Best Laid Plans, Men and Machines

Interview with John Logsdon

History is the science of what never happens twice. –Paul Valery

If museums preserve a civilization’s contributions to the future, then what will future generations remember about this half-century? Compared to the five million people who annually visit the Louvre in Paris, nearly double that number flock to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.–making it the most visited museum in the world.

Among its forty thousand artifacts, visitors view the largest collection of aircraft and space exhibits in the world–home to the Wright flyer, Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, the Apollo 11 command module that made the trip to lunar orbit and back to Earth, and the only lunar rock sample accessible to the public. The first Chair of Space History at the National Air and Space Museum (1982-1983) was Dr. John Logsdon–author, educator, and policy-analyst with an interest in space exploration. Dr. Logsdon is the author of "The Decision to Go to the Moon: Project Apollo and the National Interest" and is general editor of the eight-volume series "Exploring the Unknown: Selected Documents in the History of the U.S. Civil Space Program".

Astrobiology Magazine had the opportunity to talk with John Logsdon about astrobiology, space policy, and how the public perceives progress and goals in exploration.

In addition to his contributions to space history, Dr. Logsdon is active in shaping how policy is crafted today. He is a former member of the NASA Advisory Council and a current member of the the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee of the Department of Transportation. He recently served on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

Astrobiology Magazine (AM): On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the first manned moon-landing, you commented that the 1994 policy debate focused on whether the public was prepared for large undertakings, or any grand-scale science. Do you still believe that public projects like space missions are able to draw on that wider motivation today?

lunar module
Looking back
Credit: NASA

John Logsdon (JL): My 1994 statement was skeptical about the public’s willingness to support expensive, long-range space goals.

Perhaps the "post-Columbia" realization that the alternative is a space program that moves forward basically on momentum, without any clear, politically-sanctioned statement of purpose, will modify that reality. But unfortunately I see no compelling argument for major investments in space that could be offered as a rationale for public support. Compared to other government activities, space remains a discretionary activity, and for the past thirty years top decision makers have not seen a major reason to invest heavily in space exploration.

AM: How would you weigh the relative importance of cost-effective research versus adventure (or discovery of the unknown) as a goal or national priority in itself for space missions?

JL: Research in space is a goal that appeals to only a few. It is not the reason either the general public or political leaders support the space program.

For the general public, the primary purpose is indeed exploration – seeing or doing something new. But most of the public will support space exploration like they do symphony orchestras or public radio – something worth having, but not at high cost.

For government leaders, I think that the space program continues to be a useful source of creating national pride and demonstrating national power — as long as it is successful. When things go wrong, the program becomes a policy and political problem.

AM: In contrasting the public case that has been made for the International Space Station as a kind of terrestrial payoff, how do policy-makers evaluate, by comparison, the three international Mars missions happening now?

JL: I doubt that this comparison is made at high levels of government. To leaders, to quote a phrase out of the 1961 memorandum from NASA Administrator Webb and Secretary of Defense McNamara that recommended setting a lunar landing goal to President Kennedy, "it is men, not machines, that captures the imagination of the world."

Pathfinder landing image
Artist conception of Pathfinder’s dramatic airbag landing. Credit: NASA.

The International Space Station is supported politically as a demonstration of U.S. leadership in a complex international venture, not as a research laboratory. That said, if the Mars Exploration Rovers are successful, I am sure they will attract a lot of attention for their complex, "human-like" capabilities to explore.

AM: As hindrances to taking on projects that may span decades, much attention has been paid to the short election cycle and media-fueled public fickleness with long-term planning. Do you personally see these short-term issues as defining the science policy landscape?

JL: The political system can and does make long-term commitments to objectives perceived as worthwhile. The problem with the space program is that it has not often offered value that would justify such commitments, at least commitments to highly visible and expensive projects. However, political support for the ISS has not really been threatened for a decade. Even with all its troubles, the United States appears committed to seeing ISS through to completion. If we can sustain a commitment to that program, we certainly can sustain a commitment to a well-justified program of human exploration.

AM: One of the most prominent examples of large-scale science offered in recent years has been biological, namely the completion of the Human Genome project. This DNA mapping is often compared with the moon landing, both in setting out a challenging but attainable goal, and then meeting it with international collaboration. Are there things to learn–both positive and negative–from the experience of how this kind of grand-scale science is made relevant and focused, compared to say the Mars landings?

