One Giant Leap to Nowhere
By TOM WOLFE | The New York Times
Well, let’s see now…That was a small step for Neil Armstrong, a giant leap for mankind and a real knee in the groin for NASA.
The American space program, the greatest, grandest, most Promethean — O.K. if I add “godlike”? — quest in the history of the world, died in infancy at 10:56 p.m. New York time on July 20, 1969, the moment the foot of Apollo 11’s Commander Armstrong touched the surface of the Moon.
It was no ordinary dead-and-be-done-with-it death. It was full-blown purgatory, purgatory being the holding pen for recently deceased but still restless souls awaiting judgment by a Higher Authority.
Like many another youngster at that time, or maybe retro-youngster in my case, I was fascinated by the astronauts after Apollo 11. I even dared to dream of writing a book about them someday. If anyone had told me in July 1969 that the sound of Neil Armstrong’s small step plus mankind’s big one was the shuffle of pallbearers at graveside, I would have averted my eyes and shaken my head in pity. Poor guy’s bucket’s got a hole in it.
Why, putting a man on the Moon was just the beginning, the prelude, the prologue! The Moon was nothing but a little satellite of Earth. The great adventure was going to be the exploration of the planets … Mars first, then Venus, then Pluto. Jupiter, Mercury, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus? NASA would figure out their slots in the schedule in due course. In any case, we Americans wouldn’t stop until we had explored the entire solar system. And after that … the galaxies beyond.
NASA had long since been all set to send men to Mars, starting with manned fly-bys of the planet in 1975. Wernher von Braun, the German rocket scientist who had come over to our side in 1945, had been designing a manned Mars project from the moment he arrived. In 1952 he published his Mars Project as a series of graphic articles called “Man Will Conquer Space Soon” in Collier’s magazine. It created a sensation. He was front and center in 1961 when NASA undertook Project Empire, which resulted in working plans for a manned Mars mission. Given the epic, the saga, the triumph of Project Apollo, Mars would naturally come next. All NASA and von Braun needed was the president’s and Congress’s blessings and the great adventure was a Go. Why would they so much as blink before saying the word?
Three months after the landing, however, in October 1969, I began to wonder … I was in Florida, at Cape Kennedy, the space program’s launching facility, aboard a NASA tour bus. The bus’s Spielmeister was a tall-fair-and-handsome man in his late 30s … and a real piece of lumber when it came to telling tourists on a tour bus what they were looking at. He was so bad, I couldn’t resist striking up a conversation at the end of the tour.
Sure enough, it turned out he had not been put on Earth for this job. He was an engineer who until recently had been a NASA heat-shield specialist. A baffling wave of layoffs had begun, and his job was eliminated. It was so bad he was lucky to have gotten this stand-up Spielmeister gig on a tour bus. Neil Armstrong and his two crew mates, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins, were still on their triumphal world tour … while back home, NASA’s irreplaceable team of highly motivated space scientists — irreplaceable! — there were no others! …anywhere! … You couldn’t just run an ad saying, “Help Wanted: Experienced heat-shield expert” … the irreplaceable team was breaking up, scattering in nobody knows how many hopeless directions.
How could such a thing happen? In hindsight, the answer is obvious. NASA had neglected to recruit a corps of philosophers.
From the moment the Soviets launched Sputnik I into orbit around the Earth in 1957, everybody from Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson on down looked upon the so-called space race as just one thing: a military contest. At first there was alarm over the Soviets’ seizure of the “strategic high ground” of space. They were already up there — right above us! They could now hurl thunderbolts down whenever and wherever they wanted. And what could we do about it? Nothing. Ka-boom! There goes Bangor … Ka-boom! There goes Boston … Ka-boom! There goes New York … Baltimore … Washington … St. Louis … Denver … San Jose — blown away! — just like that.
Physicists were quick to point out that nobody would choose space as a place from which to attack Earth. The spacecraft, the missile, the Earth itself, plus the Earth’s own rotation, would be traveling at wildly different speeds upon wildly different geometric planes. You would run into the notorious “three body problem” and then some. You’d have to be crazy. The target would be untouched and you would wind up on the floor in a fetal ball, twitching and gibbering. On the other hand, the rockets that had lifted the Soviets’ five-ton manned ships into orbit were worth thinking about. They were clearly powerful enough to reach any place on Earth with nuclear warheads.
But that wasn’t what was on President Kennedy’s mind when he summoned NASA’s administrator, James Webb, and Webb’s deputy, Hugh Dryden, to the White House in April 1961. The president was in a terrible funk. He kept muttering: “If somebody can just tell me how to catch up. Let’s find somebody — anybody … There’s nothing more important.” He kept saying, “We’ve got to catch up.” Catching up had become his obsession. He never so much as mentioned the rockets.
Dryden said that, frankly, there was no way we could catch up with the Soviets when it came to orbital flights. A better idea would be to announce a crash program on the scale of the Manhattan Project, which had produced the atomic bomb. Only the aim this time would be to put a man on the Moon within the next 10 years.
Barely a month later Kennedy made his famous oration before Congress: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.” He neglected to mention Dryden.
INTUITIVELY, not consciously, Kennedy had chosen another form of military contest, an oddly ancient and archaic one. It was called “single combat.”
The best known of all single combats was David versus Goliath. Before opposing armies clashed in all-out combat, each would send forth its “champion,” and the two would fight to the death, usually with swords. The victor would cut off the head of the loser and brandish it aloft by its hair.
