Roger D. Launius
Roger Launius is the NASA Chief Historian. He is the Editor of Space Times for the American Astronautical Society, where he is also VP of Publications. Dr. Launius’ office is responsible for preparing books and special studies on US aerospace history, managing the NASA Historical Reference Collection, and providing historical services to the NASA staff and public. (cf. Project Apollo: A Retrospective Analysis)
He is the author and editor of numerous works. including Spaceflight and the Myth of Presidential Leadership, Edited by Roger D. Launius and Howard E. McCurdy, University of Illinois Press 1997. This book addresses the issue: Presidential leadership had much to do with the evolution of the United States space program. Or did it? In Spaceflight and the Myth of Presidential Leadership, ten contributors present compelling arguments and analyses that shed new light on the power and leadership of the nation’s presidency and on the spaceflight program. Setting the tone for the collection, Roger Launius and Howard McCurdy maintain that the nation’s presidency had become imperial by the mid-1970s and that supporters of the space program had grown to find relief in such a presidency, which they believed could help them obtain greater political support and funding. Subsequent chapters explore the roles and political leadership, vis-à-vis government policy, of presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan.
JOSEPH SMITH III, Pragmatic Prophet,Herald Publishing House 1990. Winner of the Evans Biography Award and the John Whitmer Association Best Book Award. “One of the best biographies yet written about any Latter Day Saint leader in either the Reorganized church or Utah Mormon Church . . .. ‘Must’ reading for all students of Mormon history.” — Newell Bringhurst,Kingdom on the Mississippi Revisited, Nauvoo in Mormon History, Edited by Roger D. Launius and John E. Hallwas, University of Illinois Press 1996. “A significant collection . . . that provides a depth and breadth of understanding reflective of the latest and best in Mormon history.” — Paul M. Edwards, author of Our Legacy of Faith: A Brief History of the RLDS. Who were the Nauvoo Mormons? Were they Jacksonian Americans or did they embody some other weltanschaung? Why did this tiny Illinois town become such a protracted battleground for the Mormons and non-Mormons in the region? And what is the larger meaning of the Nauvoo experience for the various inheritors of the legacy of Joseph Smith, Jr.? Kingdom on the Mississippi Revisited includes fourteen thoughtful explanations that represent the most insightful and imaginative work on Mormon Nauvoo published in the last thirty years. The range of topics includes the Nauvoo Legion, the Mormon press, the political kingdom of God, the opposition of non-Mormons, the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, and the meaning of Nauvoo for Mormons. The introduction provides a critique of Nauvoo scholarship, and a closing bibliographical essay analyzes the historical literature on the Mormon experience at Nauvoo. He won the 1995 Matthews Prize for the best article to appear in Military History of the West with his piece titled, A New Way of War: The Development of Military Aviation in the American West, 1880-1945, which appeared in the Fall 1995 issue.
Additional books can be found listed at
The NASA History Home page is at https://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/history.html and the site to do a search within those pages is
(This interview took place between March and April 2000.)
Resonance: Can you describe your responsibilities as NASA Chief Historian?
Launius: The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) implemented a history program to ensure that the documentary foundation of the agency’s history was captured and preserved for current and future generations, to stimulate historical research in areas of inquiry that might broaden perceptions of the modern age of aerospace research and development, and to disseminate the results of NASA’s historical documentation and research activities. The result has been a multi-level effort to collect, preserve, and communicate historical knowledge about the agency. My specific responsibilities include overseeing a small staff of historians, archivists, and support personnel who carry out the collection, preservation, and communication of historical information. We publish a series of books and electronic materials to present the history of the agency. We also participate in numerous scholarly and popular forums where historical information is presented.
Resonance: Do other Federal agencies have historians?
Launius: Most of them do. The Department of Defense, and the military services that make it up, has the largest and most sophisticated programs. The Air Force, for instance, has more than 300 historians working in a variety of locations around the globe.
Resonance: How did you come to this position of NASA Chief Historian?
Launius: I had been working as a historian for the Air Force in 1980 when I received a notice that NASA was seeking a full-time chief historian. It was a dream job in several ways. Most important, it was NASA. This is an agency that I have admired since I was a child. It has an exciting science and technology mission unmatched by any other Federal organization, and so I applied.
Resonance: Obviously, you are an administrator and a scholar. It would seem a very difficult task to balance these two almost orthogonal activities. How do you manage to do it?
Launius: Sometimes I wonder if I do. I spend most of the days working on administrative issues to ensure the relatively smooth running of the NASA History Division. I reserve the majority of my scholarly activity for evenings and weekends, simply because I don’t have time during the day.
Resonance: Is part of your role at NASA to be a booster to the public?
Launius: My task is to collect, preserve, and disseminate knowledge about the agency’s history. That includes presentations to public, academic, and scientific/technical audiences at least 20 times per year. I also speak as an on-camera interviewee for several national and international news programs and documentaries about spaceflight every year. Both I and my NASA supervisor believe these are very important activities, because they help fulfill a mandate NASA has in its charter, the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, to disseminate to the broadest possible audience the activities it undertakes.
