Cyr column: Space exploration returns to center stage

By Arthur I. Cyr

“The Eagle has landed.”

Astronaut Neil Armstrong transmitted that striking statement back to Earth on July 20, 1969 from the surface of the Moon. Armstrong and fellow Apollo astronauts Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins achieved President John F. Kennedy’s dramatic commitment to reach the Moon before the end of the decade.

Now, mega-entrepreneurs Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson have just taken dramatic if brief flights to the edge of outer space. They have confirmed their dedication to taking risks, this time physically and not just financially.

The pair also personify the commercial potential of space exploration. Tourism is one obvious course to pursue, but there are many others.

Meanwhile, with considerably less fanfare, that other prominent business personality Elon Musk has made a major space deal. In mid-April, U.S. space agency NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) signed a contract with Musk’s SpaceX Corporation to construct the vehicle to land astronauts on the Moon for the first time since the last Apollo mission in 1972.

President Kennedy was crucial in creating the strong foundation of business-government partnership in space exploration through the 1962 legislation on communication satellites.

We automatically recognize JFK’s role in launching the mammoth Moon project. Collectively, we almost universally ignore his leadership in creating the global satellite-based communications network that is vital to how we live, work and communicate today.

President Dwight Eisenhower initiated the satellite communications effort. Predictably, he emphasized established communications corporations. This reflected his fundamental faith in business executives, along with Republican Party preferences, philosophical and practical.

The Kennedy administration largely continued that course. The new proposed COMSAT (Communications Satellite) Corporation was privately chartered, not a government agency.

Intense controversy followed, with angry protests within the president’s Democratic Party about handouts and welfare for big business. Reflecting party dynamics of that time, conservative but populist Southern plus Western Democrats were among the most outraged.

Nonetheless, Congress overwhelmingly approved legislation creating COMSAT. This in turn facilitated rapidly growing collaboration among major communications corporations and a vast array of other firms in creating the pervasive global satellite systems of today.

As one example, in 1973 a consortium of major commercial banks agreed to transfer funds electronically, opening the door to today’s enormous fast-moving global banking system. The initial SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) system, initiated in 1973, has operated since 1977. Over the decades, satellite along with land-based systems have become integral to vast voice and data communications of all kinds.

Great drama was inherent in the Apollo program to land a man on the Moon – and return him safely to earth, Kennedy was always careful to include. The great media attention devoted to the brief edge-of-space flights of Messrs. Bezos and Branson reflects, among other things, the appreciation by these two of showmanship as a component of entrepreneurship, at least as they practice that art.

They also with high drama demonstrated the possibility of commercial passenger travel as well as commercial investment in space. Such activities would be literally far-out as well as extremely high-tech.

Branson relentlessly promotes low-cost air travel. Musk pursues revolutionary innovations in transportation. Bezos has built massive e-commerce to stratospheric heights. All three succeed through extraordinary, imaginative innovation.

Beyond personalities, the sustained development of our nation’s space exploration reflects our history of business-government partnerships. Give JFK credit for appreciating that in launching us into space - successfully.

Learn more: Walter McDougall, “The Heavens and the Earth”

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU and Palgrave/Macmillan). Contact acyr@carthage.edu