If the 49th anniversary of the first moon landing on July 20 didn’t get much attention, it isn’t likely that the 60th anniversary of the National Aeronautics and Space Act, which comes up on July 29, will be widely noticed either. Yes, 60 is a nice round number—it is, after all, the diamond anniversary—and yet the chattering classes don’t seem much interested in space these days. Big mistake.
One public figure who did take note of the Apollo 11 landing was Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House and a lifelong supporter of space exploration. Gingrich wrote wistfully of the missed opportunities in the half-century since:
In 1969, it was reasonable to expect that our space program would continue to move at the pace of the Apollo program. It was therefore reasonable to think that by 2018 we would have four to five colonies on the moon, space-based outposts in various lunar and cislunar orbits, mining operations on several asteroids, and a preliminary habitat on Mars.
Yet Gingrich says he has high hopes for the Trump administration today. In particular, he praises Vice President Mike Pence’s leadership of the once-moribund National Space Council.
Still, it remains to be seen how much the Space Council will accomplish. After all, many past presidential administrations have promised to rejuvenate the space program, and it hasn’t happened.
In the meantime, given this unheroic recent history, it’s unlikely that the 60th anniversary of the National Aeronautics and Space Act will get much attention beyond 300 E Street SW, that is, NASA’s headquarters.
So we might ask: if the space program was a big deal in the 1960s such that the whole nation celebrated every milestone of the Mercury and Apollo missions, what has happened since? What went wrong?
The first and most obvious answer is that space faded because the space race faded. People are instinctively comparative and competitive, and so when the Soviet Union mostly gave up its space efforts in the mid-1960s, that signaled the end of the international excitement.
Second, and more profoundly, we didn’t find any aliens—nobody to make first contact with, fight, or make love to. That was a spirit-crushing realization. Well into the 20th century, it was thought that advanced life was nearby; in 1908, H.G. Wells published an article confidently entitled, “The Things That Live on Mars.” The piece came complete with evocative illustrations of flora and humanoid fauna.
Today, we know that there might be a microorganism or two on the fourth planet—or maybe just a fossil—but nothing like the Martian civilization envisioned by Edgar Rice Burroughs. That means no swashbuckling opportunities for a John Carter—little wonder the hugely expensive 2012 movie crashed and burned. To be sure, there’s plenty of popcorn-munching, even soul-stirring, to be found in Star Wars-type fantasies set in impossibly distant galaxies. Yet as for our immediate space neighborhood, there’s no juice.
Yet ironically, even as our solar system seems drained of its dramatic potential, its economic potential is being realized, and how. We might chuckle over small-bore spinoffs such as Tang, yet plenty of spinoffs have in fact been game-changers.
The greatest spinoff has been satellite technology, which defines modern communications: revenues for the U.S. satellite business are well north of $100 billion a year. We can further note that the Global Positioning System—GPS, of course—is what enables maps on smartphones, and its myriad benefits reach across the full spectrum of industry, from agribusiness to traffic-fleet control to national defense. Indeed, it’s been calculated that GPS adds .3 percent to America’s GDP, about $60 billion a year or triple NASA’s annual budget.
Thus is the future in space lucrative. For instance, many countries and companies have already laid out plans for asteroid mining. One single asteroid, Psyche, composed almost entirely of iron and nickel, boasts a speculative valuation of $10,000 quadrillion. And the website Asterank has found hundreds of asteroids worth $100 trillion or more. As an aside, we can observe that such cosmic potentialities blow away what remains of the “limits to growth” argument that still, lamentably, haunts the thinking of the elite. Here at TAC, this author has noted that even down here on earth, natural resource appraisals are also to be measured in the quadrillions.
So we can see the world-historic economic value of Prometheanism—that is, questing for celestial fire. Yet we might also take note of Prometheanism’s political value—at least, once the case is made to the public.
To illustrate this political punch, we should look back to October 4, 1957. That’s when the Soviets put their Sputnik satellite into orbit, stunning the world by beating the U.S. into space.