Resonance: If I were NASA Administrator, I would regularly bring your historical perspectives into my decision-making loop. Certainly there would be much to learn from the brief but intense history of NASA and its predecessor the NACA. Are you part of the decision loop?
Launius: Yes, I am involved in the policy making process at NASA. The History Division is a part of the Office of Policy and Plans. As such, it acts synergistically with the policy analysts of the agency. This effort has been active since the beginning of NASA’s history program, and I routinely offer historical perspective to NASA executive leaders to help inform their decision-making. The staff support activities take the form of answering information requests on a timely basis, researching and writing short historical papers on issues of significance in the agency, and delivering briefings and lectures to agency personnel on contemporary concerns that could be illuminated with historical information. A notable example of this type of staff support occurred in January 1986 when the Challenger exploded. Sylvia Fries, then historian for NASA, prepared within a matter of hours a detailed historical paper for the NASA administrator on how the agency handled previous disasters. The information assisted the shocked administrators regain their composure and rise to the occasion.
Resonance: What projects are you spending your time on currently?
Launius: As an organization, the History Division is producing a series of histories on several aspects of the origins and development of the agency. The most significant of these, perhaps, is Exploring the Unknown: Selected Documents in the History of the U.S. Civil Space Program. Four volumes of a projected six-volume work that collects key historical documents, organizes them by subject, and presents them in a much more broadly useful form than in the past have now been published with the final two volumes to be published in 2000 and 2001.
My own work at present centers on the social and cultural history of Project Apollo. Titled “Project Apollo in American Myth and Memory,” it explores the continuing significance of Apollo as a part of the American psyche. There is a series of notions that have become a part of American culture as a result of the Moon landings and that hold sway some 30 years after the landing of Apollo 11 in July 1969. The most obvious of these is the now trite saying, “If we can put a man on the Moon, why can’t we….” But the legacy of Apollo actually goes much deeper. Modeled on other works in history that are asking central questions about the shaping of national character in response to the myth and memory of past events, this project raises the following issues:
- Visions of Reality (The quest for the Moon in history and how perceptions about it changed as a result of Apollo)
- A Moment in Time (John F. Kennedy’s (JFK) unique 1961 decision to go to the Moon and what misperceptions about it did to spacefaring advocates)
- The Culture of Confidence (NASA’s rise as a “can do” agency because of Apollo and that legacy)
- The Astronaut as Icon (The astronaut as a celebrity and what that has meant in American life ranging from business and commerce to psychological challenges)
- Technological Virtuosity (NASA’s accomplishment in successfully reaching the Moon)
- Last Stand of the White Male Establishment (A postmodern analysis of the effort)
- Revelations (What Apollo taught humanity about itself, the whole Earth, environmentalism.)
The project also points the direction to the future, a subject of direct relevance by asking the following questions: How has Apollo affected the perspective of what is appropriate in space exploration? How has the program helped to shape present perspectives on space flight and future exploration? Why did Apollo capture the American imagination of the era?
Resonance: What is your writing style? Do you spend a few hours each day writing, ensuring that you will make progress with your books?
Launius: I tend to write for at least a while every day. Sometimes that is no longer than one hour, but it’s a little like exercise, one gets hooked on the experience and needs to do it every day. I have published at least one book a year since 1984, and to keep up that pace requires writing every day.
Resonance: Do you see a recurrence of similar excitement and potential as the one that spawned Apollo?
Launius: Clearly, Apollo was the penultimate of excitement of the space age during its first forty years. Landing humans on the Moon had never been done before in human history and certainly that great accomplishment has lasting importance. Indeed, I like to talk about the spring 1999 poll of opinion leaders sponsored by leading news organizations in the United States. Of the 100 most significant events of the twentieth century, the Moon landing was a very close second to the splitting of the atom and its use during World War II. Probably historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. best summarized the position of a large number of individuals polled. “The one thing for which this century will be remembered 500 years from now was: This was the century when we began the exploration of space.” He noted that Project Apollo gave many a sense of infinite potential. Schlesinger added that he looked toward a positive future and that prompted him to rank the lunar landing first. “I put DNA and penicillin and the computer and the microchip in the first 10 because they’ve transformed civilization. Wars vanish,” Schlesinger said, and many people today cannot even recall when the Civil War took place. “Pearl Harbor will be as remote as the War of the Roses,” he said, referring to the English civil war of the 15th century. And there’s no need to get hung up on the ranking, he said. “The order is essentially very artificial and fictitious,” he said. “It’s very hard to decide the atomic bomb is more important than getting on the Moon.”
