What is the slow up with space exploration?

Thanks to Russia and Sputnik, the US managed to get into space and onto the moon within 9 years. We went to the moon six times between 1969 and 1972, and have not been back since. For twenty-two years we have been using the same technology (which I have heard could not even take us back to the moon, though I do not know this for sure). We were planning to be back on the moon sometime in the eighties, but now we are only trying to build a station that will hold seven people.

So maybe I have read too much science fiction in my life, but it seems to me that we should be further along by now. So what went wrong? Did we mess up somewhere, or were all the authors I read as a child simply too optimistic? I would love to hear any ideas out there.


No, we just decided we have other things to spend our money on. That’s a bummer, but I wouldn’t read any deeper meaning into it.

The public support just isn’t there anymore. Back in the sixties, space exploration was hugely popular because it was seen as a competition with the Soviets. The Space Race was the greatest thing in the world for space exploration. Good ol’ competition. :slight_smile:

Today, no one really cares about it. Voters think that we need to concentrate on problems here on Earth, specifically problems that affect them. Space exploration is way back there on the voter’s list of priorities, so it’s similarly way back there on the list of politician’s priorities. So, there’s not really much more advancement.

The private sector isn’t doing anything about it because it’s hugely expensive and there’s no obvious way to make a profit from it.


Incorrect Loopus. The private sector is very interested in space exploration, and are spending billions on it. Think Sea Launch for instance, or Pegasus for the American companies. (Sea Launch is also Russian I believe.) There was Rotory Rocket, which went bust, and X-Cor is making pretty good progress I heard last November. More companies would get started for such work, except that to an extent, NASA strangles them.

Manned space flights are a huge waste of money - unmanned vehicles make much more sense.

China, however, has decided to re-invent the wheel by planning a manned flight. The theory is, the people will feel a great swell of national pride and the communist party will bolster its mandate to rule - political reasons, IOW.

Let’s see an unmanned vehicle upgrade the Hubble next time.

A shortsighted populace and the shortsighted politicians they elect.

Me, I wanna vacation on the Moon, dammit!

The “trickle-down” effect has largely evaporated. In the fifties and sixties, NASA required new alloys, new plastics and new computers to achieve certain difficult but not impossible goals; to put a man in orbit and then eventually on the moon. The blank check the U.S. Government gave NASA allowed them to sponsor huge amounts of technological and engineering research. The results of that research found its way into commercial and consumer products.

Nowadays, these kinds of government subsidies are unnecessary. The pace of technological development is pushed along by corporations competing to sell the latest car or personal computer. What new innovations were required to build the space shuttle? What new consumer or commercial products are likiely to stem from it? Calling something “space-age” used to be impressive; now it seems hokey and dated.

Science can still benefit greatly from NASA’s research, but the discovery of unusual stellar effects is not likely to lead to stronger alloys. SETI’s demand for faster computers may drive research, but no more so than the demand for the Pentium V. If “better, cheaper, faster” remains the NASA slogan, they may well go to Best Buy and plunk down some bucks for a new computer when they need one, just like the civilians.

Space exploration as performed by NASA no longer exists as a means to stimulate engineering research. Maybe if a president determined to land men on Mars and safely return them to Earth, we’d see a rush of engineering research to build elaborate spaceships and life-support systems. Without such a difficult but attainable goal in mind, NASA simply flails around. The space station by itself serves no major engineering purpose, since it represents a problem solved. It wasn’t even necessary to actually put the station into service once all the problems had been worked out on paper.

Nowadays, we don’t need NASA for new engineering ideas, but there remains vast potential from the private sector. For a private company, the problem is not to put a man in orbit, but to do it cheaply enough to make it profitable. This is where we’ll see space exploration made accessable and fire up public interest again.

I’m surprised no one has mentioned the obvious fact that the Space Race not only was good for national morale, but also provided a convenient cover for ongoing work on ballistic missile systems. Ballistic missiles as weapons-delivery systems were hopelessly inaccurate in the mid-1950s. Every increase in reliability and accuracy for manned space filght and a trip to the moon paid dividend in improvements for weapons systems. It also gavce us new technology for orbiting spy satellites. The Soviets used the advances for the same purposes. Each side also proposed and studied (and condemned interest by the other side in) orbital bombs.

