Ten Enduring Myths About the U.S. Space Program

Outer space has many mysteries, among them are these fables about NASA that have permeated the public’s memory

The Moon landing conspiracy theory has endured for more than 40 years, thanks in part to a thriving cottage industry of conspiracy entrepreneurs. (NASA)

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While there are many solid arguments in favor of manned exploration, the most frequently cited one is arguably the least convincing: without spacefaring heroes, the nation’s interest in space science and exploration will dwindle. Or, to paraphrase a line from The Right Stuff, “no Buck Rogers, no bucks.”

“Don’t believe for a minute that the American public is as excited about unmanned programs as they are about manned ones,” cautioned Franklin Martin, NASA’s former associate administrator for its office of exploration, in an interview with Popular Science. “You don’t give ticker tape parades to robots no matter how exciting they are.”

But the American public’s fascination with images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and the sagas of the robotic Mars rovers Pathfinder (1997), Spirit (2004) and Opportunity (2004, and still operating) belies the assertion that human beings are vital participants. Proponents of unmanned space exploration make the case that the most essential element for sustaining public interest are missions that produce new images and data, and which challenge our notions of the universe. “There is an intrinsic excitement to astronomy in general and cosmology in particular, quite apart from the spectator sport of manned spaceflight,” writes the famed philosopher and physicist Freeman Dyson, who offers a verse from the ancient mathematician Ptolemy: “I know that I am mortal and a creature of one day;
 but when my mind follows the massed wheeling circles of the stars, my feet no longer touch the earth.”

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