But even though Apollo is the centerpiece, Americans remain excited about space exploration. You can point to numerous instances of this excitement. The public’s reaction to the landing of the Viking spacecraft on Mars in 1976, the encounters of Voyager 1 and 2 with the outer planets in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the launch of the first Space Shuttle mission in 1981, the enormous scientific return from the Hubble Space Telescope, the discovery of possible fossilized microbial life in the Mars meteorite in 1996, the landing of Mars Pathfinder in 1997, and the return to space of John Glenn after 36 years in 1998 all speak to the enduring significance of the endeavor and the excitement it engenders among the American public.
And even the failures, the tragic example in the last 15 years is the Challenger accident, create enormous public interest. Challenger is one of those rare events that serves as a benchmark of life. Like the end of World War II, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the landing on the Moon in 1969, most everyone can tell you where they were and what they were doing when they first heard of it. It was that significant! And part of that significance rests in space exploration as a core attribute of what it means to be an American.
While reverent of our American political and social developments with democracy and pluralism, we are just as excited about our technological accomplishments, and spaceflight is one of the standard bearers of that technological virtuosity. Indeed, the United States is not just the nation of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglas, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but also of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Manhattan Project, and NASA. These reinforced the belief throughout the world that America was the technological giant of the world. Until the loss of Challenger, NASA and its accomplishments symbolized more than any other institution America’s technological creativity. That symbolism accounts more than any other for the difficulties the agency has felt in the recent past. Every NASA failure raises the question of American technological virtuosity in the world and questioning of American capability in so many other areas is already underway that setbacks in this one are all the more damaging to the American persona. American doubts have increased with every perceived failure in the space program.
So, that is a long way of saying that I believe space exploration remains an important and exciting part of the American experience.
Resonance: Are there other technological or scientific arenas that you believe to be undergoing tremendous transformations, and that will have a very heavy impact on society soon?
Launius: Virtually every aspect of our world has reordered itself in my lifetime because of science and technology. I am impressed by a comment in Steven Ambrose’s book, Undaunted Courage, about Meriwether Lewis. Ambrose made the point that at the beginning of the nineteenth century everything moved at the speed of a horse. “No human being,” he observed, “no manufactured item, no bushel of wheat, no side of beef (or any beef on the hoof, for that matter), no letter, no information, no idea, no order, or instruction of any kind moved faster. Nothing ever had moved faster, and, as far as [Thomas] Jefferson’s contemporaries were able to tell, nothing ever would.” It is an insightful comment, both at once obvious and secluded. But the nineteenth century portended enormous changes with the movement from horsepower to steam-driven railroads, then the rise of the internal combustion engine and the automobile, and finally at century’s end the dawning of a new age of flight. And, of course, this only accelerated in the twentieth century. We have seen an enormous expansion of technology throughout this century, but especially in the last quarter century. A question I like to pose is: “How would our lives be different if there were no space exploration?” We can start with global instantaneous communication of telephone, data, and video. They would not exist. That, in itself, is overpowering. Then we can consider a host of other space-based observation activities, spinoff technologies, and the enormous direct scientific return, on which there cannot begin to be placed a pricetag. We are going to see more of the same in the next century.
Resonance: Could you summarize the thesis of your recent book, Spaceflight and the Myth of Presidential Leadership?
Launius: I have been puzzled since arriving at NASA by a statement that goes something like, “if we just had a president like John F. Kennedy with the vision and foresight to announce a bold space exploration initiative and to support that initiative all would be well with NASA.” The assumption was that JFK’s Apollo decision was the normative process in policy formulation and could and should be replicated by succeeding presidents. I was curious if that was true. In 1993, the NASA History Division co-sponsored with American University in Washington, D.C., a symposium to review the role of presidential leadership in space policy. The book that resulted contained the papers/presentations from that symposium.
In reviewing the Kennedy decision to go to the Moon, we learned that the Apollo program was overwhelmingly successful in accomplishing the political goals for which it had been created. Kennedy had been dealing with a Cold War crisis in 1961 brought on by several separate factors—the Soviet orbiting of Yuri Gagarin and the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion only two of them—that Apollo was designed to combat. At the time of the Apollo 11 landing Mission Control in Houston flashed the words of President Kennedy announcing the Apollo commitment on its big screen. Those phrases were followed with these: “TASK ACCOMPLISHED, July 1969.” No greater understatement could probably have been made. Any assessment of Apollo that does not recognize the accomplishment of landing an American on the Moon and safely returning before the end of the 1960s is incomplete and inaccurate, for that was the primary goal of JFK’s undertaking, and he did it in reaction to a political crisis.
