Vol. 40, No. 3

A Note from the Chairman

From the moment the United States was attacked on September 11, 2001, Americans have known that we were in a different kind of war. But in at least one respect, the war we are fighting today bears some resemblance to wars we have fought in the past.

Branding America

After nearly five years, we no longer remember all their names. But we remember their faces. And we will never forget their eyes. They are the eyes of killers. They are the eyes of the 19 hijackers who commandeered four planes on September 11, 2001, taking the lives of over 3,000 people and taking us […]

Karen Hughes’ Challenge

Since Sept. 11 , 2001, it has become commonplace to say that the United States is engaged in a war of ideas for the hearts and minds of moderate Muslims. Even Donald Rumsfeld has admitted that the metric for measuring success in a war against jihadist terrorism is whether the numbers we kill or deter […]

On the Frontlines of Freedom

Today on the world stage, particularly in Muslim nations, our military is too often viewed only as the enemy, a disturbing fact not lost on those who now wear the uniform. Make no mistake — death and violence are products of any war. But lost within today’s highly partisan environment are such deeply held goals […]

Madison Avenue’s Take on Brand America

If any country in the world can be viewed as a brand, it’s America. After all, we invented “branding.” So why, when we are the most powerful nation on earth and facing precarious times, can’t we leverage America’s brand assets? For inspiration and guidance, I returned to the basics of brand building that have worked […]

A View From Abroad

It is too late to walk or talk softly. The big stick—the enormous military might of the U.S.—bears its own ominous message, but the U.S. might try to promote its democratic ideals with more skill, conviction, and volume. Even the British, our most loyal consumers and faithful allies, are losing the faith, despite their relative […]

Q&A With Bill Thomas

Earlier this year, Congressman Bill Thomas announced his retirement after nearly 30 years in the U.S. House of Representatives. First elected in 1978, Thomas has served as Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee since 2001. He recently sat down with the Ripon Forum to discuss his experiences in politics and share his thoughts on […]

No More Mistakes

As the world becomes increasingly focused on Iran’s nuclear activities, we are once again looking to our intelligence to determine what those activities mean.

Russia Under Putin: Neither Friend Nor Foe

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his supporters were “outraged.” A Kremlin spokesperson denounced the speech as “inconceivable” and “subjective” in its interpretations of Russian internal affairs. Others in Moscow, as well as some in the West, called the speech a return to the Cold War. One Moscow headline suggested that U.S.-Russian relations were at their […]

How the Millennials Get Their News

Last year’s media coverage of the Gulf Coast hurricanes helped re-define the domestic political agenda leading into this year’s mid-term elections. But it wasn’t just storm coverage. Political damage control was in full effect, with elected officials from all sides of the political spectrum flocking to cable news channels to assuage public fears, tamp down […]

Immigration Reform: The Challenges Ahead

The immigration debate is at a fever pitch as the Ripon Forum goes to press. Only a fool would try to predict what will happen next, either in the Senate, which will probably vote this week, or in the skirmishing that could follow if lawmakers then move ahead to try to reconcile the Senate package […]

Back to the Moon… and Beyond!

A robust space exploration program is crucial to maintaining America’s scientific and technological preeminence in the twenty-first century. No other endeavor challenges us to develop innovative new technologies which often improve our quality of life, while simultaneously fulfilling the basic human need to explore new horizons.

Back to the Moon… But Let’s Fix NASA First

I believe that America – this time with her international partners – should go back to the moon.

The Back Page: Can you be a Republican and Still Like The Boss?

I got turned onto Bruce Springsteen the summer before my junior year in college. It was 1984. Born in the USA had come out on June 4th. And my friends and I were on a 10-day road trip to Florida before school started back up in the fall.

Ripon Profile of Susan Collins

I am a Republican because I believe in the core party principles of individual responsibility, personal liberty, federalism, and a strong national defense.

Back to the Moon… But Let’s Fix NASA First

I believe that America – this time with her international partners – should go back to the moon. 