It’s worth noting that Washington could have lofted a satellite ahead of Moscow, but the Eisenhower administration had reasoned that if we launched first, the Soviets would have challenged our right to fly a satellite in their “airspace.” By contrast, if Uncle Sam let the Russian Bear go first, then the Russkies couldn’t later complain about American orbiting. It was a strong, albeit self-effacing, point, fully in keeping with Eisenhower’s strong, albeit self-effacing, presidency.
Yet perhaps not surprisingly, Ike was clobbered in the public arena; he was meanly depicted as a “do-nothing,” a “golf-playing president mismanaging events,” and on and on, through the rest of the ’50s.
For their part, the Democrats, still brimming with Roosevelt-Truman self-confidence, were hip to the opportunity they’d been handed. In a NASA oral history, George Reedy, press secretary to then-Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson, recalled Democratic thinking in the wake of Sputnik: Democrats saw victory in the message “We can do better.”
And since we’re dredging up history, we might recall one particular Promethean, Charley Brewton, then a top aide to Senator Lister Hill, Democrat of Alabama. In Reedy’s words, “If there is a father to the Space Act, it was probably Charley Brewton”; indeed, another Capitol Hill contemporary recalled Brewton as “a great idea man.” Yet Brewton’s ideas were practical, too; as Reedy put it, “I had never known him to be wrong in judging the public.”
Brewton was quick to see that the space issue could be a political winner. As Reedy relates it, within days of Sputnik, Brewton outlined the gains to be made by space racing:
It could first of all clobber the Republicans, secondly lead to tremendous advances, and, third, elect Lyndon Johnson as president. Well, I told him that Lyndon Johnson was not interested in running for the presidency. He said that was all right with him, he would settle for clobbering the Republicans.
Clobber the Republicans, that is, in the 1958 midterm elections, and also in the 1960 presidential election. Inspired by Brewton, less than two weeks after the Sputnik launch, Reedy got to work:
I wrote a rather lengthy memorandum. In that memorandum, I said that this would go far beyond a mere defense thing. The immediate public reaction would probably be fear, but that long range, this could be one of the great dividing lines in American and world history, the whole history of humanity.
Reedy recalled LBJ’s reaction:
He didn’t know very much about outer space but he had grasped immediately the fact that this was something that could change the whole way that we lived; it could change our nation.
Thus the Space Act was the fulfillment of both individual and national ambition. And while Republicans gave support to the legislation, the Democrats, led by LBJ, took the lead—and got the credit. (And yes, LBJ did, in fact, seek the presidency in 1960.)
We might also recall a somewhat related issue that vexed American politics at the time. In November 1957, the blue-chip Gaither Report concluded that the U.S. was lagging in its strategic nuclear capabilities. In response, another ambitious Democratic senator, John F. Kennedy, declared that America was falling behind the Soviets yet again; we were suffering from, he said, a “missile gap.” (That the missile gap turned out to be an illusion didn’t change the political utility of pledging to solve it.)
For their part, the Republicans didn’t lack for anti-communism, but they did lack for vision—the vision to see that you can’t win a space race, or a Cold War, on the cheap.
By contrast, the Democrats were the Can Do Party. Indeed, all that Democratic dynamism paid off, big time: they won a smashing victory in the 1958 midterm elections, picking up a whopping 13 Senate seats and 48 House seats. And two years later, JFK, running on the slogan of “get the country moving again,” took his place in the White House. His vice president, of course, was LBJ.
Six decades later, space is in a lull. And yet history tells us that “today” is not the same as “tomorrow,” and so this lull will soon enough un-lull. As the Cold War proved, competition is a spur to both action and innovation—and today we are being reminded that competition among nations is forever.
Moreover, when the economic benefits—all those asteroidal Fort Knoxes, plus whatever else—come better into focus, there will be a gold rush to the stars. And smart politicians will rush to get ahead of the rush.
James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at TAC. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.