In large measure because of its very appropriate response to Cold War problems, Apollo captured the American imagination and was met with overwhelming political support. No one seemed concerned either about the difficulty or about the expense at the time. Congressional debate was perfunctory and NASA found itself literally pressing to expend the funds committed to it during the early 1960s. Like most political decisions, at least in the U.S. experience, the decision to carry out Project Apollo was an effort to deal with an unsatisfactory situation (world perception of Soviet leadership in space and technology). As such, Apollo was a remedial action ministering to a variety of political and emotional needs floating in the ether of world opinion. Apollo addressed these problems very well and was a worthwhile action if measured only in those terms. In announcing Project Apollo, Kennedy put the world on notice that the United States would not take a back seat to its superpower rival. As space policy analyst John M. Logsdon commented in 1979: “By entering the race with such a visible and dramatic commitment, the United States effectively undercut Soviet space spectaculars without doing much except announcing its intention to join the contest.” Apollo was an effective symbol, just as Kennedy had intended.
In the end, a unique confluence of political necessity, personal commitment and activism, scientific and technological ability, economic prosperity, and public mood made possible the 1961 decision to carry out a forward-looking lunar landing program. What perhaps should be suggested is that a complex web or system of ties between various people, institutions, and interests allowed the Apollo decision. It then fell to NASA and other organizations of the Federal government to accomplish the task set out in a few short paragraphs by President Kennedy in 1961.
Therefore, what we found was that JFK’s political decision to go to the Moon was an anomaly in science and technology policy-making in Washington, and the Apollo program, while an enormous achievement, left a divided legacy for NASA and the aerospace community. The perceived “golden age” of Apollo created for the agency an expectation that the direction of any major space goal from the president would always bring NASA a broad consensus of support and provide it with the resources and license to dispense them as it saw fit. Something most NASA officials did not understand at the time of the Moon landing in 1969, however, was that Apollo had not been conducted under normal political circumstances and that the exceptional circumstances surrounding Apollo would not necessarily be repeated. The dilemma of the “golden age” of Apollo has been difficult to overcome, but moving beyond the Apollo program to embrace future opportunities has been an important goal of the agency’s leadership.
In some respects, Apollo reflected the peak of what some have called the “imperial presidency.” This is the term often given to the aggrandizement of presidential power that came during the administrations of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon. It also prompted a number of commentators to criticize the ease with which chief executives overwhelmed other centers of power in the United States. By the time of the Watergate affair, the expansion and abuse of presidential power relative to the Congress and courts had created a full-blown governmental crisis. Historians and political scientists like Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. decried the creation of the “imperial presidency” beginning in the mid-1970s and warned that deference to the president had upset the traditional system of checks and balances.
Spaceflight and the Myth of Presidential Leadership contains essays on the presidents and their space policy from Eisenhower to Bush. These essays demark the contours of presidential power, and its erosion as the “imperial presidency” shrank during the 1970s and 1980s. JFK stood at the pinnacle of the “imperial presidency” and was able to dictate a broad initiative in space exploration and to have other senior officials in the government accept that initiative with almost no debate and certainly without controversy. Perhaps the 1989 bold Space Exploration Initiative of President George Bush to go back to the Moon and on to Mars represents the trough of the “imperial presidency,” when it was more or less rejected by other political leaders and the American public.
Resonance: Does this mean that those of us interested in a return to the Moon or human flights to Mars should look to other means for generating public interest and support?
Launius: No, not entirely. Presidential leadership remains critical to any major public undertaking but much more than that is needed. Very little can be accomplished in the public sector without at least the acquiescence of the White House, especially since the president is so effective in shaping policy agendas. So clearly that person must believe whatever is proposed is a positive objective. I once heard a senior staffer on Capitol Hill explain that the White House always shapes the national agenda, perhaps most effectively, in the budget process since any public undertaking requires funding. Congress may tinker around the edges, individual members may alter certain parts of the budget to reflect their priorities, outside organizations may convince policy makers to take away from one program or give to another; but except in rare situations, in the end what will result is a budget within a few percentage points of what the president originally proposed. Absent some major crisis, recognized as such by leaders of all political persuasions, this process will be the norm. As a result, advocates of an aggressive public effort in space must have presidential support for their initiatives.
Having said that, in some respects we are talking about two different things with a return to the Moon and a human mission to Mars. A return to the Moon would be comparatively straightforward at this stage in the space age. We have done it already with the Apollo program, and we know how to go about doing it again. Such a program would require a presidential decision to return to the Moon with humans, of course, but with the state of technology it might be possible to accomplish the task in only a few years with a modest increase in the NASA budget. Mars is a far different issue. For one thing, it is much farther and more difficult to reach. We have also not yet sent humans to Mars, and the challenge that entails makes it enormously more problematical. The track record of robotic missions to Mars suggests the magnitude of impediments to the effort, outlined in the table below. It is at least an order of magnitude greater in complexity, risk, and cost than returning to the Moon.
Robotics Missions to Mars, 1960-1999
|Nation||Successful Missions||Partially Successful Missions||Unsuccessful Missions|
Without question, the United States could send human expeditions to Mars. There is nothing magical about it, and a national mobilization to do so would be successful. But a human Mars landing would require a decision to accept risk for a bold effort and to expend considerable funds in its accomplishment. I have heard a wide range of cost estimates and I’m not sure anyone really knows what the pricetag might end up being. There would also have to be a sustainment of that political decision over a period of many years and in the face of changing priorities and unforeseen difficulties.
