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July 23, 2009
By Menachem Wecker

40 Years after First Lunar Landing, Experts Reflect on Space Policy's Future

Left to right: Scott Pace, Henry Hertzfeld, John Logsdon.

On July 16, 1969, at 9:32 a.m., John Logsdon was one of about 3,000 people watching the launch of Apollo 11 from the press site at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Dr. Logsdon, who estimates the total attendance at the launch to have been about 1 million, remembers Norman Mailer, whose book "Of a Fire on the Moon" attempted to capture the spirit of Apollo, was present at the press site along with the many working journalists. Dr. Logsdon's own analysis of former President John F. Kennedy's decision to go to the moon appeared the next day in a special section of The New York Times.

At the time, Dr. Logsdon had completed his doctoral research on the Apollo project at GW and Catholic University, which he would later publish as "The Decision to Go to the Moon: Project Apollo and the National Interest." Having delved into the reasons why the United States chose to go to the moon, he was not about to miss the event itself. Not only did Dr. Logsdon have a front-row seat for the launch, but a few hours earlier, he was part of the small crowd outside the building where the astronauts donned their space suits and vividly remembers when Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin Jr. walked right past him on their way to the moon.

John Logsdon (circled) at the Apollo 11 launch on July 16, 1969.
"You knew you were witnessing history," Dr. Logsdon said recently at an informal roundtable conversation with Scott Pace, director of GW's Space Policy Institute, and Henry Hertzfeld, research professor of space policy and international affairs. Dr. Logsdon, who founded SPI and served as its director from 1987 to 2008, is finishing a one-year appointment as the Lindbergh chair in aerospace history at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Both Drs. Pace and Hertzfeld have previously worked at NASA--Dr. Pace as associate administrator for program analysis and evaluation and Dr. Hertzfeld as a senior economist and policy analyst.

The three GW space policy professors reflected on the first lunar launch 40 years ago and discussed what the future might hold for human space flight.

Citing a quote from space pioneer Wernher von Braun about it taking 40 years for anyone to return to the South Pole after the expeditions in the early 1910s, Dr. Pace said that the long hiatus doesn't necessarily mean the United States or other nations shouldn't consider a return trip to the moon. "Proving you can do it has an incredible impact," Dr. Hertzfeld agreed. "But you need a reason to go back." Reasons might include additional exploration, a focus for international cooperation, future commercial opportunities, or even the first step in a long-term project of humans living and working on other celestial bodies, the professors said.

Drs. Hertzfeld, Logsdon and Pace agreed that the time is ripe to be discussing NASA's future not only due to the Apollo 11 anniversary but also because of the Obama administration's examination of a 2004 policy decision to return to the moon by 2020 as the first step in human exploration of the solar system. That decision was made by the Bush administration; now President Obama must decide whether it should remain a primary goal for the United States in space.

Dr. Pace stressed that space missions are important even in tough economic times, for example, because of their potential for stimulating the faster development and introduction of new technologies that have a far wider application. Apollo's computer, developed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was the first to use miniaturized integrated circuits (largely to keep weight low), which have since revolutionized the computer industry.

The three professors agreed that there are unique advantages to human space flight, even as robotic technology is improving. "Humans are better at pattern recognition and dealing with the unexpected than any robot and thus are superior for some aspects of exploration," said Dr. Logsdon. "The best approach is a human-machine partnership."

Additionally, only about 500 people have traveled in orbit, Dr. Logsdon said, citing the cliche: "You don't give parades for robots." Dr. Hertzfeld added that astronauts were good for fundraising, since they can do things like visiting elementary school classes and shaking hands with members of Congress. Dr. Pace added that there is a burgeoning commercial interest in space tourism, where people could personally experience space.

Along with technological changes, globalization has left its imprint on space exploration. Gone are the days when the "space race" was a by-product of the Cold War and "science got done along the way," Dr. Logsdon said. Today, space is an arena for international collaboration, where no single country, not even the United States, can act unilaterally. "Space is not a discretionary activity as it was," Dr. Pace added. There are many issues at stake in space exploration involving diplomacy, science and security. That makes GW's Elliott School of International Affairs a particularly appropriate base for a space policy institute, he added.

Perhaps the largest difference between the Apollo 11 flight and later NASA missions is that "Apollo went somewhere; since then, we have gone in circles a few hundred miles up," Dr. Logsdon said. "The president has to decide whether we want to move outward again." "Or to just keep trying to pay Medicare and our national debts," Dr. Pace added. But to preserve future space exploration options, Dr. Hertzfeld added, space missions must continue. "Even if it doesn't proceed as much or as fast as enthusiasts would like," Logsdon agreed.

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