5 questions for John Logsdon on the commercialization and exploration of space

By James Pethokoukis and John Logsdon

After a half-century break from manned lunar missions, NASA has announced its intent to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024. Today, private companies like SpaceX have lowered launch costs, making space more accessible than ever. But is the commercialization of space distracting from continued exploration? In a recent podcast episode, John Logsdon discussed the history and future of space exploration.

John is the founder and Professor Emeritus of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He is the author of several books on the space program. His most recent is Ronald Reagan and the Space Frontier.

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: How do you address critics who say Apollo was a waste of valuable resources or that space exploration is about little more than national pride or maybe some sort of soft-power geopolitics?

Logsdon: Amitai Etzioni published a book in 1963 called Moon-Doggle and it is a trenchant criticism of the priority allocated to Apollo, and it was an entirely legitimate criticism. I didn’t agree with it then; I don’t agree with it now. But there were choices made about how to spend public money, not on education, not on welfare, but on competing with the Soviet Union for global space leadership. And you could say that was or was not worth it.

John Kennedy, when he decided to send Americans to the Moon, was very clear that it was an element of national security strategy. But the problem since the ‘60s has been: What’s the question to which the answer is “Go to Mars” or “Return to the Moon”? My own view is that space exploration is an element of human experience that is worth investing in.

What role have American presidents played in the history of US space programs?

It’s been my view that government space programs are really presidential issues, where a president sees the link between space exploration and some important national priority: national image, national intervention, national morale. Some of the presidents have seen that, others have not.

Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin with President Richard Nixon.
Via REUTERS

Jimmy Carter wasn’t interested in human space flight at all. Ronald Reagan saw human space flight as kind of a new frontier, but he didn’t put money behind that thought. George H.W. Bush was convinced to set a return to the Moon and then on to Mars as a goal. But Congress was opposed, and there wasn’t any strong public support. Bill Clinton was focused on using the space station as an instrument of post–Cold War diplomacy. George W. Bush had to react after the Columbia accident in 2003, but he set out again a vision of long-term, sustained exploration with people as well as spacecraft.

Those starts and stops have persisted since 2004. Certainly Mr. Trump saw the dramatic potential of space and set us on a sustained course of exploration. President Biden has said he’s going to stay that course. We’re on a path now to return to the Moon with humans some time in the next five to seven years.

How did the Apollo missions and manned space exploration come to an end during the Nixon administration?

President Nixon knew he had to define what happened after Apollo. The Space Task Group chaired by a well-known space expert named Spiro Agnew, his vice president, recommended going to Mars in the mid-1980s. If that recommendation had been accepted, it would have been a very different program. Nixon had no interest in spending money on doing that.

He was skeptical of continued lunar exploration. But after Apollo 13, he tried very hard to cancel what turned out to be Apollo 16 and 17. It was NASA that canceled the final two planned missions, and told Nixon they’d rather spend the money on new programs than on repeating trips to the Moon. So NASA has really not embraced exploration as much as it has embraced building and operating the space shuttle, building and operating the space station, and only then turning to, “What do we do next?” The answer is resume exploration.

How do you think about the commercialization of space that has occurred in the past decade?

Well, I think what has been going on is a paradigm shift. Space is a place to do business, and the lowering of launch costs is key to that. One has to give credit to SpaceX and Elon Musk and the introduction of reusability. Now there’s the possibility of trying and failing without great cost and trying and succeeding in various lines of business. So space has become an area for profit-making, for applications that benefit humanity. In a sense, it’s become dull.

I still am captured by space exploration, by going places, seeing new things. But that’s been kind of overcome, except on occasion, by space exploitation, by finding all the useful things you can do from the orbital perspective and eventually beyond. The government still has the lead in exploration, both robotic and human, because nobody has figured out how to monetize it. The maturing of space means that people who are there — not because of the excitement of exploration but because of the possibility of creating new businesses, new wealth, new jobs — see it as an area with a lot of potential.

The Space Race began as a geopolitical rivalry. Now there seems to be a rivalry between the US and China. Do you think that will be helpful in keeping Americans interested in space?

I do. It’s very different than the Cold War and the Space Race in the sense that there are so many more capable space actors. Clearly China is an ambitious space power. The United States has maintained its commitment to a leading position in space. I think the competition between those two is very different in character than the US-Soviet Cold War competition, and it’s probably good for both sides to stimulate activity. You can compete without racing. What China is doing in civil space, I think, is in a sense good for everybody. It is a separate issue that China is developing military space capabilities that are threatening to the US ability to fight and win wars. That is very much a matter of concern. But China’s lunar exploration program, our Artemis exploration program, private ventures, and return to the Moon, I think, are all good for everybody.

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.” John Logsdon is the founder and Professor Emeritus of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

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