Resonance: Do you have any thoughts on the debate between those who view the colonization of the Moon as an ideal next step in space and others who believe that Mars is the only worthy destination?
Launius: Using Apollo as a model—addressed as it was to a very specific political crisis relating to U.S./Soviet competition—my question for those seeking a decision to mount a human expedition to Mars is quite simple. What political, military, social, economic, or cultural challenge, scenario, or emergency can they envision to which the best response would be a national commitment on the part of the president and other elected officials to send humans to Mars?
Resonance: I was very interested to find out that you have a major series of books that discuss aspects of the Mormon religion and culture. Can you tell us about what aspects of Mormon life in this country you find interesting?
Launius: Mormon history is of longstanding interest to me. I was raised a member of one of the branches of Mormonism and began studying its origins and evolution as one of my earliest historical interests. More than that, religion is one of the most enduring aspects of American society—its influence is everywhere present and suggests much about the nature and development of the United States—so the study of the history of religion should be something that all American historians take an interest in.
I will give you one example of what I mean by looking at an issue in NASA history that one would think was not affected by religious ideas, but certainly it was. James C. Fletcher was NASA administrator between 1971 and 1977 and again between 1987 and 1989. Fletcher was a firm believer in the Mormon faith, and his religious convictions affected some of his NASA decision making, not in a bad way, but nonetheless religion did affect him. For instance, Fletcher emphasized the practicality of NASA satellites for communications, weather forecasting, Earth resources management, and a host of other functions that had immediate purpose. He might have been drawn to this goal anyway, but Fletcher placed a particular spin on it that hearkened to his Mormon heritage. He accepted the Mormon theological idea of stewardship, that God owns all things and that humanity could only care for them. Only through adherence to stewardship principles could the creation of a utopian community, Zion in Mormon parlance, in which all dwelt together in righteousness be accomplished. Individuals were expected to use their resources wisely, not to waste them, and to be accountable for their choices. In Utah, especially, but also earlier, the Mormons developed a frontier conservation ethic based on scarcity and the judicious use of natural and other resources. This stood in contrast to a more prevalent frontier mindset of abundance and wastefulness that has been difficult to overcome in twentieth-century America.
Fletcher was especially interested in the stewardship aspects of his work with NASA. He often commented on the practical return of space satellites and explicitly made the connection between them and the preservation (stewardship) of Earth. He had a special affinity for what NASA referred to as applications satellites, those orbiting Earth for communications, meteorology, Earth resources survey, or geodetic observation. He told a Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences in 1973:
As you know, NASA is called the space agency, but in a broader sense, we could be called an environmental agency. It is not just that space is our environment, but it is rather that, as you have seen, virtually everything we do, manned or unmanned, science or applications, helps in some practical way to improve the environment of our planet and helps us understand the forces that affect it. Perhaps that is our essential task, to study and understand the Earth and its environment.
The tangible response was the transformation of NASA into a much more diverse and practically oriented agency during Fletcher’s first term with an emphasis on applications satellites to assist in making the planet a better place on which to live.
There are other aspects to Fletcher’s Mormonism in NASA decision making as well. I wrote an article on the subject a few years ago. The bibliographical citation is: “A Western Mormon in Washington, D.C.: James C. Fletcher, NASA, and the Final Frontier,” Pacific Historical Review 64 (May 1995): 217-241.
Resonance: What is the Mormon experience at Nauvoo?
Launius: Nauvoo was a city on the Mississippi River in Illinois founded by Mormons in 1839. It was for a brief period second only to Chicago as the largest city in the state, but in 1846 it was nearly abandoned as many of the church’s members set out for the Rocky Mountains. Today Nauvoo is a small community of less than 1,500 residents, without access to major highways, railroads, or airports. It appears peaceful and almost park-like. Part of it is devoted to an idealized reconstruction of the early town, the Mormon city of the 1840s, that draws visitors from around the world. To the thousands of Mormons who come to Nauvoo each year, however, it is much more than a pleasant setting or an American historic site. It represents a seedbed from which sprang many important doctrinal concepts, a place where their religion took shape. Considered from that perspective, the rise and fall of Mormon Nauvoo was a sacred episode, a refiner’s fire in which pioneers of the church encountered opposition and demonstrated their spiritual superiority. In the 1840s they met an opposition that led to casualties on all sides. One of those casualties was Joseph Smith Jr., the Mormon prophet, who was murdered in nearby Carthage, Illinois, the county seat, while awaiting trial in 1844 for crimes both real and imagined. The scars of that struggle are still present in the attitudes and perspectives of present-day Mormonism. Hence, the town’s early history is regarded as a kind of verification of religious truth, and Nauvoo is central to Mormon identity. To many historians and others outside the church, Nauvoo is important simply because the Mormons who lived there in the 1840s struggled with other Americans in the region over fundamental questions of ideology, leading to casualties on all sides and, eventually, to a mass migration to the West. For non-Mormons and religious scholars, the conflict of the 1840s raises fascinating and significant questions about American frontier culture and the place of the early Mormons in the development of the nation, questions that will forever be associated with that quiet, richly historic village.
