A couple of days ago there was a story on the news that detailed the sell-off of large portions of NASA’s facilities in Florida. According to the story, if you’d like to mount your own space agency and roar into space from the launch pads there on the beach of the Atlantic — and of course have the funds to do so — you can place your own bid, winner, I guess, taking all.
As an old rocket boy myself, I found it truly sad. As I’ve written in the past, the ultimate success of the manned space flight program was a series of voyages to the moon, but in the decades since that epic program made front page news, humans have never gone farther. The follow-up has been a collection of circles around the globe, with no new steps to go on to the other planets. But even at that, the Kennedy Space Center was one exciting place to be and the technology on display and in action was something to see.
I got lucky enough to be standing less than two miles from the pad on several occasions to watch those brutes lift slowly into the sky and finally fade from view with a roar that was un-earthly on its own account. But it’s all gone now, all of it, with the silent towers rusting away, eventual victims of the salt air. Indeed, you can drive south from the launch pads that were used for the Space Shuttle missions and cruise past the old stands that were used for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs and get a sense of the fate that awaits their successors.
It’s something of a complicated issue as to just why public interest evaporated so completely. I’ve never been convinced it was the money. In the final years, the NASA budget hovered around 15 billion dollars annually, which as compared to the grander aspects of the federal budget was pocket change. Working some of the promotion for Boeing on behalf of NASA, we used to characterize tax-payer contributions at about one-and-a-half cents on the dollar. Before that, back in the days of the race to the moon, the spigot was pretty much open: we simply had to set foot on the lunar surface before the Rooskies.
We completed 17 missions and then it was over, largely due to political indifference, and the struggle for an equally dramatic motivation ensued. Promises were made and not really kept; and oversized aspirations quickly became lost in now public indifference (why on the earth would anyone want to look at the moons of Uranus?).
There is interest on the part of private enterprises like SpaceX, holed up in a warehouse down the freeway from the airport, and they have seen some progress in the launch of rockets from a small facility at Cape Canaveral, a couple of which have reached low earth orbit. But even they admit that practical use is on the order of a decade away.
So at the languishing Kennedy Space Center, prospects for a new tenant are dubious. Very dubious. The problem being money. Large piles of money. The kinds of cash that only a government can scare up. Like the Russian government. Like the Chinese government. By the time the Space Shuttle reached its final launches, the price for putting the bird into orbit had run to over $400 million per mission, counting hardware and the support facilities — remembering that the orbiters and all involved parts were re-usable.
Any serious takers? None has been heard from yet, at least none with pockets that are anywhere deep enough to put up a sign. Call the Kennedy Space Center a remarkable place where history was made, but with a future that may be a matter of decay.
As I said, sad. Perhaps another time, another place, a new or continuing dream. Just one caution: The next time, please pick a place that is not the electrical storm capital of the world!