NASA’s annual budget sank like a stone from $5 billion in the mid-1960s to $3 billion in the mid-1970s. It was at this point that NASA’s lack of a philosopher corps became a real problem. The fact was, NASA had only one philosopher, Wernher von Braun. Toward the end of his life, von Braun knew he was dying of cancer and became very contemplative. I happened to hear him speak at a dinner in his honor in San Francisco. He raised the question of what the space program was really all about.
It’s been a long time, but I remember him saying something like this: Here on Earth we live on a planet that is in orbit around the Sun. The Sun itself is a star that is on fire and will someday burn up, leaving our solar system uninhabitable. Therefore we must build a bridge to the stars, because as far as we know, we are the only sentient creatures in the entire universe. When do we start building that bridge to the stars? We begin as soon as we are able, and this is that time. We must not fail in this obligation we have to keep alive the only meaningful life we know of.
Unfortunately, NASA couldn’t present as its spokesman and great philosopher a former high-ranking member of the Nazi Wehrmacht with a heavy German accent.
As a result, the space program has been killing time for 40 years with a series of orbital projects ... Skylab, the Apollo-Soyuz joint mission, the International Space Station and the space shuttle. These programs have required a courage and engineering brilliance comparable to the manned programs that preceded them. But their purpose has been mainly to keep the lights on at the Kennedy Space Center and Houston’s Johnson Space Center — by removing manned flight from the heavens and bringing it very much down to earth. The shuttle program, for example, was actually supposed to appeal to the public by offering orbital tourist rides, only to end in the Challenger disaster, in which the first such passenger, Christa McAuliffe, a schoolteacher, perished.
For 40 years, everybody at NASA has known that the only logical next step is a manned Mars mission, and every overture has been entertained only briefly by presidents and the Congress. They have so many more luscious and appealing projects that could make better use of the close to $10 billion annually the Mars program would require. There is another overture even at this moment, and it does not stand a chance in the teeth of Depression II.