5 questions for Charles Fishman on the Apollo program

By James Pethokoukis and Charles Fishman

In the summer of 1969, NASA succeeded in manning a mission to the Moon. But since the end of the Apollo program in 1972, no one has returned. And when Americans think of the legacy of Apollo, freeze-dried food and Velcro are the first things in mind — not the space-faring extraplanetary civilization we were promised. On a recent episode of “Political Economy,” Charles Fishman explains the successes and failures of the NASA since the 1960s and looks ahead to its role in the future of space.

Charles is a journalist and author of One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew Us to the Moon as well as The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water, among other works.

Below is an abbreviated transcript of our conversation. You can read our full discussion here. You can also subscribe to my podcast on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher, or download the podcast on Ricochet.

Pethokoukis: You write in One Giant Leap, “Apollo was an unqualified success and it wasn’t — judged on its performance — a waste of money, nor was it a use of money that the United States simply couldn’t afford.” Is that a contrarian judgment among people who are disappointed that Apollo did not lead to further exploration?

Fishman: We can say it was an unqualified success in that President John Kennedy charged America and NASA with landing people on the Moon by the end of the decade. And we did it.On May 25, 1961 when Kennedy said, “Let’s go to the Moon,” it was literally impossible. They didn’t have the rocket, the spaceship, the space food, the computer. It was impossible when he said, “Let’s do it.” And literally 100 months later, it was done.

Astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot, is photographed during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity on the Moon. Via REUTERS.

But the real achievement was that NASA and Apollo really ushered in the Digital Age that we all live in. NASA was the first organization of any kind to use integrated circuits, to use computer chips. And so NASA literally created the market and the understanding of computer chips in going to the Moon, and then we stepped up and adopted those computer chips for every function on Earth.

We stopped the Apollo program and no one has gone beyond near-Earth orbit since. Have the last 50 years been a failure?

In 1972, the last time we went to the Moon, we flew 240,000 miles to the Moon. And literally since 1972, no human being has been further than about 240 miles from Earth. So if success means that Apollo opened the solar system to exploration and settlement by human beings, then there is no question that Apollo didn’t accomplish that.

We would not have gone to the Moon without the Cold War. But the problem with geopolitics as a motivator is, in 1972 when Richard Nixon looked out across the world, space wasn’t an important arena anymore. And the economics weren’t there for companies and non-governmental organizations of all kinds to jump into space at that moment.

I don’t think the leadership of NASA was clear on where we should go next and how we should get there. I love the Space Shuttle. I love the Space Station. I don’t think they have been good custodians of our space money, to be honest. The robotic exploration missions have been brilliant and pioneering compared to what we’ve gotten from the human space flight program. But that’s not necessarily the fault of the frontline people at NASA. That’s a leadership failure.

In the ‘60s, a common criticism was, “How can the government fund a space program when we have big problems on Earth?” Now it’s, “How can these billionaires be spending their money going into the space?” Has nothing changed?

The United States is a big country. We’re capable of doing even three or four things at once, not just one.And we’re very wealthy. And in the ‘60s, going to the Moon cost about $20 billion. There are three individual years of the Vietnam War, each of which cost more than the entire race to the Moon. So we could clearly afford to go to the Moon. Whether it was the right use of money is a separate question to whether we could afford it.

What’s happening now is completely different. Musk and Bezos are in business to change the business of space, to create a space economy. They want to take something that has historically cost $100 million and bring the cost down to a $1 million. And I think 20 and 30 years from now, this moment that we’re living in now will look like the beginning of this remarkable transformation in which space becomes a much more tangible economy.

As private companies take a larger role in space, what should NASA’s role be?

If you’re going to Mars, those people who go to Mars are going to be 100 percent autonomous. The quickest radio exchange between here and Mars is nine minutes in each direction. There’s no mission control for a mission to Mars. Teaching astronauts to be autonomous, to make their own decisions, take their own risks, have all their own information, 3D printers for spare parts — all that stuff, and teaching NASA to let go: those are hard problems. I want NASA working on those kind of breakthrough problems.

We need to figure out how to pick crews that are going to get along. The number one complaint the astronauts have about life on the space station is too much meddling from Houston. The number two complaint is about their fellow crew members. So there’s a lot that NASA could be doing. And I don’t need NASA to be developing the SLS launch system and the Orion capsule. It’s pretty clear we have big problems, and I’d like them to tackle those.

Will we be on the Moon and Mars in the coming decades?

I don’t think there’s any economic reason to go to the Moon or go to Mars. Whatever resources those places have, those resources are only good for going further out in space. It will always be easier to get all kinds of valuable minerals right here on Earth than to go harness an asteroid and tow it this way and mine it and send the stuff down.

I think if we go to Mars, we will learn things and we will develop tools that will be incredibly valuable back on Earth. I think these big missions remind us what we can do. And so I hope, I truly hope, that we will have a permanent presence on the Moon that we will use that to teach ourselves to go to Mars, just because I think the benefits of that will be surprising and well worth the relatively modest cost compared to other things we spend money on.

James Pethokoukis is the Dewitt Wallace Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he writes and edits the AEIdeas blog and hosts a weekly podcast, “Political Economy with James Pethokoukis.” Charles Fishman is the author of One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon.

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