I’ve been a huge fan of the space program my entire life. One of the greatest days of my life was when I was able to see a Saturn V rocket launch the Apollo 15 crew to the Moon, way back in July of 1971. I chose to start my career as an Air Force officer in the missile world, as one of the “finger on the button” launch officers up at F.E. Warren AFB in Wyoming. Just last week I reveled in the successful landing of the Insight probe on Mars.
And I love Colorado, so it’s nice when those two things overlap. So, in today’s column, I want to draw your attention once again to Colorado’s importance in space operations, and why that’s a good thing for our state and for the nation.
Colorado is packed with seriously cool organizations and companies doing really cool things. The Southwest Research Institute office in Boulder is overseeing the Juno spacecraft currently orbiting Jupiter, after having sent the New Horizons spacecraft past Pluto in 2015. And this New Year's Day, that same spacecraft will fly past the most remote object ever visited, way out beyond Neptune. Another company with Colorado offices is Peraton, which is currently making parts (one of which I got to hold in my hot little hand) that will fly to the surface of Mars in 2020.
Pretty cool, eh?
Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone that two Colorado companies – Deep Space Systems and Lockheed Martin – are among the nine bidding for the next Moon landing contract from NASA. A story in Colorado Politics explains that NASA’s goal is to get instruments to the lunar surface as soon as possible, to conduct scientific and engineering experiments. There is hope that the first flight by a private company to the Moon could come as early as next year, when we’ll celebrate the 50thanniversary of the first manned lunar landing in July. These missions, it is hoped, will help pave the way for the return of humans to the Moon more quickly and more safely.
Space exploration has been a subject that the American people tend to support and then ignore with regular frequency. I remember the Apollo 11 mission well, and recall the excitement in the nation and, frankly, the world as Neil and Buzz walked on the Moon for the first time. Yet by only a couple years later, NASA was forced to cancel several missions to the Moon due to budget cuts, stemming from a lack of interest.
The Colorado companies, if successful in the bidding war with NASA, will help highlight a truth about spending on space — it’s a good investment. Since 1962, a dollar spent by NASA has generated between $7 and $14 back into the economy. And of course, you’ve heard about the spinoffs in our daily lives that came from the space program, such as remote sensing software now being used to help detect breast cancer and the firefighting gear developed by NASA for rocket launches that is now often found in your local firehouse. Oh, and the mouse you may have just clicked? It was a NASA study that funded the development of the first computer mouse.
From time to time, people ask what good is spending hard-earned tax dollars on space? Well, the answer can be as simple as pointing out the items in the previous paragraph: NASA spending generates more wealth in the economy, while developing cool and useful stuff. But I’d argue there is a more important aspect of humanity that space exploration serves. Way back when Benjamin Franklin was in France in the 1770s, he witnessed an early flight of a hot air balloon. Dr. Franklin was asked, “what good is it?” Franklin’s famous reply: “what good is a new born baby?”
The U.S. space program basically spans my entire life, 60 years, in many ways still Dr. Franklin’s new born baby. Yet it’s a baby paying its own way, so to speak. And so, dear readers, I’d encourage you to get excited about this new opportunity and to pull for the Colorado companies to win contracts for the return to the Moon. There will be more jobs, more great stuff invented, and humankind will be enriched.
It was truly a thrill to hold that small piece of insulating foam that is Mars-bound. From a clean room in Colorado Springs to the surface of Mars is a journey not only of millions of miles but also of the human spirit. Mars will never quite look the same to me after the Mars 2020 mission lands, and Colorado will never be quite the same if we help get back to the Moon. Far out.
Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.