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Thursday, June 3, 2010

The real legacy of U.S. Spaceflight?

I read an interesting letter to the editor in "Space News" some weeks back (May 3, 2010). It discussed the usual “justifications” for conducting human spaceflight:

Astronauts as role models: the “best of America”
National pride
Some scientific knowledge is better acquired by humans than robots
Perceived US leadership role in science and technology

What really caught my eye, however, was a followup to this letter in the next issue of "Space News" where the author recalled a conversation he had with Wernher von Braun many years ago where he asked, “Wernher, what did we really accomplish?” in reference to the U.S. space program and lunar exploration.

Take a guess what von Braun’s response was as one of the “great lasting achievements of the space program”, according to the editorialist?

“Hugo, more than anything else, we taught industry the concept of reliability. You know, you take a color television, which is a very complicated device. You take it out of the box, and it works! And it keeps on working. Your automobile, which used to be for repair frequently, almost never sees the shop now. We taught reliability!”

I think it’s ironic that von Braun distills it all down to one pragmatic answer. No lofty platitudes, no pie-in- the-sky dreamy discourse. Just…reliability. Spoken like an engineer through-and-through.

Could this be true? Is that all we have to claim in the end? What happened to "flags and footprints?" National pride? Winning the "space race?"

Did the glory days of U.S. spaceflight all come down to a sophisticated engineering feat with no other real legacy? Have we been bamboozled into thinking otherwise?

What do others think?