Was 'one small step for man' worth it?

Today's topic: Many regard the Apollo program as the high watermark of American space exploration. Are they correct? Was sending a man to the moon mostly about national pride, or were there more practical purposes?

The real 'moon hoax'
Point: Michael Potter

I argue the position of the "great moon hoax," even though we know that the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon was probably the greatest triumph in human history. And certainly, by extension, Apollo 11 was the pinnacle moment for the United States and NASA in the area of space exploration. It is important, though, that the moon landings are understood in the context of the "space race," which was driven by the Cold War and ideological rivalries between the superpowers.

Even today, space programs around the world are fueled by national pride and perceived strategic necessity. When we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Americans landing on the moon, what are we celebrating? Despite the great successes of Apollo, I would argue that our sentiments of adulation for the Moon landings are misplaced, hollow and insincere. The truth is that, after the moon landings, the U.S. shamelessly surrendered its leadership in the pursuit of mankind's expansion into the heavens.

Of course, we can point to a number of impressive U.S. space accomplishments, both manned and robotic, since Apollo. But can we point to many transformational moments in space since humans first walked on the moon four decades ago? The U.S. has had a number of important accomplishments, including many high-profile rover missions. But shockingly, today we are talking about the possibility of going back to the Moon -- and in more than a decade's time.

Yes, the U.S. won the space sprint, but why is Russia leading in the space marathon? In 2010, the U.S. will be retiring the space shuttle, NASA's only manned space vehicle. Our space agency will be paying the Russians $55 million a seat for each American astronaut that flies after 2010 on their rockets. So what are we celebrating when we commemorate the moon landing? Are we celebrating that the U.S. has gone very far down the road of forfeiting its space and moon leadership to the Russians, Chinese and Indians? These do not strike me as reasons to celebrate or even to project an exuberance of optimism.

To continue the inventory of humiliation in U.S. space activities, the U.S. has recently started talking about de-orbiting the $100-billion space station in 2016. One cannot make any sense of either the sketchy plans or the sketchy funding for new NASA launch vehicles, space station and possible plans to return to moon and go on to Mars. Current U.S. plans and funding for space exploration simply do not add up.

NASA has recently received $1 billion in federal stimulus funding, but spending this much money on government bureaucracy is guaranteed to produce negative returns. By contrast, $1 billion invested in small and medium-sized space technology companies has the compelling potential to generate exponential technological and financial returns for taxpayers and for the space program.

Perhaps the greatest part of the moon hoax is to believe that the past moon landings were part of a rational, sustainable strategy for the permanent habitation of humans in the heavens. If we are not honest and serious about our challenges to conquer the heavens, then I believe we should consider more subdued celebrations. The greatest challenges to U.S. space activities can be traced to political and congressional dysfunction more than the engineering and technological challenges.

On the other hand, if we collectively take our "small step" and can be honest about the current problems and challenges we face, and if we are willing to aggressively enter into a results-oriented mode, we have much to celebrate about the future.

When we return to the lunar surface under the banner of Moon 2.0, let's go there with the intention to make our efforts both practical and sustainable. Less of our efforts should be driven by national pride and more of our efforts should be driven by international cooperation and commercial logic. We need to find the most efficient balance between manned space operations, low-cost module platforms and robotic solutions.

But when we do venture back into space, let's stay this time.

Michael Potter is director of the award-winning documentary film, "Orphans of Apollo.”

NASA does far more science today than it did during Apollo
Counterpoint: Bill Nye

Landing men on Earth's moon was a high point for the U.S. space program and for humankind, but it was part of the Cold War. The Soviet Union built and flew the first probe that impacted the moon, the first lunar-orbiting spacecraft, the first soft-landing probe and delivered the first pictures of the far side of the moon. The Soviet Union did nearly every first when it comes to rocket science and the moon except one -- putting people there. In the end, that was what mattered. The Soviet Union, unable to keep up with U.S. production and astronauts, went out of business about 20 years later.

For those who are disappointed that the United States, specifically NASA, has made human spaceflight almost routine (although costly), I remind you: One of the astronauts currently orbiting the Earth on the space shuttle Endeavor became the 500th person to fly in space. Not the fifth or the 50th -- the 500th! No hoax, that's a milestone. But how many among us can name the shuttle's commander or a mission specialist? These people may be extraordinary, but we no longer acknowledge their days at their office as such. I don't see that as a bad thing.

Michael, you point out that U.S. and European astronauts use Russian rockets to get to the International Space Station. Those are good rockets (vehicles, as we scientists like to say). They ferry people and material routinely. This is not a new situation. The U.S. had no shuttles flying in the years following the wrecks of both the Challenger and Columbia shuttles, and the world of human spaceflight, if I may, continued to spin.

The China National Space Administration is going to send people to the moon; so is the Indian Space Research Organization. Their efforts are a matter of national pride and development of their countries' space expertise. NASA doesn't need to duplicate what it accomplished 40 years ago. Instead, the U.S. should work with these emerging space-faring nations: Have taikonauts hang out, or "float out," with astronauts and cosmonauts. By doing so, we'll all learn a great deal more about humans' place in space.

NASA still publishes a book every year about the spin-offs (also known as ancillary technologies) that come from its fine work. Well, the spinoff of the space program is science. Nowadays, NASA does more robotic space science exploring stars and planets in a single afternoon than the moon-seeking astronauts did in 12 years. We went to the moon largely to demoralize an enemy. We explore our neighboring worlds and distant stars for the joy of discovery and the deep impact of understanding.

Let's encourage astronaut hall-of-famer Charles Bolden, NASA's new administrator, to keep the robots flying and get the U.S. human spaceflight program flying higher. We must achieve remarkable new efficient trajectories that take advantage of low-gravity points between and behind the Earth and moon, in new metric-system rockets that will one day take people to other worlds, like Mars, to have a good look around and change this world.

Bill Nye hosted the Emmy-winning series "Bill Nye the Science Guy" on PBS from 1992 to 1998. He is a member of the board of directors and the vice president of the Planetary Society.