Friday, December 08, 2006

BOOK REVIEW: "Dark Side of the Moon" by Gerard J. DeGroot: New York University Press, 2006.


The late Baltimore newspaper editor Henry Mencken wrote diatribes in the 1920s that still make good reading today. They were not only well-written, but scholarly. Gerard DeGroot’s diatribe on the Apollo Program is also well-written, but can hardly be described as “scholarly.” Ironically, this professor of modern history at the University of St. Andrews in the U.K. seems to know very little about his subject as a whole.

The Apollo program was far broader than the lunar landings. His book is a historical study, but one relevant today, in view of the renewed American “Vision for Space Exploration,” which will initially be focused on a return of humans to the Moon.

DeGroot wastes no time in labeling NASA, its supporters and its contractors as: “a gang of cynics, manipulators, demagogues” and “tyrants.”

When addressing NASA space policy, he speaks of “myths carefully constructed by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and sustained by NASA ever since.” He also deems the Apollo program to be a “brilliant deception, a glorious swindle.” And his book’s central thesis is: “Putting men in space was an immensely expensive distraction of little scientific or cultural worth.”

DeGroot seems unaware that there was much more to the Apollo Program than the lunar missions, and of what the Apollo Program, properly defined, eventually produced. In fact, “Apollo” also included the Gemini and Skylab programs, and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP). Furthermore, Apollo 7 and Apollo 9 were purely earth-orbital.

Some statistics are called for in light of DeGroot’s emphasis on the “obscenely huge” cost of the lunar missions, described as “a $35 billion dollar happy pill administered to a generation of depressed Americans.” The $35 billion is too high, but let’s let it stand and view it in context.

The very last Apollo mission (ASTP) was flown in 1975. According to the 1976 World Almanac, the Welfare outlay (not including Social Security), was $54.8 billion. By contrast, the total of all NASA budgets for all programs, including Apollo, from 1959 through 1975, was $58 billion. The Fiscal Year 1975 NASA outlay was $3.3 billion, while the Fiscal Year 1975 Food Stamp Program ran to $5.0 billion. Had all fifteen years of NASA expenditures been diverted to the U.S. Dept. of Health, Education and Welfare and the American Food Stamp Program, they would have fallen short of funding these worthy causes for one year.

In chapter 2, DeGroot digresses into a bit of Freudian psychoanalysis. He writes: “Rockets are erotic. The small, slender, phallic tube . . . “ and on he continues. Space flight he writes thus “appeals to most boys, some men, very few girls, and almost no women.”
For DeGroot to include such statements in his text is almost beyond belief. He has evidently never heard of the many women who have actually flown in space, a list of whom would fill much of this page. He has for example apparently not heard about Colonel Eileen Collins (United States Air Force, retired), who not only flew on four shuttle missions but commanded two of them. Nor does he mention shuttle crew member, Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, who helped deploy the Hubble Space Telescope. These omissions especially dishonor women such as Christa McAuliffe, who died in the 1986 Challenger disaster, on a mission that would have had her teaching students from space.

DeGroot quotes President Johnson’s budget director, Charles Schultze, as calling the Apollo Program ”great entertainment,” and ”scientific hocus-pocus,” which is “not gonna give us much scientific knowledge.” Having been involved in space research since 1959, I can label these views nonsense. I published a defense of the Apollo Program in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society in 1996; obviously, we learned a lot about the Moon itself.

The first major discovery was that it is not a primitive, un-evolved, cold body, but one with a complex history of volcanism and crustal formation lasting some 2 billion years and perhaps continuing even today. This implied at once that the Earth probably had an analogous early history. The Apollo results thus immediately gave us a new frame of reference to understand our own planet. The Moon itself may have been formed by a giant impact on the primordial Earth, a theory which, if correct, could further changes in our own understanding of Earth.
Professor DeGroot might find comparative planetology irrelevant to human welfare, but Landsat is one of Apollo’s forgotten legacies. The Landsat program was a series of imaging satellites in placed into earth orbit, described by the late Senator William Proxmire ---hardly a space enthusiast --- as perhaps the most valuable program NASA had ever sponsored.
For three and a half decades, the Landsat images have been used to map deforestation, volcanic activity, geology, mineral deposits, and floods. They have been used to study environmental controls of Ebola Fever in Africa and Schistosomiasis in China. Landsat has been termed by University of Maryland professor of geography Sam Goward, as “one of the greatest scientific achievements of the latter twentieth century . . .”.

What does this have to do with Apollo? Starting with Gemini 3, the Gemini and Apollo astronauts took 70mm color pictures of the Earth as part of planned terrain and weather photography experiments. Widely published, they triggered interest in high-resolution color imaging.

They stimulated the U.S.Geological Survey to propose an earth resources satellite, which eventually became Landsat. The U.S.G.S. Director, W.T. Pecora, said that the concept was conceived “largely as a direct result of the utility of Mercury and Gemini orbital photography to earth resource studies.”

Beyond Landsat, the Apollo Program triggered explosive progress in remote sensing as a whole. NASA’s earth-orbiting Skylab mission in the 1970s, carried a radar altimeter, which proved capable of mapping earth’s underwater ocean topography. This demonstration at once stimulated development of global radar mapping of the ocean floors from orbit. This, in turn, has led to remarkably complete and accurate geologic maps of the Earth’s surface.

Even in the face of these achievements, DeGroot argues that “ the American space program has been caught in a state of purposeless wandering ever since Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon. No one knew what to do next . . . .”.

In fact,we knew exactly what to do next. NASA had detailed plans for additional lunar missions using the Saturn V and the Apollo hardware, and we could have established a lunar base by 1975. We are now starting over, but it will take years to recover the lost momentum.

Setbacks aside, the American space program has produced a golden age of astronomy from the Hubble Space Telescope and its counterparts to the exploration of Mars, starting with the 1976 Viking landers and continuing today with NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers. And NASA has played a leading role in the construction of the International Space Station, which despite its critics is a technological triumph. Some “wandering”!

Dark Side of the Moon
may have entertainment value, but readers wanting to learn about the real Apollo Program will have to look elsewhere.




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