The Detroit Free Press has an article today detailing the claim by members of Congress that the US is entering a new space race–with China.
When the plans for the new moon missions were unveiled, many journalists and space enthusiasts were disappointed. The plans looked nearly identical to the Apollo missions of thirty years before. It was as if Chevy had announced its new 2006 models and rolled out a ’76 Nova. Thirty years on, shouldn’t a moon mission look slicker, different, better?
What the people making this criticism have failed to appreciate is that engineering projects suffer from what’s been termed “virtual disarmament.”
The term comes from anthropologist Hugh Gusterson’s paper on weapons science, “The Virtual Weapons Laboratory.” When the nuclear program stopped testing and designing atomic weapons, many weapons designers retired or found other work–and as a result the country has literally “forgotten” how to design the more sophisticated nuclear warheads. The same thing has happened to NASA since the end of the space race. Science and engineering programs–particularly complex ones–require a concentration of expertise, which is unsustainable the second a project is over. NASA’s accelerated design pace over the first two decades of the space race may have been necessary to match the Russians blow for blow, but it was equally important in keeping intact a brain trust of scientists, engineers and technicians.
At the end of the space race, these people dissipated, and the numbers of those who were trained to take their place diminished. Even the team maintaining the shuttle shrank from 3,000 to 1,800 between 1981 and the time of the Columbia disaster. The return to the moon is a retread, but a necessary one. A new team of experts must be assembled and must retrace the learning curve of the early space program in order to regain the collective experience that has been lost. What’s just now beginning to be appreciated is the extent to which the Apollo retread will put other nations like China and India on surprisingly equal footing with the U.S. in the new space race.