Robots Should Go Where Man Hesitates to Tread

When America collectively performs its morning ablutions and looks into the bathroom mirror, what sort of image do we see staring back at us?

Are we still the bold explorers who bravely stride where angels fear to tread? Or have we become a nation of slothful couch potatoes, doomed to settle for the status quo as we sit on the sofa  munching cheese puffs and watching the world pass us by? This is the essence of the question posed by former NASA administrator Michael D. Griffin in his July 19 editorial on the anniversary of man’s first historic steps upon the moon.

Griffin complains that the descendants of the pioneers who blazed the Oregon Trail, built a continental railroad, and flew across the Atlantic “gave up the frontier of our time.” In general terms, much to our well-deserved credit, he makes a valid point. America has always been a nation of explorers, pushing back boundaries and tackling death-defying odds to see what lay over the next mountain range.

However, after citing the great exploratory conquests of mankind on our home planet, the author paints a relatively cheap and easy picture of our bid to beat the Soviets to the lunar surface.

The United States spent eight years and $21 billion -- around $150 billion today -- to develop a transportation system to take people to the moon. We then spent less than four years and $4 billion using it, after which we threw it away. Not mothballed, or assigned to caretaker status for possible later use. Destroyed. Just as the Chinese, having explored the world in the early 15th century and found nothing better than what they had at home, burned their fleet of ships.

The facts and figures are accurate enough, but they fail to tell the entire tale. True, the soup to nuts idea of moving from the initial planning phase to the Eagle landing on the moon in only eight years was a technological miracle which shall likely never be repeated. But the reckless risks involved in our burning desire to one up the Soviets would be completely beyond the pale in today’s safety conscious environment.

In his incredible book, Failure is Not an Option, Gene Kranz -– the iconic voice of Mission Control through most of the space age -– described many of the hazards which were never revealed to the public. The families of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were told in no uncertain terms by NASA that they were realistically looking at nothing better than a fifty-fifty chance that we could get them back home alive, assuming they ever made it outside for a walk on the moon.

The ascent engine in the lunar lander, for which there was no backup, had been tested less than a dozen times on Earth and fully half of them had either failed to fire or hadn’t delivered enough thrust to get the astronauts back up off the surface. President Nixon even had a speech prepared in the event that the two explorers found themselves stranded there, watching their oxygen supplies slowly bleed down and awaiting the coldest, loneliest, most remote death imaginable by man.