In 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama articulated his vision for the future of American space exploration, which included an eventual manned mission to Mars. Such an endeavor would surely cost hundreds of billions of dollars -- maybe even $1 trillion. Whatever the amount, it would be an expensive undertaking. In the past, only three motivations have led societies to spend that kind of capital on ambitious, speculative projects: the celebration of a divine or royal power, the search for profit, and war. Examples of praising power at great expense include the pyramids in Egypt, the vast terra-cotta army buried along with the first emperor of China, and the Taj Mahal in India. Seeking riches in the New World, the monarchs of Iberia funded the great voyages of Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan. And military incentives spurred the building of the Great Wall of China, which helped keep the Mongols at bay, and the Manhattan Project, whose scientists conceived, designed, and built the first atomic bomb.
In 1957, the Soviet launch of the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, spooked the United States into the space race. A year later, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was born amid an atmosphere defined by Cold War fears. But for years to come, the Soviet Union would continue to best the United States in practically every important measure of space achievement, including the first space walk, the longest space walk, the first woman in space, the first space station, and the longest time logged in space. But by defining the Cold War contest as a race to the moon and nothing else, the United States gave itself permission to ignore the milestones it missed along the way.
In a speech to a joint session of Congress in May 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced the Apollo program, famously declaring, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning they galvanized the nation. But a more revealing passage came earlier in the speech, when Kennedy reflected on the challenge presented by the Soviets’ space program: “If we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take.”
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