I am disappointed that we left thirty years ago. I am thrilled when I watch movies like “Apollo 13” and “The Dish.” I think that lunar exploration would be wonderful for national prestige and that it would teach us a great deal about the techniques needed to explore Mars. Any nation that has a research station at the Antarctic South Pole ought to have one on the moon. I want Americans to be on the Moon to greet the Chinese when they arrive.  

Having said all of that, I have to state my belief that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is not ready to take us there.   

One could easily reply that NASA was not ready to fly to the moon in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy made his famous commitment. We had yet to orbit John Glenn, build the Saturn V rocket, and master lunar orbit rendezvous. 

Getting Armstrong and Aldrin to the moon and back cost $21.4 billion in the currency of its day. That is the equivalent, adjusting for inflation, of about $150 billion today.

Indeed, the organization that placed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon in 1969 was not the same NASA that received President Kennedy’s mandate in 1961. It was bigger, richer, smarter, and twice reorganized to engage the complexities of lunar flight.  In similar ways, it needs to be revitalized again. 

Today NASA’s budget is essentially fixed at about $17 billion per year, with adjustments for inflation.  Much of that budget is committed to projects other than going to the moon. The fiscal constraints placed on the new lunar effort are as demanding – some would say more severe – than the time deadline imposed by President Kennedy in 1961.  


Getting Armstrong and Aldrin to the moon and back cost $21.4 billion in the currency of its day.  That is the equivalent, adjusting for inflation, of about $150 billion today. Since NASA will not need to reinvent every wheel and rebuild its field centers, the next voyage will not cost as much as the first. Some say that NASA could return for as little as 50 percent of the initial expedition. Yet finding $75 billion or more in an agency on a fixed budget will be a substantial challenge. 

NASA could do it for less. The six missions that followed Apollo 11 each cost the equivalent of about $4 billion in today’s dollars. Once NASA and its contractors learned how to put the first humans on the Moon, subsequent missions were cheaper. It also helped that a lot of hardware acquired for Apollo 11 was left over when the astronauts returned home.   

Still, even at $4 billion per landing, NASA could not expect to make more than one or two visits per year with all of its other current commitments. Additionally, this assumes that NASA uses Apollo-style technology or what some have called “Apollo on steroids.” Apollo technology, however, will never get us to Mars. Cost estimates for a mission to Mars using Apollo-style propulsion and spacecraft methods range from $500 billion to $1 trillion.

The whole Space Exploration Vision – which includes new rockets, new spacecraft, lunar voyages, and preparations for Mars – is premised on the myth of what is referred to as the “wedge.” It presumes that NASA can conjure up new funds by closing old programs. The space shuttle, at $5 billion per year, and the international space station are certainly tempting targets for this philosophy. 

Yet we have heard this story before. In the early 1980s, after NASA executives convinced President Ronald Reagan to declare the space shuttle “fully operational,” they argued that an international space station could be financed with funds freed up by ending the shuttle development effort. Then-NASA Administrator Dan Goldin tried to pay for the X-33 – one of many efforts to replace the space shuttle – by freezing shuttle upgrades and reducing the shuttle workforce. It didn’t work then and it is unlikely to work now.  

NASA needs to invest in new rocket technologies, like nuclear propulsion. It needs to invest in new types of spacecraft. It needs to invest in missions such as the effort to locate earth-like planets around neighboring stars, which holds enormous promise as a means of exciting long-term interest in space exploration. NASA needs to hire the next great generation of space flight engineers and revitalize its in-house technical capability. It needs to learn how to conduct low-cost space flight missions for humans, as it has already done in the robotics field, and as entrepreneurs like Burt Rutan are trying to do now. 

These are painstaking necessities, ones likely to delay an Apollo-style return to the Moon. I am sorry that this is the case, because, as indicated, I want to go back to the Moon, too. But there are many things I want and only a few that I can have. On reflection, I think it would be better to have a sustained space exploration effort supported by new, low-cost technologies and a smart NASA rather than a focused effort to return to the Moon.

Howard E. McCurdy is professor of public affairs at American University, and the author of six books on the U.S. space program, including Space and the American Imagination and Faster Better Cheaper: Low Cost Innovation in the U.S. Space Program.