Resonance: Speaking to a young person of about 13-14 years old, just entering High School, what advice would you offer?
Launius: Educate yourself, follow your dreams for career, choose companionship wisely, and always, repeat always, seek joy.
Resonance: One would have to be approaching 40 years in age to have a first-hand recollection of the Apollo landings on the Moon. And yet, because of other activity in space, many take space for granted. Some have said that because of “realistic” movies, people are not excited by the real thing. Is there a way around this?
Launius: Half of the world’s population has been born since the first lunar landing in 1969. That means that a decreasing percentage every year witnessed the landings. One of the interesting speculative questions to be considered is how people 100 years hence will view Apollo. Will the astronauts who landed on the Moon be remembered as something akin to Columbus and his voyages to the Americas, as vanguards of sustained human exploration and settlement? Or will they prove to be more like Leif Erickson’s voyages from Scandinavia several hundred years earlier, stillborn in the European process of exploration to new lands? No one knows at present, but it is incumbent on the policy makers and the public to make decisions about sustained exploration.
Resonance: What are the great-unanswered questions in science today and in the forseeable future?
Launius: NASA has developed a set of six fundamental questions to be used in formulating its plans for the exploration of space. I cannot come up with any questions more appropriate than these:
- How did the universe, galaxies, stars, and planets form and evolve? How can our exploration of the universe and our solar system revolutionize our understanding of physics, chemistry, and biology?
- Does life in any form, however simple or complex, carbon-based or other, exist elsewhere than on planet Earth? Are there Earth-like planets beyond our solar system?
- How can we utilize the knowledge of the Sun, Earth, and other planetary bodies to develop predictive environmental, climate, natural disaster, and natural resource models to help ensure sustainable development and improve the quality of life on Earth?
- What is the fundamental role of gravity and cosmic radiation in vital biological, physical, and chemical systems in space, on other planetary bodies, and on Earth, and how do we apply this fundamental knowledge to the establishment of permanent human presence in space to improve life on Earth?
- How can we enable revolutionary technological advances to provide air and space travel for anyone, anytime, anywhere more safely, more affordably, and with less impact on the environment and improve business opportunities and global security?
- What cutting-edge technologies, processes, and techniques and engineering capabilities must we develop to enable our research agenda in the most productive, economical, and timely manner? How can we most effectively transfer the knowledge we gain from our research and discoveries to commercial ventures in the air, in space, and on Earth?
Resonance: Why are so few scientists seen in positions of policy authority? Where is their education going “wrong”?
Launius: I’m not so sure that only a few scientists are involved in policy making. There has long been a strong tradition of obtaining input on science policy from practicing scientists. There are space science boards, science policy review teams, standing advisory organizations, and professional scientific organizations that all play a role in the policy-making process. There are scientists on NASA projects and in NASA policy planning groups that play an important role as well.
Resonance: Are institutions of higher education appropriately preparing this nation’s scientists for the future as you see it?
Launius: Education is one of the most pressing issues facing the United States at the dawn of the twenty-first century, just as it has always been. I suspect we will continue to see what has been the trend historically. The very best scientists in the world will be trained in our institutions of higher learning while the vast majority of Americans continue to have little genuine understanding of the scientific process, the questions to be explored, and the results emerging from sustained scientific research. I find that quite troubling. We live in the most technologically and scientifically advanced nation in the most technologically and scientifically advanced age the world has ever produced, yet the average American has little understanding of any of it. We must all do a better job of educating the American public about science and its impact on our lives, about technology and its affect on us. And that includes the positive, neutral, and negative aspects of those impacts.
Resonance: One of the great benefits of the space program was the excitement it generated amongst our young, leading many of them to careers in science, engineering, and mathematics. Today, that interest is not profound. Where do we lose the scientific and mathematical interests of our junior and high school students?
Launius: I’m not sure that the generation of excitement about space exploration has changed more over time. Many people have suggested that Apollo really captured the attention of everyone and excited many children to pursue careers in science and technology. Actually, I think the level of excitement was about the same for both Apollo and the space program in the 1990s. For instance, the chart below traces public support for lunar exploration from the 1960s to the mid-1990s. It shows that there has been a relatively consistent 40 percent of the public, plus or minus a few percentage points, in favor of missions to the Moon, and a fairly consistent 50 percent of the public who oppose the endeavor from the 1960s to the 1990s.
Resonance: Would you change the educational path you have chosen if you were to do it all over again?
Launius: I was a biology major in college until I ran into the challenge of inorganic chemistry. I really struggled with the math and finally changed my major to history. History had long been a fascinating subject for me and I have no regrets. However, all education provides a foundation upon which to build.
