The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Orion illustration
The success of the Vision for Space Exploration requires motivations that go beyond the tired rationales of the past. (credit: Lockheed Martin)

Not in our stars

“…the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves…”
Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare

The issue of how to gain support for President Bush’s new human space exploration initiatives is a vital one. There is much else going on in the country and in the world that ordinarily would deflect attention and draw off resources from space exploration. However, articles by Jeff Foust and others on efforts to gain support for space exploration typically reveal a failure to properly address a vitally important question.

That question is “Why?”

Why even try to undertake manned space exploration? This is a question so basic that the vast majority of space enthusiasts would never even think of asking it. However, answering that question is vital, because everyone else is indeed asking it.

It is obvious that we have a big problem in terms of human space exploration. The heady days of the ’60s and early ’70s, capped by the Apollo lunar landings, gave way to a period of over five years without any U.S. manned launches. That was followed by decades of Space Shuttle launches in which actual exploration was not even a factor, either in intent or in execution. The shuttle could not go anywhere we had not been before; it could not even go as far.

Now, we are back to something like the ’60s approach again, human space exploration for its own sake. The question is still, “Why?” If we don’t know why we are doing something then we are going to have major problems planning that effort—and have even greater problems in justifying it.

The first thing we have to do is realize that the old, previously used justifications are going to have to be tossed over the side of the boat and allowed to sink out of sight. Let’s face some facts: the justifications we used before not only did not work, they ultimately led to disaster.


First, we are going to have to stop focusing on stunts. What is a stunt? Back in the 1930s, all the way into the 1960s—and, for all I know, even today—a standard attraction at county fairs was motorcyclists riding around the inside of a giant barrel.

If we don’t know why we are doing something then we are going to have major problems planning that effort—and have even greater problems in justifying it.

That was a stunt. People thought it was kinda cool, but no one expected it to lead to anything else. No great industry was built around riding motorcycles in barrels. People did not look at those motorcycles in barrels and say, “This is great! We need to have a place where people can do this year round! Let’s start by putting a big motorcycle barrel in every state capital. Then let’s expand outwards and eventually put one in every town with a population of more than 5,000.” They knew it was just a stunt and didn’t take it seriously.

Likewise, when Lindbergh flew to Paris in 1927 people did not say, “This is great! Let’s do it again next year! And then do it twice the year after that! And by 1940, we’ll have someone flying from New York to Paris in a single-engined airplane every month!” They knew that the flight of the Spirit of St. Louis was nothing more than a stunt, and while they sang songs about the feat, held parades, and generally celebrated the hell out of it, that was all. Lindbergh’s stunt showed what aviation was capable of, and people went about the process of building on that recognition, not simply duplicating it. Regular commercial flights from New York to Paris were more than 30 years in the future.

Face the facts. The Mercury program was a stunt. The Gemini program was a stunt. And the Apollo program was a stunt. President Kennedy’s original challenge for lunar landing had to be done “by the end of this decade” meant that a magnificent stunt was all that could be accomplished. There was not time to develop the basic technologies, techniques and infrastructure that would make manned space exploration safe, reliable, and sustainable, or even to simply actually explore the Moon. All Apollo could accomplish—and that just barely—was to send two men to the surface of the Moon and then bring them back again after a stay of no more than a matter of hours. The “giant leap” was in reality a tiny step away from just grabbing a handful of moondirt and scooting quickly back to Earth, never to return. That was all that was required to prove that the United States was the technological and organizational superior to the Soviet Union, and that was the real objective.

It was a stunt. That does not mean that great engineering wasn’t done, or that tremendous courage wasn’t required, or that good science wasn’t accomplished. But it was a stunt, because it truly was not designed to lead to anything else.

We have to stop thinking of manned space exploration in terms of doing stunts.


The other big thing we have to stop focusing on is programmatics. By programmatics, I mean the management, technical, and political decisions required to create and run a program.

President Kennedy’s original challenge for lunar landing had to be done “by the end of this decade” meant that a magnificent stunt was all that could be accomplished.

Addressing programmatics is essential to running a program, and even to getting one started, but it’s no substitute for the actual vision required to do something really worthwhile. And for large government programs, programmatics quickly boils down to making sure that the freight car loads of crisp, unmarked bills have left Washington DC on schedule and are headed to the correct destination.

If we had emphasized programmatics over real objectives during the building of the interstate highway system we likely would have built stretches of highway in a manner that spread the money around in as equitable a fashion as possible and for as long a period as possible. Thus, we might have ended up building beautiful stretches of highway between such places as Yehaw Junction and Deer Park, between Monk’s Corner and Honea Path, between Checotah and Okmulgee. It would have been politically supportable. It would have been environmentally responsible. It would have been popular with the people employed thusly in every state. And it would have been absolutely useless, because we would not have built a highway system that was good for anything.

The Space Shuttle program was based on focusing on programmatics. After the “stunts” philosophy of ’60s manned space programs wore thin, people searched for a way to keep the trainloads of money coming. Perhaps the results were not exactly useless, but presently we have no plans to do anything like that ever again. Intended to save manned space exploration by ensuring healthy programmatics, instead the shuttle came close to killing human spaceflight once and for all.

The really hard part

Now, here’s the really hard part. Space enthusiasts love stunts. Probably the vast majority of people in the enthusiast community would be delighted beyond words if we just did the Apollo program all over again. They would love to get to see it all in real time and in high-def. Throw in a few cameo appearances from the original cast and you would have a real winner. The biggest crowd I ever saw for a shuttle launch was when John Glenn got a ride.