I’m no paranoid conspiracy nut, but it’s clear to me that a space race to the moon is a more optimistic and likely PR focus than concentrating on the military aspects. It probably made it easier to get funding and public approval of work that was required. And those improvements were made in the ICBMs and other military hardware.

So Why the slowdown in Space Technology? No Soviet Union any more (although nuclear threats still exist), and the technology has now matured. There may be private industry interest in space, but not to the extent of sponsoring lunar colonies (which was touted as the next step in human exploration of space) – too expensive, with no real payoff. You’d think that the military might still be interested for Moon is a Harsh Mistress scenarios, but maybe not enough of them have read that book.

what Cal said. my old man was in the airforce during the height of the space race and believed it to be nothing much more than a smokescreen for weapons development. sure, they learned a bunch of stuff by going to the moon, but they learned alot more about ICBM’s and how to put them where they wanted them.

I rather agree with rjung. I want to vacation on the moon.

But other than that, does anyone think that since China is trying to get in on space that this will cause a new push to keep ahead? Or are we just too lazy now?


An alternative view is that this will help bring China up the value added manufacturing and engineering curve. China already has a pretty good launch record for satellites, so it’s not like they are trying to build an aerospace industry from scratch.

I would guess that with China starting to get more active, it will increase competition and the US will probably do more. Russia needs to get their economy in shape first.

Also, a lot of people lost their enthusiasm for astronauts and the like after the Challenger.

I agree Guin…Challenger really knocked the wind out of us.

Fear not - the space tourist industry is not completely dead. These folks are offering a $10 million (US) prize for any private group who can build and launch a 3-man spacecraft, bring it back to earth, and relaunch the same ship two weeks later:


($10 million doesn’t seem like much of a prize - how much would it cost to develop a working vehicle?)

Having just spent an irritating 10 mins trying to find the title of a book only from a vagues synopsis I remember from reading it years ago I will attempt to get the jist of the idea across.

Written jointly by one of the Apollo astronauts it speculates an alternative time line from the point of Kennedy being assasinated i.e. what if he’d survived. What if the space race had continued. By all accounts the plans were to land men on Mars by the late 80’s. The science sounds right, I would hope so from an ex Apollo astronaut and just shows what we might have achieved had we not gone in other directions.

Amongst many policy changes not least the US publics increasing apathy for moon missions, (come on hands up who watched all of them on TV, if they were even on). Vietnam (sorry to any involved) but fighting a war does tend to remove funding from other government agencies.

All in all IMHO an interesting idea. If I can remember the title of the book will post it up.

Here’s to the first commercial flights to orbit, I’m in.


IIRC the budget for the Space Shuttle program is about $3 billion a year, which comes to about half a billion per launch. I’d guess that for the cost of at most two repair missions, you can build an upgraded telescope and launch it with an expendable rocket. It will be in a better orbit too - if the Shuttle didn’t have to reach it, it could be placed in a higher orbit which is better suited for observation. It’s really hard to observe when the earth fills half the sky, and goes around every hour.

In fact, I can’t think of a single thing astronauts can do that an unmanned satellite couldn’t do cheaper. Let’s face it, practical applications can’t justify the enormous cost of the manned space program. We still do it because enough of us think it’s important for its own sake - to learn how to survive in space, and eventually be able to do useful work, and some day allow us to travel to and colonize space. But with the cold war gone, the other major reason for the space program - i.e. demonstration of the technological superiority - has all but disappeared, and it’s no surprise that the space program has slowed down a bit.

I’m surprised to hear this. It’s exploration - the astronauts knew the risks, we all know they did. People don’t seem to lose enthusiasm for auto racing when a few drivers get killed, so why would space exploration be different?

I have through about this one a bit, and I think it was because it startled the US. This was the first time we had lost an astronaut, let alone several and a civilian, and so people finally realized how dangerous it was. People seemed convinced that space should be safer than driving a car, and so stopped, slowed down, and modified things trying to make it so.

Actually, didn’t a couple of astronauts die back in the 60’s when a shuttle went berzerk while still docked? I don’t know my details, but I think somebody here will be able to post a blow-by-blow with exact quotes and cites.


Yes, three astronauts died while training on the ground in 1967, when an Apollo capsule caught fire. This training excercise was retroactively designated as the Apollo 1 mission. Apollo 13 also came close to having fatalities. The Challenger incident was the first time Americans died on an actual space flight.