Resonance: Are students in the liberal arts receiving sufficient introduction to science and engineering in order to make intelligent decisions as citizens? Moreover, are students in the sciences receiving enough of the liberal arts so that they can appreciate the importance of the arts to society?
Launius: There is far too much stove-piping in education, regardless of the type of education being obtained and the discipline being pursued. Liberal arts students should understand the science and technology that informs their lives. Science and engineering students should be exposed at length to art and literature and history and the other humanities. Such exposure makes one a well-rounded individual
Resonance: Has Government received a bad rap for being ineffective and layered with people who don’t do very much?
Launius: I believe it has. Government organizations, of course, have bureaucracies that sometimes are opaque to outsiders and create frustrations for customers. Those frustrations are also present for those inside the organizations. But, I have found equally frustrating bureaucracies in the private sector.
Resonance: What is the role, if any, of government in encouraging innovation?
Launius: It’s critical. Have you ever wondered why from the 1950s through the 1990s, the aerospace and computing industries led American economic growth? Despite the growth of foreign competition, both industries have largely maintained their initial technological and economic leadership from the end of World War II to the present. When numerous other industries in the United States have lost significant market shares to aggressive foreign competitors, somehow these two industries have remained consistently innovative.
Resonance: What is it about these two industries that has fostered success?
Launius: According to recent literature in organizational learning, innovative organizations must have effective means of gathering, transmitting, and processing information from both internal and external sources. To have a long-term effect, these processes must also be codified, so that the processes are not forgotten. The extraordinary must become routine, and in the case of research and development, novelty itself must become routine, a normal and expected result of everyday activities. By the terms of these theories, the aerospace and computing industries developed and have maintained codified, routine processes for moving research ideas into product development, and from there to manufacturing and operations.
One might ask whether, historically speaking, these two industries have anything in common. In fact they do. During the 1950s and 1960s, the organizational methods of the American aerospace and computing industries were formed in the context of the Cold War, in particular on programs funded by NASA and the Air Force. They have continued to be effective in part because of government investment in innovative technologies. Although these methods are not perfect, having weak links between research and development, and between development and the end user, they have been good enough for these American industries to sustain their technological innovation and resultant dominance over foreign competition for decades. Far from leading to bureaucratic stasis, the interactions between industry and the government in the United States have sparked significant innovation in these arenas.
Resonance: You interact with many faculty in your work. What is your view of academe today? Is faculty accountability a problem for Universities? Is tenure still needed in the Universities?
Launius: The modern university is an awesome institution, and also one that is frustrating. Many public officials are questioning the rising costs of education, and so are many parents and students. Reform is necessary, as it always is with every institution.
Resonance: What are the roles of art in society? Does art do something for society that cannot be done by anything else?
Launius: Art helps us to understand who we are and why we are the way we are. It gives expression to our passion. We cannot overestimate its importance.
Resonance: Where are the greatest challenges today to American society? Are you optimistic with the trends?
Launius: I’m very optimistic. And I base that optimism on my perspective of history. My basic assumption is that history should be applied to present-day situations. We should study the past not to gain knowledge for use in a game show, but to understand who we are and how we came to be that way. Most important, perhaps we can illuminate the present through a study of the past. These are applied history goals, and I aspire to them. There is no point in examining the past without the desire to understand more effectively who we are. At a fundamental level the objective of the historian must be to serve the present, although the methodologies are indirect.
More important, I believe history can not only serve the present but help enlighten the future. Although few people think of historians as having anything important to say about the future, I argue that history in fact offers us the best approach we have for understanding the shape of things to come. This is not because history provides a road map to the unknown world ahead and not because a knowledge of the past will keep us from repeating its mistakes. Rather, history is the discipline that can best help us deal with the inexorable change that is so much a part of our world. It will help us identify the deep continuities that link the past and present and pave the road to the future. Because we are all on a moving continuity, a study of history will help us understand the present and make our approach to the future a bit more tolerable.
Resonance: If you could solve just one of humanity’s problems, which one would it be?
Launius: We must work to create greater peace through justice. This is the same challenge humanity has faced for centuries.
March 10, 1998 SpaceChat With NASA Historian Roger Launius
I would like to comment on the issue of exploration. I think we are entering a third great age of exploration. Space exploration, as well as other attributes, fits into this third age and helps define it to observers. Each of these three ages of exploration became central to the worldview of the civilization.
In other times and places, exploration had taken place, and civilizations had experienced challenges of new lands and situations similar to that found in the three great ages, but in those instances, there was a marked difference in that exploration did not become the basis for a world system. In each of the three great ages of exploration in Western civilization, five basic attributes fundamentally shaped the nature of the exploration. Without any one, it is unlikely that the age would have developed as it did.
The first of these is the political will to carry out expeditions of exploration. Since most expeditions in all three ages, and virtually all of the large ones, have been sponsored by governments, those governmental decision-makers have to agree that the expenditure of funds for exploration is in the best interest of the state. Without that political will, discovery and exploration cannot take place.
