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Former NASA Administrator O’Keefe on the Importance of a Crash Space Exploration Program

July 20, 2019 (EIRNS)—Under the title “Apollo 11: A Seismic Scientific Event That Multiplied Pace of Technology,” in The Hill today, former NASA Administrator (2001-2005) Sean O’Keefe addressed the crucial importance of the crash-program approach to the Apollo Moon project in the 1960s, not only in getting to the Moon much earlier than would otherwise have been possible, but also in accelerating the pace of technological development for the world as a whole.

O’Keefe states that the historic Apollo 11 Moon landing “happened ahead of schedule—not the schedule President Kennedy laid out—but the pace of technology development schedule. The natural course of events and continuous improvements may have yielded the capacity to accomplish the lunar mission perhaps a decade or two later—maybe.”

He observes that

“the entire computing capacity in the vaunted Houston Mission Control room, for example, was roughly the equivalent of what we have in an iPhone today. For the mission control tasks andeverything else it would take to launch Apollo, NASA did it with precision tools that are today’s technology equivalent of sledge hammers. The explorers and adventurers of 50 years ago accomplished this goal by brute force and determination. The result of their effort was to dramatically multiply the pace of technology development since then. The capacity and urgency emerged to design lighter materials, electronic components to respond faster, and chemical propulsion to generate power at levels unimaginable.... The impact to all of us as citizens is huge—accessible commercial aviation to go anywhere, nearly anytime, information and communications systems small enough to put into your pocket and contact anyone anywhere on the globe in moments, and medical breakthroughs like heart pumps and valves that have drastically reduced the incidents of heart attacks since the 1960s. This is just a random compendium of incredible applications that all have their origins in this national quest to access space and go to the Moon.

“Might these developments have happened without the catalyst? Possibly, but certainly not at the accelerated pace that has been achieved. Perhaps most important, it’s uncertain whether the United States would be the technology leader it is today without this national policy objective.”

O’Keefe writes that the initial impulse for Kennedy’s 1961 call for getting to the Moon and back “within this decade” was the response, and fear, from the U.S.S.R. getting to space and putting a man in space first. But by the time of the Rice University speech in September 1962,

“he defined the reasons to go to the Moon that transcended the fear motive. Instead the emphasis of the speech was the desire to yield to the human quest for knowledge, describe the remarkable capabilities we would develop and the stunning possibilities we might come to understand to our great benefit.... He never mentioned the Soviets. There was no utterances of fear-mongering. It was all about doing extraordinary things to accomplish aspirations larger than ourselves. The U.S. policy was recrafted to be an economic development initiative to provide capacity and technology prowess.”

O’Keefe writes that “The mythical notion that space exploration and going to Moon were wildly popular in the United States of the 1960s is a latter day version of ‘fake news.’ ” He states that the War in Vietnam, the civil rights movement, the War on Poverty were all used in the argument that the space program was too expensive, and some still argue that today. But, he concludes: “If we don’t pursue aspirations that stretch our capacity to overcome limitations, obstacles and opposition to seek new opportunities and destinations for humans to explore, we lose. To do so denies our human desire to learn.”

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