Jul 20 2009

Tom Wolfe's "Giant Leap to Nowhere"

Today Tom Wolfe (New York Times, 7/19/09) added his name to the growing list of commentators who are frustrated and puzzled by the Apollo Moon program’s abrupt end almost 40 years ago, and even more so by the fact that no human has traveled beyond Earth orbit since 1972!

Tom Wolfe asks today if we’ve lost the “right stuff.” Click mercury7.jpg.

1972 was a LONG time ago. If you’re over 40 years old, think about where you were then and what you were doing. (Those under 40 are excused from this exercise.)

Most of my reply to Wolfe’s op-ed has already been published at “The Secret of Why Apollo Was a ‘Giant Step, Full Stop’” so I won’t repeat it here. But because Wolfe did write The Right Stuff (1979), the celebrated story of the Mercury 7 astronauts (made into a movie in 1983), his take is interesting.

Although it was a small step for Neil and a giant leap for mankind, the first Moon landing was “a real knee in the groin for NASA,” according to Wolfe.

The American space program, the greatest, grandest, most Promethean — O.K. if I use “godlike”? — quest in the history of the world died in infancy … the moment the foot of Apollo 11’s Commander Armstrong touched the surface of the Moon.

How did this uber downer happen?

Maybe because he’s a writer, Wolfe thinks “the answer is obvious. NASA had neglected to recruit a corps of philosophers.” By the mid-1970s the only philosopher who could explain the real importance of Apollo was the developer of the Saturn V, Wernher von Braun, who was dying of cancer. But according to Wolfe, Von Braun’s “heavy German accent” and former WW II nazi connections limited his use.

In fact, based on the last 200 years of Great Explorations and MEPs, the moral of the story appears to be: “Great leaders help, but the economy rules“. It is very unlikely Von Braun himself or even an army of Von Brauns could have changed the course of 1970s macroeconomic history or the related decay of Apollo ebullience that began as early as 1966. As they have for every Maslow Window of the last 200 years, these fundamental factors initially enabled and eventually terminated the Apollo program and have kept humanity trapped in Earth orbit since 1972.

Wolfe alludes to the short-lived effect of ebullience without using the term, “Everybody, including Congress, was caught up in the adrenal rush of it all. But then, on the morning after” they began to wonder about it’s real meaning. This effect is graphically portrayed in the riveting 1960s political history, The Liberal Hour.

According to Wolfe, the answer is Mars. “For 40 years, everybody at NASA has known that the only logical next step is a manned Mars mission…” However, current plans — the U.S. returning to the Moon by 2020 — ignore historical trends of the last 200 years which point to closure of our next Maslow Window by 2025 or before, leaving little time for Mars. Unless we change the plan, such as Buzz Aldrin has proposed lately, our next shot at Mars may be delayed until 2070.

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