In the July of 1969, President Nixon, along with the entire nation, watched as a promise made eight years earlier by President Kennedy—to put a man on the Moon—was finally fulfilled. This event captured the attention and imagination of the world as the United States became the first country to reach what President Nixon called the ‘sea of tranquility.”
However, over the next three years, “the public became blasé about the ever-present hazards of space as well as the excitement of its challenge,” recalled RN in his memoirs, and, consequently funding for the Apollo program could not gain political support. Essentially, the argument against funding space exploration was that if anyone on earth was poor, no money should be spent on space.
NASA’s most recent space exploration tool, a Mars rover titled Curiosity, has faced a similar reception.
While photos sent from Curiosity have been called ‘breathe taking,’ Curiosity’s price tag—$2.5 billion—may be too much to overcome when factored into the broader ongoing debate over government spending. Veteran space journalist David put it this way to the Los Angeles Times, “At a time of home foreclosures and with jobs scarce you get this whiplash from the public. They say, ‘We’re talking about going to Mars but, her, I just lost my job.’”
But is cutting the budget the answer? In the 1970s cuts to the space program ended funding for the supersonic jet program, which Nixon considered essential “if America were to retain its lead in the field of commercial aviation.” The planned budget cuts to NASA for upcoming fiscal year 2013 is set to be 20%, or 300 million dollars, which will result in hundreds of layoffs.
Curiosity does have some political support with Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R Texas), who posted on her website:
“The soft landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars is a testament to NASA’s engineering superiority.
“More importantly, it serves as the most recent and best example of why it is so important for us to continue to invest in deep space exploration. By committing to expand the horizons of exploration, we guarantee new discoveries and new applications from all we learn.
“I want to congratulate the men and women of NASA for an outstanding job.
“The first pictures, from more than 350 million miles away, are breathtaking. America can’t wait to see what new information the rover uncovers and sends back to us.”
Careful evaluation is necessary regarding the future of the space program. Responses based on budgetary concerns alone can be short sighted and threaten more than their intended target. As President Nixon reminds us, “when a great nation drops out of a race to explore the unknown, that nation ceases to be great.”
Ian Delzer is a Research Assistant at the Richard Nixon Foundation