Last weekend marked the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, the first manned space flight to the moon. In endless articles, observers are asking why no attempts have been made to land men on the moon since the Apollo program. In considering this, I think it’s useful to examine the U.S. and other space programs against a prior, comparable period of exploration – the European journey to the Western Hemisphere. The similarities and differences between the two will help us understand the issues behind that question.
The Race to India
The initial European explorations five centuries ago had similarities to the U.S. and Soviet space programs of the 1960s. First, both were extremely expensive and carefully planned. The two countries most competitive in these explorations, Portugal and Spain, spent a substantial proportion of their national budgets on the expeditions. The Portuguese trained captains and navigators and built ships that could sustain a crew for extended periods of time and survive dangerous conditions. They carried out a systematic program of exploration, with each voyage pushing farther south along the African coast in search of a passage to India. Meanwhile, Christopher Columbus had approached several countries, including France and England, soliciting funding for his own expeditions, but he was repeatedly turned down because of the program’s cost and improbability of success. Only Spain was willing to fund his journey, contributing both state funds and private investment.
Second, both programs were undertaken for reasons of national security and prestige. The Portuguese and Spaniards were bent on finding a route to India, the source of critical products for Europe. The traditional route from India to Europe had been disrupted by the Ottoman conquest of Turkey and the accompanying increases in tariffs. This shifted the economic process in Europe, and any nation that found another path to India would prosper enormously from the trade, with the added benefit of weakening the Ottomans.
Portugal’s program introduced new naval technologies and explored uncharted waters. It was Portugal that finally found the southern tip of Africa, navigating around it and through the Indian Ocean to India itself, landing in 1498. This frightened the Spaniards. They feared that Portugal would threaten them in Iberia and become the dominant power in Europe. The Spanish had only just expelled the last Muslim enclave in Spain in 1492, and the cost had crippled the national budget. But if Spain simply allowed Portugal to control the new route to India, Portugal would eventually control the oceans, and Portuguese power and prestige would dwarf Spain’s.
That’s why they were prepared to invest in Columbus’ risky voyage. The Portuguese navy dominated the southern route, and they had to find a different one. Columbus’ proposal to sail westward into unknown waters was risky. But it was the only practical chance for Spain to compete in the race to India. When Columbus reached what he thought was India, he found very little of value there. In that sense, his voyages were a failure, and he returned to Spain to great criticism. But the Spanish doubled down, permitting additional journeys that also yielded little economic benefit, prompting Spain to suspend further explorations. The Portuguese, whose route to India had economic value and lent them national power, continued their voyages. The Spaniards slipped behind.
But in due course, with further exploration that was far less risky than Columbus’, the Spanish discovered the Incas in the Andes and the Aztecs in Mexico, both wealthy with gold and silver. The Spaniards conquered them (with disease as well as guns), took their wealth, and defeated Portugal in the race to wealth and power.
The Race to the Moon
The U.S. and Soviet space programs, like the European expeditions, were rooted in political and strategic considerations. Toward strategic ends, each country created and launched spy satellites to monitor the other’s military preparations. It was therefore critical that large sums be devoted to low Earth orbit spy satellites. Toward political ends, each sought prestige. The U.S. and the Soviet Union were making ideological claims concerning the effectiveness of their social and political systems, using demonstrations of technology to persuade other nations to come into their camps. The initial Soviet manned flights brought them political influence. Later, the moon landing lent that influence to the U.S. But there was a fundamental difference between the value of that influence and the cost of the space programs.
Manned flights did not persist, but space as a realm of military power did. And over time, the military power of space yielded economic benefits, from increased communication capabilities to GPS. Still, the economic benefits of manned missions to the moon simply did not compare to those that eventually accrued to Spain and Portugal.
Without clear economic value, Spain put a hold on exploration. Columbus’ journey yielded substantial scientific knowledge, but it could not support the cost of further exploration. Expeditions had to be justified by more immediate benefits. The same can be seen in the hiatus on U.S. manned moon missions. Having achieved its political and military ends, the U.S. continued the scientific dimension with limited unmanned explorations. Further manned trips to the moon were not economically viable.
That is changing now. As I argued in my recent piece on command of the seas, space is now the key to military power. And that means that space is now a potential battleground. Control of space will depend on strategic depth. If space is the key to military dominance, then nations will move beyond extremely vulnerable satellites – a few key satellites for GPS and communications control may not survive a major conflict. The moon, then, becomes a strategic asset. Its military use is unclear at this point, but it is emerging. On the moon, it is possible to dig in and secure assets in ways that can’t be done in orbit. This means that a manned presence on the moon may well happen again, for the same reason that Spain continued its maritime exploration program: to build national power.
Still, the economic benefit of going to the moon is absent, and thus the cost of the military effort is not underwritten by economic gain, as was the case with the Iberian surge onto the oceans. This is the great weakness in a U.S. return to manned moon flights. I have written in the past that the value of space is unlimited solar power (which can be collected and returned to Earth as microwaves and then transferred into the electrical grid). Some argued that the platforms I envisioned would be vulnerable to attack, but that might be mitigated by lunar-based systems. Space-based solar power is much more efficient than Earth-based systems, which must deal with night and clouds. Beyond solar power, though, it is at present hard to imagine other economic uses of the moon.
One could say that space exploration is an end in itself. But except for limited efforts, this is empirically untrue. The Iberian exploration was driven by economics, military power and politics. The space exploration of the 1960s was driven by military power and political desire. The economic factor existed only where the technology developed could be spun off for commercial uses.
At present, commercial space companies are focused on supporting military and related efforts in space and on space tourism. The former would take place anyway, and the latter is a dubious indulgence. The commercial use of space remains the key for returning to the moon. And if my suggestion for space-based solar power is rejected, then some other must be found. Columbus did not come to America to build knowledge. He came for money, and Spain funded him for wealth and power.