Tuesday, September 18, 2012


The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal has an interesting article out: "Moondoogle: The Forgotten Opposition to the Apollo Program." In it he points out that support for the Apollo mission never approached 50% while it was active. As one historian put it:
Consistently throughout the 1960s a majority of Americans did not believe Apollo was worth the cost, with the one exception to this a poll taken at the time of the Apollo 11 lunar landing in July 1969. And consistently throughout the decade 45-60 percent of Americans believed that the government was spending too much on space...
In 1979, only 47% of Americans thought it had been worth it; that raised up to 77% in 1989. he also points out some major cultural trends that opposed it: activists in the civil rights movement pointed out that the government was ignoring poor minorities while spending unprecedented amounts of money to send some white guys to the Moon; even a significant block of scientists argued that the manned space exploration was a sub-optimal way to get real science done.

 I think this is really important to remember when we're bemoaning the state of the space program today. I had long believed in a narrative that said: "Once upon a time, after WWII, everyone was super optimistic about the American future in space. It was the Golden Age of science fiction, and everyone agreed that heading into space was the right next step--especially since it meant we would beat the Commies!" So it was really a bit stunning to me to realize that the Apollo programs suffered any number of hostile OpEd pieces, angry Letters to the Editor, and accusations from scientists and pundits alike that it was a waste of resources.

 However, those facts make what's happened since make a lot more sense. How did we get from 'everyone loves space' to Skylab falling out of the sky in just a decade? Well, it's because most people didn't love space, and they still don't now. There was never a grassroots space movement. Certainly there were lots of folks who were rooting for NASA (and there still are!), but there were more who saw it as a big waste. We didn't get to the Moon via an up-swelling of popular support--we got there by the top-down fiat of a President and his successor (JFK and LBJ) who saw it as a combined PR victory over the Soviets and peace-time jobs program for the nation's best and brightest technical talent (who, Madrigal's article points out, probably didn't need the help). There's quite a bit more on the PR image issue in Nicholas de Monchaux' fascinating Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo. My review of it should be in the next issue of Cascadia Subduction Zone, and Rosten Woo wrote a great review of it in the LA Review of Books last year.

So perhaps it would be OK to spend less time worrying about the lack of popular support for the space program today. It might make more sense to focus on targeted lobbying efforts at the highest levels of government. It's actually a little bit heartening to me to learn that the Apollo mission succeeded in the face of fairly robust public opposition. That means that we don't need to get 200 million Americans on our side to make any progress. What we do need are effective leaders who can communicate clearly with folks who hold the purse strings.

 The future's not what it used to be, and it turns out that it never was.

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