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Human Spaceflight Began Fifty Years Ago This Month, But Not Much Has Happened Lately

photo of Jonathan Coopersmithby Jonathan Coopersmith on Apr 4, 2011

Half a century ago on April 12, 1961, Russian Yuri Gagarin became the first person to reach outer space and orbit the Earth. Eight years later the Space Race ended in an American victory when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the moon.  
Since then, it's been all down hill for human space flight.  
Racing to the moon in the 1960s was possible for two reasons:  First, major military investments—more than $12 billion by 1957 ($90 billion in today's dollars)—laid the technological foundations for the imposing rockets that sent satellites and men into orbit and beyond.  Second, broad political support provided this expensive technological undertaking with the resources it needed.  Costing approximately $25 billion (more than $100 billion today), Project Apollo coordinated the work of hundreds of thousands of government and private employees in a massive managerial as well as technological feat.
Since the launch of the first satellite, Sputnik 1, in October 1957, thousands of rocket launches have sent spacecraft to destinations throughout the solar system and beyond.  Satellites make possible the modern communications, navigation, weather, and other space-based services we take for granted.  
So why aren't astronauts and cosmonauts and taikonauts now walking on Mars and living on the moon?  Why aren't thousands of people working in large space stations orbiting the earth?
Just over 500 people have orbited the earth. Only three nations have launched men and women into space.  There are so few because spaceflight is so technically challenging and thus expensive.  To launch a pound into orbit costs approximately $10,000.  By contrast, I fly within the United States for $2 to $4 a pound.                   
Nor is space travel fully reliable.  Insurance rates for launching communications satellites into geosynchronous orbit run from 11 percent to 20 percent, reflecting the continuing hazards of reaching and operating in the harsh environment of space.
Sending people into space has always been an inherently political decision.  Spending the billions of dollars to develop human-rated (and thus more reliable) rockets and spaceships cannot be justified except on grounds of national prestige.  Even the American military, with a huge budget, more than 30 times the size of NASA's, has been unable to afford its own human space program.  
Since Richard Nixon, no American president has had the political will either to end funding of human spaceflight or to fully fund it. The result, as with many high technology projects, has been systematic over-optimism about solving challenges, which has led to major cost overruns and delays.   
The most important step the federal government can do to advance human exploration and exploitation of space is to reduce the cost of reaching earth orbit.  NASA or the Department of Energy should fund research into innovative launch systems to cut the cost of spaceflight from $10,000 to $100 a pound. There is no shortage of possible technologies, such as microwave propulsion, magnetic levitation, and even so-called space elevators.  There is a shortage of money to test these ideas to determine whether they are feasible or should remain in the laboratory.  
Let's be honest.  Moving such ideas from laboratory to testing to practical operations would take at least a decade and cost billions of dollars.  That's not an investment a private firm could justify, but the government could do it.  And, to cite the examples of the Internet and GPS, has done it in the past.  Both of those technologies are now essential parts of modern life, and both were developed by the American government for military uses.  
The time from Columbus' first voyage in 1492 to the era when traveling the Atlantic Ocean was reliable, predictable, and normal was a span of 200 years. From the first airplane flight by the Wright brothers in 1903 to sustained commercial flight was 50 years. We can hope that the arrival of safe, routine spaceflight will be closer to the latter time span than the former, but it will not happen by chance.  Unless the federal government invests the money to radically reduce the cost of reaching orbit, human spaceflight will remain in the realm of prestige and not practicality.  
In 1962 President John F. Kennedy challenged America and the world when he declared, "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills."  Stirring challenges sound good, but creating the technology to make spaceflight a normal activity will be even better for America.

Jonathan Coopersmith is associate professor in the Department of History at Texas A & M University.