Lost in Space : The Fall of NASA and the Dream of a New Space Age
by GREG KLERKX
Well written, lively, viewpoint subject to challenge., January 3, 2005
"Ho, hum! Another book about space. Looks like it's by one of the 'blame NASA' crowd. Ardently peddling his own bit of vaporware, most likely." That was my reaction when I first heard of this book. Just the same, I bought it and read it, and now I'm glad that I did. Just in case you don't read to the end of this review, I'll put my conclusion up front: READ THIS BOOK.
Klerkx does represent that NASA, after its heroic age leading up to the Apollo moon landings, got hardening of the mental arteries. Struggling just to survive as a sinecure for government bureaucrats and a jobs program for engineers, it became less and less venturesome, less and less innovative. As budgets and head count fell away, it became increasingly the captive of corporate aerospace giants. Today, among many space enthusiasts, it is regarded as a roadblock rather than an ally. Klerkx presents their case.
As a longtime space enthusiast myself, I encounter this point of view all the time. Its advocates are a dime a dozen. What makes Klerkx different is that he's a trained journalist and makes a stronger case than I would have thought possible. It helps that he writes well -- he knows how to interview people and make their lives interesting to the reader. Just incidentally, he writes grammatically. Even the typos are rare in this book. I would have to read it clear through a third time to find any, and I could probably count them on the fingers of one hand.
The book interviews a lot of people, many of whom once worked for NASA, but were axed in budget cuts, or became disillusioned and quit. Obviously their stories share a bias, but there are too many of them to brush off easily. Some had illustrious records in the glory days. Some have pursued outstanding second careers. Some doggedly stuck to space-related endeavors at great personal risk and sacrifice. Some put up astounding amounts of their own or other people's money. They believe what they are doing.
It you attend space-related conferences, you've probably met some of these people, or passed them in the hall among the throng. Klerkx's book would be worth getting if only for its bios of some very interesting, but mostly unsung, people.
That said, what about Kerkx's thesis? What if all of it were true: that NASA has become stagnant, uses every trick in the book to remain the gatekeeper of American space efforts, and is captive to giant aerospace corporations (down to just two of them, by now)? Even so, would it make sense to blame NASA for what has happened, and is still happening? I think the point is arguable. If you venture outside the smallish circle of space frontiers people, you quickly discover that the vast majority of the public are either like the National Taxpayers Union Foundation, which wants the money returned to the taxpayers, or like any of the many lobbies for rival government expenditures. They may admire space achievements in a survey, but they don't want to spend more on it than they might, say, on a fireworks display.
NASA may have its own bureaucratic imperatives for seeking control of what Americans do in space, but in the last analysis it is a public agency. In the last analysis, the fault for its paralysis lies with Congress, which in turn reflects public opinion, which isn't at all in the space enthusiast camp.
Beyond that, there's a much mightier force than NASA, all but ignored by the "private space frontier" fans. Can we really believe that if there had never been a NASA, the opening of space would have been left to the discretion of several thousand inventors and entrepreneurs? Control of space is a MILITARY ASSET. The historical accident is not that the moon program was launched in a time of international rivalry. The accident is that a disastrous choice of engagements in Vietnam gave a bad name to military rivalry in American folklore. Therefore, thirty years after the moon landings, their motivation is regarded as foolishness. But the technology of guided missiles and of reconnaissance from space is a serious business, and there is no chance that the government would have stayed aloof from developments if NASA were out of the way.
This observation is all the more pungent now that we're militarily engaged on the home front as well as abroad. If the eccentric, kindly professor can build a rocket in his garage and launch it from his back yard, so can the demented terrorist living in a cave.
Still, I, like Klerkx et al., have spent a lifetime wishing for an open space frontier,one in which ordinary folks like us could personally participate. One has to hope that somehow the societal obstacles will dissolve. And I do applaud the efforts of the private players.
That's the big picture. Before we part company, I also have a smalltime point to make. Klerkx repeatedly characterizes the L5 Society as "O'Neill's L5 Society". Actually, Gerard O'Neill kept it at arm's length. The organization was seeded at the second of the Princeton Conferences on Space Manufacturing Facilities, which was indeed organized by O'Neill. A group of participants, including me, put our names on a list of those eager to set up a grassroots organization. O'Neill, however, was rather edgy about the idea, and did not promote it. His own persona was better represented by the Space Studies Institute, subsequently set up to do research that would demonstrate critical technologies. O'Neill's value to the movement lay precisely in the fact that he was a physicist with a proven track record. Involvement with the hoi polloi (never free of kooks) could only impair that value.