Monday, January 07, 2008

Apollo and the Future

Apollo was amazing. You knew that already, but having just finished Andrew Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon, it’s especially fresh in my mind. Of course the U.S. spent a huge amount of money to win the race to the moon, and while that Cold War-driven goal may have been why it was funded, it wasn’t the reason that so many thousands of people dedicated their lives to making their part of Apollo as close to perfect as it could be. Public interest may have fallen fast after Apollo 11, but it was clear to the people involved that Apollo was something big. Leaving Earth for other worlds will someday be as commonplace as flying from Boston to Los Angeles, but to know that you are part of making that happen for the first time, to know that you own a piece of that history, that had to be really something special, whatever your role in the program (and if you had any role at all in those glory years, I want to thank and salute you for your fine work - you did us all proud).

That it all took place over a mere 11½ years (from JFK’s speech on May 25, 1961 to December 14, 1972 when Apollo 17 lifted off from the Moon) is even more astounding. How was it possible? To support that degree of focus, that alignment of national goals with untold numbers of “just-now-possible” technologies? And more importantly, with the legions of technically educated, talented, and dedicated people available to make it happen? Apollo certainly set the bar extremely high for any future space programs. It’s an interesting thing about space missions that when they go well, people comment on how NASA “makes it look easy,” and after the first mission they get bored until an Apollo 13, Challenger, or Columbia reminds everyone that it’s not easy at all, and never really was (then they forget again). NASA landed six crews on the Moon between July 1969 and December 1972. Only Apollo 13 failed to make its planned landing, and that amazing rescue probably contributed as much as Apollo 11 and 12 did to preparing everyone for Apollo 14 and the three “J-series” missions that concluded the program (Apollo 15, 16, and 17 featured extended surface stays made possible by an expanded LM payload that including the Lunar Rover).

But what about the future? Why has no one gone more than 800 kilometers from this planet for 35 years? People who care about space know all about this, the lack of public interest, the lack of vision, the lack of funds, the shuttle and space station decisions, going in circles and all that. I happen to think that the ISS and shuttle experience will ultimately pay off – the international cooperation, the extended time in space, getting better at building stuff up there. Many are frustrated with the slow pace of moving beyond Earth orbit again, with NASA’s “Apollo 2.0” approach to Constellation, with arguments about whether the Moon is even interesting enough to bother going back (I’m sure it will pay off), or whether we should push straight on to Mars (I think it’s harder than Zubrin says it is). I feel some of the frustration too. I’m not getting any younger. I want to see people on Mars as soon as someone can try it with a reasonable chance of success, but I think we could also use some practice just a few days out from Earth, and maybe even fly some few-month asteroid missions to warm up.

I don’t know what’s going to happen with US government funding for space in the next few administrations, but I’m not counting on anything like the 2004-2005 Vision for Space Exploration surviving intact. I hope that some of the heavy-lift launch vehicle infrastructure really gets built, and the Orion too, but I think that over the next 10-30 years, private space will make surprising progress (SpaceX, Bigelow, and I hope many others), and the new Asian space race will also have an impact, leading to extensive commercial and government operations in the Earth-Moon region, and expanded robotic and eventually human exploration of near-Earth asteroids and Mars. It may take us to 2051 to get to “2001” (the movie version that implicitly assumed an Apollo-like pace continuing for another 30 years), but we’ll get there. I guess this just means that I’m an optimist about space developments in the coming decades, and that I’m not assuming that NASA is the key to it all – though they have done and still do many great things, and certainly will continue to have a role, maybe even as a technology leader. I can’t prove it but I think there is reason for optimism and that there will be multiple paths to space, as well as plenty of reasons for more people to be interested and involved.

Just before boarding the LM for the last time on December 14, 1972, Gene Cernan made a brief speech:
As I take man's last step from the surface, back home for some time to come — but we believe not too long into the future — I'd like to just [say] what I believe history will record — that America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.
It’s definitely taking humanity longer than Cernan and others at the time would have imagined to get back there (President Nixon got one thing right when he announced at the time, “This may be the last time in this century that men will walk on the Moon.”). Those thousands of Apollo workaholics and overachievers showed us the way, and even if it takes us a while longer to catch up to what they accomplished in those few astounding years, you can rest assured that we won’t be a one-planet species forever.


James Hansen said...

Regret to inform you that NASA has left the space business in favor of the global warming business.

All inquiries in regard to the space business should be addressed to private enterprise.

FlyingSinger said...

The name James Hansen makes that seem like a rather ironic comment, or perhaps you are another James Hansen entirely - one never knows on the internet, does one?

It seems that NASA is in a whole lot of businesses, most of them involving space, although their Earth sensing satellites and scientists are certainly providing valuable data on climate change. They are probably in too many businesses, with too many missions and projects to handle them all effectively. I've read recently that current plans for extended ISS support ASSUME that private transportation will be available for many tasks. If that's the case you might think they would throw more support to COTS which right now seems to mean SpaceX. But to paraphrase Mike Griffin, he's just the ADMINISTRATOR, someone else (changing next year) is the DECIDER. NASA doesn't decide what it does, it just tries to do all the many things it is tasked to do with the money Congress gives them. This is not rigorously true - like any bureaucracy, NASA has its favorite partners and its favorite ways of doing things.

That said, I think it's actually healthy that we are moving toward a system where private enterprise will do most of the space transportation (even if it's still done by government agencies for many other countries). Space is not the same thing as aviation, but in the aviation world, NASA flies the X-planes, the military flies the fighters and bombers, the private airlines fly the people movers. Before NASA there was NACA and they did things like airfoil design and wind tunnel testing in support of the airplane industry, and a government agency should be involved in research, proofs of concept, trying things out in their risky earliest stages, and infrastructure support (like interstate highways, airports, air traffic control, security, etc.). But they shouldn't be the only game in town for "routine" space transportation (someday it will be routine instead of "routine").