The deadly duel didn’t take the place of the all-out battle. It was regarded as a sign of which way the gods were leaning. The two armies then had it out on the battlefield … unless one army fled in terror upon seeing its champion slaughtered. There you have the Philistines when Little David killed their giant, Goliath … and cut his head off and brandished it aloft by its hair (1 Samuel 17:1-58). They were overcome by a mad desire to be somewhere else. (The Israelites pursued and destroyed them.)
More than two millenniums later, the mental atmosphere of the space race was precisely that. The details of single combat were different. Cosmonauts and astronauts didn’t fight hand to hand and behead one another. Instead, each side’s brave champions, including one woman (Valentina Tereshkova), risked their lives by sitting on top of rockets and having their comrades on the ground light the fuse and fire them into space like the human cannonballs of yore.
The Soviets rocketed off to an early lead. They were the first to put an object into orbit around the Earth (Sputnik), the first to put an animal into orbit (a dog), the first to put a man in orbit (Yuri Gagarin). No sooner had NASA put two astronauts (Gus Grissom and Alan Shepard) into 15-minute suborbital flights to the Bahamas — the Bahamas! — 15 minutes! — two miserable little mortar lobs! — then the Soviets put a second cosmonaut (Gherman Titov) into orbit. He stayed up there for 25 hours and went around the globe 17 times. Three times he flew directly over the United States. The gods had shown which way they were leaning, all right!
At this point, the mental atmospheres of the rocket-powered space race of the 1960s and the sword-clanking single combat of ancient days became so similar you had to ask: Does the human beast ever really change — or merely his artifacts? The Soviet cosmo-champions beat our astro-champions so handily, gloom spread like a gas. Every time you picked up a newspaper you saw headlines with the phrase, SPACE GAP … SPACE GAP … SPACE GAP … The Soviets had produced a generation of scientific geniuses — while we slept, fat and self-satisfied! Educators began tearing curriculums apart as soon as Sputnik went up, introducing the New Math and stressing another latest thing, the Theory of Self-Esteem.
At last, in February 1962, NASA managed to get a man into Earth orbit, John Glenn. You had to have been alive at that time to comprehend the reaction of the nation, practically all of it. He was up for only five hours, compared to Titov’s 25, but he was our … Protector! Against all odds he had risked his very hide for … us! — protected us from our mortal enemy! — struck back in the duel in the heavens! — showed the world that we Americans were born fighting and would never give up! John Glenn made us whole again!
During his ticker-tape parade up Broadway, you have never heard such cheers or seen so many thousands of people crying. Big Irish cops, the classic New York breed, were out in the intersections in front of the world, sobbing, blubbering, boo-hoo-ing, with tears streaming down their faces. John Glenn had protected all of us, cops, too. All tears have to do with protection … but I promise not to lay that theory on you now. John Glenn, in 1962, was the last true national hero America has ever had.
There were three more Mercury flights, and then the Gemini series of two-man flights began. With Gemini, we dared to wonder if perhaps we weren’t actually pulling closer to the Soviets in this greatest of all single combats. But we held our breath, fearful that the Soviets’ anonymous Chief Designer would trump us again with some unimaginably spectacular feat.
Sure enough, the C.I.A. brought in sketchy reports that the Soviets were on the verge of a Moon shot.
NASA entered into the greatest crash program of all time, Apollo. It launched five lunar missions in one year, December 1968 to November 1969. With Apollo 11, we finally won the great race, landing a man on the Moon before the end of this decade and returning him safely to Earth.
Everybody, including Congress, was caught up in the adrenal rush of it all. But then, on the morning after, congressmen began to wonder about something that hadn’t dawned on them since Kennedy’s oration. What was this single combat stuff — they didn’t use the actual term — really all about? It had been a battle for morale at home and image abroad. Fine, O.K., we won, but it had no tactical military meaning whatsoever. And it had cost a fortune, $150 billion or so. And this business of sending a man to Mars and whatnot? Just more of the same, when you got right down to it. How laudable … how far-seeing … but why don’t we just do a Scarlett O’Hara and think about it tomorrow?
And that NASA budget! Now there was some prime pork you could really sink your teeth into! And they don’t need it anymore! Game’s over, NASA won, congratulations. Who couldn’t use some of that juicy meat to make the people happy? It had an ambrosial aroma … made you think of re-election ….
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.
Forty years! 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.
“Why not send robots?” is a common refrain. And once more it is the late Wernher von Braun who comes up with the rejoinder. One of the things he most enjoyed saying was that there is no computerized explorer in the world with more than a tiny fraction of the power of a chemical analog computer known as the human brain, which is easily reproduced by unskilled labor.
What NASA needs now is the power of the Word. On Darwin’s tongue, the Word created a revolutionary and now well-nigh universal conception of the nature of human beings, or, rather, human beasts. On Freud’s tongue, the Word means that at this very moment there are probably several million orgasms occurring that would not have occurred had Freud never lived. Even the fact that he is proved to be a quack has not diminished the power of his Word.
July 20, 1969, was the moment NASA needed, more than anything else in this world, the Word. But that was something NASA’s engineers had no specifications for. At this moment, that remains the only solution to recovering NASA’s true destiny, which is, of course, to build that bridge to the stars.
Tom Wolfe is the author of “The Right Stuff,” an account of the Mercury Seven astronauts.