable to specialists, but it would not be sufficient justification in the eyes of legislators concerned with approving NASA appropriations.
When a NASA spacecraft cruised past Mars, it relayed back to earth information about that planet's atmosphere. A scientist-adviser to NASA told the Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences: "Already Mariner IV has given us a new comprehension of the role of higher levels of carbon dioxide in an atmosphere. This alone was worth the price of the flight perhaps many times over." Mariner IV's total cost was $84.7 million.
Over 99.9 percent of observational astronomy, and the near totality of information about our Universe, has been based on telescopes fixed to this planet. Astronomers know that additional earth-based instruments will yield a rich store of new information, and they have proposed a 10-year program, which specified for optical telescopes a total of $68 million.
While astronomers go begging for money with which to build earth-based telescopes, NASA has programmed $300 million for a series of five OAOs--Orbital Astronomical Observatories. The first OAO failed in orbit and this failure cost the equal of three years of federal support to earth-based astronomical research. Some scientists, possibly dazzled by NASA's money wagon, are engaging in a game of astronomical roulette. NASA has showered many scientists with contract money and has been able to fall back on a powerful ally--the Space Sciences Board of the National Academy of Sciences, a NASA-funded group which serves in an advisory capacity to NASA. The National Academy grants a great deal of autonomy to its many boards, committees and councils. In the case of the Space Sciences Board, there is no referendum of this group's recommendations and conclusions to the full membership of the Academy.
The nation's science policy is at a crossroads and scientists ought to take the initiative and make recommendations. I personally believe that the biological scientists bear a heavy responsibility to chart the future. The perfection of certain human organ replacements is less of a challenge than the effort to make a missile system, and the human need is great. A Great Society dedicated to meeting human needs has a profound obligation to apply progress in bioscience on a broad scale.
There is increasing discontent in Congress about its role in rubber-stamping R&D programs as submitted to it by the White House. Yet Congress has not evolved a mechanism for treating research and development as a whole. Delegation of responsibility to many different committees makes a patchwork of research and development policy. A national commission should be established to study the overall problem of setting science priorities, and recommending structural changes in the nation's science establishment. For example, the Atomic Energy Commission is badly in need of reorganization. The National Commission on Science Policy could evaluate the benefits of merging the AEC with NASA to form a single research agency. I would expect that this commission would publish a comprehensive report on the state of US science and technology.
I have asked a number of scientists for their views on what the NASA budget ought to be after Apollo. I have found practically no support for manned space missions. Replies to my budgetary question have ranged from $i to $2' billion per year. These figures apply to the NASA budget after 1970. Such a budget would allow for a vigorous research effort with instrumented space vehicles. I have also found considerable sympathy for converting the US spate program into a truly international project--one in which launch facilities and monitoring stations come under the aegis of the United Nations. The US example has already influenced other nations to allocate funds to space research more for prestige than for scientific benefits. The internationalization of US space research would help such countries attain a more balanced R&D program.
Any talk of a $3- to $4-billion slash in the NASA budget is going to produce a backlash. No government agency likes to be deflated. Furthermore, NASA contracts out about. $3 billion of its work to a dozen US corporations. About 400,000 space workers have their paychecks countersigned by NASA. No wonder that we see impassioned editorials in the trade press, urging a big space program. Here is a modest example from a recent editorial: "We feel space exploration is a necessity rather than a luxury. It is as significant to mankind as any scientific, social or political program on earth. In the long run, it may be even more important than slum clearance, pollution control, mass transportation, universal higher education, medicare and other vital programs."
An aerospace executive, Donald W. Douglas, Jr. predicts "a truly vast improvement in travel by rocket. . . as an acceptable means of transporting people for business [and] vacation. . . ." The other day Dr. Werner von Braun reported: "Excess salinity of the soil in the cotton fields of Texas as a result of irrigation showed clearly in photographs made in the Gemini program." NASA spends $5 million of its budget to advertise and promote "technological fallout" from the space program. The plain truth is that the $5 billion a year that NASA spends takes us on an economic detour. NASA's work concentrates on a form of engineering which is artificial in our economy. Massive structures, tanks, pumps and ground support have little relation to anything germane to our industry. NASA billions have not found a way to get people from city to suburbs or vice versa. And if we want to measure salt in soil, I am certain chemists know how to do it without going into orbit.
There is a multitude of problems right here on earth which science can help solve. The problems are urgent and demand immediate attention. I do not see comparable urgency or immediacy in gaining new knowledge about the solar system and distant stars. A US space program keyed to $1 to $2 billion a year is surely a "fair share" of the total R&D budget.
By Ralph E. Lapp