Second, the sponsoring organization must have a sufficiently productive and stable economic base for a measurable percentage of its budget to be expended in this manner.
Third, the citizens or subjects of the sponsoring entity must agree, or at least acquiesce, in the decision of the leadership that exploration of the physical unknown is an acceptable endeavor and worthy of support. Without this tacit approval, even if there are no direct referenda on the subject, leaders cannot sustain exploration for long.
Fourth, there has to be a scientific basis of knowledge to which information gathered in exploration might be added and folded into the dynamic scientific model. Without this perceived return, there can be little continuation either of political will or popular support.
Finally, enabling technologies must be available to allow the explorers to succeed. The first great age of discovery began during the European Renaissance of the fifteenth century. Nothing could ever be the same again, as Western Europe was transformed by exploration and contact with new lands and peoples during voyages of discovery between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. During this era, ocean-going ships from the great seafaring nations of Western Europe essentially redrew both the map and conception of the world. When they were done, the contours of the great continents of the Earth had been approximated and the general size and shape of the physical world had been determined with relative accuracy. During this first age of discovery, travel came mainly over the oceans of the Earth, as European sailors mapped the coastlines of the Americas, Africa, Australia, and even Antarctica. Its great explorers included Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, Henry Hudson, Jacques Cartier, and James Cook, among others. The classic expression of this age of exploration, perhaps, was the circumnavigation of the globe.
For the second age, which began before the end of the first and even coincided with it in places and circumstances, exploration came predominantly overland as European adventurers filled in many of the details of the continental interiors. In the process, geographical knowledge continued to explode, but so too did information about peoples and natural history. The southwestern North American expedition of Coronado in 1540, the Lewis and Clark Expedition of the Rocky Mountain west of North America in 1804-1806, the efforts of Sir Richard Burton and Stanley and Livingston in Africa, and travels to the sources of the Amazon in South America and the Nile in Africa all characterized the second great age of exploration. This second age of exploration effectively closed with the conclusion of the last great expeditions into the interiors of the continents in the later nineteenth century. It, too, led to a massive accumulation of data about these lands new to European civilization and transformed the scientific world with the cataloging of much new information.
The third great age of exploration has been fundamentally a twentieth-century phenomenon and is strikingly different from what went before because of the areas investigated. The movement of explorers, both human and robotic sensors, into realms where humanity cannot live without the benefit of artificial apparatus has characterized this third age. Exploration on the two poles of Earth, under the oceans, and in space all suggest a new age of discovery and inquiry. The explorers of this new age include Richard Byrd with his epic North Pole flight of 1926, Jacques Cousteau and the voyages of his scientific vessel Calypso, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s flight as the first human in space in 1961, and American astronaut Neil Armstrong landing on the Moon in 1969.
Although true in the earlier ages of exploration, especially so in this later period huge investments in technology over long periods made possible these explorations. It cost approximately $25 billion to mount the Apollo program to explore the Moon in the 1960s. Other expeditions might be smaller, but they were proportionately expensive. The returns on investment in this age of exploration, which are only now beginning to be realized, involve the geophysical inventory of a planet and the exploitation of these new regions for all types of commercial ventures that have changed our lives. Scientific investigations of flora and fauna on the poles and under the oceans have contributed mightily to biomedical capabilities being used in hospitals around the globe. Remote sensing satellites have made life strikingly different from what it was only a generation ago as satellite images of weather patterns enable meteorologists to forecast storms, as communications satellites transform our ability to move information, and as global positioning satellites provide instantaneous reliable geographical information.
The physical exploration of the universe in these three great ages appears to have been a cultural invention, fashioned by expediencies and ideals within the larger context of historical and social considerations. Not genetic, never predestined, and completely voluntary, this exploration has bombarded the West with novel ideas and ever changing perspectives. Indeed, it has assured that its civilization does not stagnate intellectually but endlessly must deal with the consequences of exploration. Institutionalizing exploration, as has Western culture, naturally led to a dynamism that prizes discovery and innovation.
The third great age of exploration that the world began because of Sputnik has as its central challenge a redefinition of the longstanding tradition of the earlier two ages to fit movement beyond the bounds of where humanity can live without artificial apparatus. It recaptures the momentum and excitement of earlier ages for geographical expansion, but it also has failed as yet to encounter the peoples and cultures that fueled much of the central concern of earlier explorations.
The principal difference between Christopher Columbus and Neil Armstrong may well be that while both encountered new lands and brought back discoveries incalculable in scientific value, Columbus also made contact with intelligent life and opened up relations with them. While there has been much debate over the winners and losers in this contact, the brutality of European exploitation, and the transformation of both sets of peoples, these are in large part moral questions whose answers depend upon perspective. What cannot be denied is the importance of the contact in the earlier instance and the lack of it in the latter.