Meanwhile, space program workers want to focus on programmatics. Workers like to know that they will have a job today, tomorrow, next week, and ten years from now. This is quite natural; everyone wants that. Big disruptions are to be avoided, even if it means improvements in the long term. Back in the ’90s, I recall the chief of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) describing how some of his workers came up to him and said they lacked confidence in the future of their jobs. One worker even said that he was so convinced that there was no future at KSC that he was moving away and getting a job with the textile industry in South Carolina (which probably was not the best of career moves). Space workers may be excited by the nature of their jobs but, like everyone else, they have to be concerned with paying the mortgage and putting food on the table.

So, what this means is that most of the people interested in manned space exploration are exactly the wrong people to ask what should be done and why. We need a better approach, one neither grounded in the attitudes of the past nor based on the short-term desires of the present.


To justify manned space exploration, we have to forget the methods and reasoning of the past and focus on something more basic. We have to address motivation, why human beings do things. A simplistic but useful way to do this is through a concept called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs often is taught in management courses, since it is way of analyzing how humans motivate themselves. The most basic motivation is food; you can’t even think about anything else if you are starving to death. Next up the chain are things like shelter, clothing, and security, followed by companionship and social contacts. Finally when all the basic needs are taken care of you get to the top of motivations: self-actualization.

Most of the people interested in manned space exploration are exactly the wrong people to ask what should be done and why. We need a better approach, one neither grounded in the attitudes of the past nor based on the short-term desires of the present.

Self-actualization means that a person has already been successful in satisfying the lower needs and can focus on intellectual challenges. Examples might be painting, sculpting, writing, learning, teaching, doing research, or starting a business. These are things that don’t need to be done in order to survive but make the person complete; it satisfies a need that is outside that of merely surviving comfortably. It brings to mind the old US Army commercial that urged people to “be all they could be.” In a sense, that is what everyone is trying to achieve in their life.

We need to state, up front and forth with, that manned space exploration represents the ultimate act of self-actualization for the human race in general and the United States of America in particular. We need to say that we need to send humans “out there” in order to feel that we—as a race and as a nation—are complete, individually and collectively. It’s not just about demonstrating leadership. It’s not just about satisfying the questing human spirit. It’s about all those things, but especially, it is about what we should do next after we have satisfied our lower-level needs. We all really think that; let’s not be afraid to say it out loud.

Attempts to focus on the lower-level motivational needs as justification for manned space exploration are doomed to fail. Not only is there a lack of a clear linkage, but we would not be doing manned space exploration unless those lower level needs already had been met. And frankly, we don’t need manned space exploration to meet those lower-level needs anyway.

A few more points

Aside from the big problems of relying on stunts and programmatics, there are a few other oft-quoted justifications for manned space exploration that don’t pass the test as well.

We need to shut up about spinoffs. It was soooo embarrassing in the early ’70s to see an Air Force officer or NASA official come on some TV talk show and point out that space exploration gave us wonderful spinoffs like non-stick frying pans. In the first place, it did not even do that for frying pans. In the second place, any idiot could figure out that of you want something like non-stick cookware it is better to just go develop it than to put a man on the Moon and hope something fell out of that process.

And speaking of spinoffs, quit trying to claim that unmanned programs are spinoffs of manned programs. In reality, if anything, the reverse is true. One Rockwell-supplied bumper sticker in the late 70’s said, “Yesterday we went to the moon. Next we will use space to make life better on Earth.” There were a couple of huge problems with that philosophical approach. First, we did not need either Apollo or the Shuttle to make life better on Earth; we were already doing those kinds of missions before either of those programs came along. Second, the Apollo program did not, by and large, also produce capabilities that were useful for unmanned space programs.

Unmanned space programs don’t give us spinoffs. They give us capabilities that we planned for, such as satellite TV, cheap phone rates, GPS, vital military capabilities, and orbital pictures of weather, among others. Such programs have attained the same enviable status as power and water distribution systems, sewers, the Internet, and highways: people want what they can provide, don’t really care about the details, and don’t expect spinoffs. The Space Shuttle was an attempt to make unmanned space a spinoff of manned space; it did not do either type of program any good.

The stars are very, very hard to reach. That’s not their fault, but our inability to get to them is ours.

Finally, we need to knock off this nonsense about human space exploration serving as a motivator for our children to sign up for science and technology courses. Create a manned space program that is unabashedly described as being self-actualization for the human race, make it exciting, endlessly questing, and with a plan to take us to the stars—and the kids will be there, in droves. On the other hand, if it is pointless as motorcycles orbiting a barrel or capsules orbiting something a bit larger, motivating them is going to be an insurmountable challenge. Casting manned space exploration in terms of helping out education appears to be merely an attempt to placate the most powerful union in the country. That’s probably thought to be good Washington DC politics in some circles, but for us outside the beltway it sounds just plain silly. It’s like justifying billions of dollars of US aid to Africa because our kids like to see elephants in the circus.

The fault is not in our stars

Our failure to properly define the “why” has resulted in manned space exploration wandering in a wilderness of its own making for the last 35 years rather than exploring the vastly greater real wilderness that is “out there”.

The stars are very, very hard to reach. That’s not their fault, but our inability to get to them is ours. President Bush’s manned space initiative is not intended to be business as usual; it’s radical. The President is saying, “Go build the Interstate Highway System that will take us to the stars.” That means looking at things in an entirely different way and then planning accordingly.

Let us promote manned space exploration as what we really think it is: a glorious, unending quest that will make us better both individually and collectively; one that will help to make us complete as individual human beings and as a nation. Anything else is an unconvincing lie. And it won’t work, either—it hasn’t before.