Don Williams
Photo by Justin Williams

Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, blogger, fiction writer, sometime TV commentator, and is the founder and editor emeritus of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, a Golden Presscard Award from Sigma Delta Chi Society of Professional Journalists, a best Commentary Award from SDC, Best Feature Writing from the Associated Press Tennessee Managing Editors, the Malcolm Law Journalism Prize from the Associated Press, Best Non-Deadline Reporting from the United Press International, Best Novel Excerpt from the Knoxville Writers Guild, a Peacemaker Award from the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, five Writer of the Month Awards from the Scripps Howard Newspaper chain, and many others. In 2011 he was inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame. His 2005 book of journalism, Heroes, Sheroes and Zeroes is under revision for a second printing, and he is at work on a novel and a book of journalism. His columns appear at and have been featured at many other well-known websites. To run his column, gratis, at your website, post this link to a dedicated spot: Need a speaker, panelist, tv commentator or teacher for your group or to lead a writing workshop, in your town? Email

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NASA should own up to the central hypocrisy of the space age, and return us the moon
(Copyright by Don Williams, All rights reserved   07/16/1999)

Thirty years ago, on July 16, 1969, three Earth people blasted off to embrace the moon. Apollo 11 has become the signal accomplishment of the 20th century, and likely will shine for a thousand years in tribute to the human spirit and to what is possible. You know the saying. If we can go to the moon, we can do anything. The tragedy is that we cant go to the moon. Not anymore. We couldnt return even if we tried. Not next month or next year--maybe not next decade.

We dont own the rockets. The capsules. The infrastructure. The know-how. Most tragically, we dont possess the leadership. And we likely wont for decades to come--maybe not in our lifetimes--even though we know water and precious elements are up there to help disperse the cost.

It would take years to re-create the tools that got us to the moon in the first place, even if we started yesterday. And as for Mars, you can forget about that. It wont happen in this generation or the next, unless we get honest leaders who will own up to this central hypocrisy of the modern space age:

The government is spending hundreds of billions to support aerospace industries, but its disguising that simple fiscal fact by making sure it doesnt buy anything really big.

Understand? Its counting on the American people--blinded by ignorance and apathy concerning space--not to notice. Its as if you paid $45,000 to your local car dealer, then told your spouse. Dont worry, Im not spending much. After all, Im buying a Volkswagen, see? Not a Lincoln Continental.

Because no major leader since the sixties has had the courage to propose spending $50 billion or $200 billion over several years on a mission to Mars or a colony on the moon, weve cumulatively spent much more than that, one year at a time, for far less in return.

To stay in business, NASA has come up with scores of important-sounding and crowd-pleasing missions to nowhere. With great fanfare weve used the shuttle to launch satellites we could have launched with conventional rockets for a fraction of the cost. And, weve launched senators. Weve launched women, blacks, Hispanics and Germans. Weve re-launched John Glenn. Weve studied solar flares and the outer atmosphere. Weve deployed high-tech gizmos, and flown joint missions with Russians. Weve endlessly studied the effects of weightlessness on asparagus and fruitflies.

We could have done all these things in the context of a larger purpose. But we havent. Weve established no outposts. Weve mined no asteroids. We have built no monuments for future generations. Not since Apollo.

Why did we turn our backs on our own capabilities and dreams? Who gave away the moon and, by extension, Mars? And what should be done about it? These questions beg to be looked at, and in this context: In the 1960s we spent $25 billion dollars over ten years to get to the moon, a quarter-million miles away. Since then weve spent about $500 billion and can barely get payloads into orbit 200 miles away.

Look at it this way. When Eugene Cernan closed the last hatch on the last space ship to the moon way back in 1972, America possessed the tools--primitive though they seemed then--of a true space-faring nation. We owned the Saturn V Rocket--a behemoth capable of launching houses to the moon and beyond. We owned the Lunar Module, which Armstrong, Aldrin and ten other astronauts rode to the surface of the moon. (Designed to fly in the low gravity and vacuum of space, its the only true space vehicle the world has ever known.) We owned moon cars.

Later we launched a space station built from the hollowed out hull of a moon rockets third stage. But mostly we conquered space with throw-away hardware. One shot and it was used up. Back then, in the aftermath of Johnsons Great Society and the costly Vietnam War, space travel seemed too expensive to many Americans. NASA lobbied for a reliable and reusable space shuttle. One that would get into orbit and back cheaply. But the space shuttle was not cheap. For selfish political reasons, Nixon downplayed space travel, as did a handful of liberal Midwestern senators. Because NASA could never depend on congressional funding for more than a year at a time, it developed the shuttle in fits and starts, spending billions on re-designs and models that never flew.

In the face of such waste and neglect, NASA sold its heart and maybe its soul. In exchange for a scaled down shuttle, the country forgot Mars and lunar colonies, and put what was left of our great moon ships in museums and mothballs. There they stand. Mute witnesses to a golden age. Silent reproaches to those of us who await the day some president has the will, the honesty and vision to admit to the central hypocrisy that would render reasonable the following: The historical record shows were throwing vast resources into space, so why not get something in return commensurate to the cost? Lets go to Mars. Lets reclaim the moon.