JL: First of all, Project Apollo was a unilateral U.S. undertaking. So the question is a bit off-base in its reference to international collaboration. But certainly such cooperation and division of labor has been since Apollo the preferred approach to large-scale space ventures. Sustaining international cooperation is hard. The United States has often been accused of being a poor partner in international ventures. But in Mars exploration, it is primarily other partners that have not honored their part of the bargain.

AM: As a guess, do you think the present round-the-clock news coverage devoted to things like crime cases could be sustained if NASA had the same or similar kinds of continuous commentary or intrigue going on surrounding a robotic Mars landing?

JL: Not at all – and I think that hoping for such coverage is a bit of a fool’s errand. The space program cannot be sustained as public entertainment. It must be perceived as having real payoffs to important users. Sure, occasional intense coverage of publicly exciting mission events is great, but public attention is notoriously fickle.

AM: In your analysis, is China’s recent manned orbital mission something that has been absorbed by policy makers as positive for exploration initiatives, or as a setback for peaceful uses of space?

JL: Why should what China does as it begins its program of human space flight be any more "a setback for the peaceful exploration of space" than were U.S. flights during Project Mercury four decades ago? China has made a decision for its own motivations – national pride and national prestige, in my view — that parallel the motivations that were the underpinning of the initial U.S. human space flight ventures.

Like the United States, Russia, Europe, Israel, India, and other countries, China is fully aware of the national security benefits of space capabilities. But I do not think the Chinese human space flight program is closely linked to that motivation.

wright century
Commemoration of flight’s century
Credit: FAA

AM: One criticism to those framing science and technology goals in such a dramatic way as the space program has done historically, is that this approach inevitably leads to more build-up and less follow-through. For instance, examples like air travel itself had humble beginnings but quickly took on a glamour that became practical. Is this a fair analogy in your opinion to compare aviation and astronautics historically, in the way the life-cycle of any broad idea might shape a civilization’s science goals?

JL: One big difference. The development of aviation was stimulated by a mixture of government, commercial, and personal motivations. "Science goals" did not figure highly in those motivations, by the way. Because of the high cost of access to space, government has dominated space development to date.

Even the commercial communications satellite sector would not have been possible without government funding of launch vehicle development. So I think the comparison of the history to date is flawed. Whether the comparison will become more valid in the 21st century is an interesting question. In my view, public space travel may well be the next big area of commercial space activity.

AM: At a time that accurate star positions had only marginal military or economic benefits, the Danish treasury gave almost a third of its resources to Tycho Brahe’s first observatory. How do policy makers today view such investments by comparison? In your work, does science progress hinge greatly on the kinds of national rivalries today that shaped the initial decision to go to the moon?

JL: No. I think most major governments, and certainly that of this country, have accepted the notion that investing in fundamental research is necessary for both practical and intangible reasons. Practical in the sense that fundamental research is seen as the source of valuable public good, economic, and security benefits for society. Intangible in the sense that learning more about nature is something a civilized society invests in.

Rivalries help stimulate investment, but no longer are its basic rationale.

Star field
In a universe brimming with stars, the search is on if life exists elsewhere

AM: Based on your historical work, is the search for life elsewhere a viable motivation for grand-scale science? Are there precedents historically that might lead you to the conclusion that this search could be a kind of nugget for longer term planning?

JL: The question "Are we alone?" does touch almost everyone’s emotions, and programs aimed at answering it will be supported as long as they appear well-designed and not flights of fancy.

But I doubt that human desire to find an answer to that question will ever be the basis for "grand scale science," at least until "normal" science answers the question in the positive.

If we discovered evidence of past (or present!) life on Mars or Jupiter’s moons, then I suspect the public would support a major effort to learn more, sending both robotic spacecraft and ultimately people to explore.

What’s Next

Twin NASA MER rovers and one European Space Agency probe are slated for early 2004. The first Mars Exploration Rover, or MER, arrived or Mars on Jan. 4, 2004, the second, Jan. 25.


John Logsdon
Image Credit: CNN

John M. Logsdon is Director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University‘s Elliott School of International Affairs, where he is also Professor of Political Science and International Affairs. He holds a B.S. in Physics from Xavier University (1960) and a Ph.D. in Political Science from New York University (1970). Dr. Logsdon’s research interests focus on the policy and historical aspects of U.S. and international space activities. Dr. Logsdon has written numerous articles and reports on space policy and history. He is frequently consulted by the electronic and print media for his views on space issues.

Dr. Logsdon recently served as a member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. He is a former member of the NASA Advisory Council and a current member of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee of the Department of Transportation. He is a recipient of the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal and a Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Related Web Pages

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