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How Not to Repeat the Failure that was Apollo

This month around the country we will witness celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing. There are many reasons to celebrate. As a technological feat, it was remarkable. Using computer technology less sophisticated than that contained in the key fob on my car, the United States managed to successfully land six different capsules on the moon and bring the astronauts within them safely home again.

On a personal level, like many others of my generation, landing on the moon was transformative. I was 15 years old and watching television from my personal command center in our basement when Neil Armstrong stepped off the LEM and said what I was sure was “A small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind”. That made sense. (The official version, without an “a” before man, has since never made sense to me since.)

Yet, in spite of the bravery of those involved, and the excitement in generated around the world in 1969, there are reasons to argue that the remarkable technological achievement that was Apollo was ultimately a dismal failure. More worrisome, it was a failure that we are showing every sign of repeating today.

The Apollo missions required a national technical effort that was comparable in scale and cost to perhaps only the construction of the Panama Canal, or the wartime Manhattan Project. New rockets, new control systems, new communications systems, new computer systems, new spacesuits had to be designed and built—in short, a whole new aerospace infrastructure for the United States. The cost of Apollo alone was about $25 billion at the time, or over $150 billion after inflation in current dollars. At its peak, in 1966, over 4% of the entire federal budget was devoted to this effort, which required supporting hundreds of thousands of scientists, engineers, and other specialists, in order to succeed.

Apollo was just the last stage of the US program to send humans to the Moon. President Kennedy’s famous speech on May 25, 1961, in which he promised, “the goal, before this decade is out, land a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth”, established the latter phases of Project Mercury as well as Gemini, which preceded the Apollo program, so that the numbers provided above are an underestimate of the cost of the entire effort.

Kennedy justified this incredible investment of resources by declaring, “no single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space”. He was right about on the first count, but sadly wrong about the second.

Ironically, referring to the previous decade of planning for the exploration of space, Kennedy remarked: “We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment.”

The problem was that in his speech he didn’t really specify what the long-range goal of this new ambitious undertaking was, beyond simply getting a human to the moon and back again and making sure that human was an American.

The reason for this, is that there seems to have been no long-range goals. The decision of build a space program capable of sending humans to the moon and back was driven by purely terrestrial concerns. The launch of Sputnik in 1957 had embarrassed and demoralized many regarding the supposed US technological superiority over the Soviet Union, and a little month before Kennedy’s speech, Yuri Gagarin had become the first human in Space.

The purpose behind the drive to the Moon derived from the fact that after careful consultation with various experts, Kennedy concluded that while landing a man on the Moon would be technologically challenging, it was one niche where the US might actually be able to garner a potential lead over its adversary. The Moon missions arose as a product of the Cold War, not of some concerted plan for exploring the solar system.

This meant that once that goal was achieved, once we were first, there was no real political motivation to continue. Nor was it clear that the nation would stomach another decade of spending a significant fraction of the US GNP on sending humans into space.

Not surprisingly, a little over 3 years after Neil Armstrong set foot on our closest celestial neighbor, the last Apollo mission was completed. The tragedy is not merely that we haven’t returned since, it is that the remarkable infrastructure that was established to begin what many thought would be a concerted human conquest of the heavens was largely dismantled.

No replacement for the huge Saturn 5 rockets that could carry humans beyond Earth orbit was designed or built. Within a few years the US simply lost the technological capacity to continue human exploration of the Moon, whatever the scientific or political motivation might be.

And this is precisely why, I would argue, the Apollo program was a failure. Such a huge fiscal and intellectual endeavor should have a legacy beyond spin-offs like Tang, or smaller scale control devices using integrated circuits. If we are going to return to the Moon again, we should have a long-term plan.

Mark Twain is claimed to have said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. Today we are witnessing a rhyming confluence of global pressures on the US to demonstrate its technological superiority. China and India and planning Moon missions, and the European Space Agency has demonstrated that NASA’s earlier monopoly on sophisticated space technology disappeared long ago.

Enter Donald Trump and Mike Pence. While NASA had been exploring a slow ramp up for plans to return to the moon by 2028, in March of this year, the Vice President announced that NASA was directed to return astronauts to the moon within the next five years “by any means necessary”.

Why? To beat the competition.

The problem is that NASA isn’t ready to do this. Most of the hardware for the task doesn’t yet exist. NASA’s replacement for the Saturn 5 is now delayed till at least 2020, at a cost so far of over $12 Billion. The new plan also includes a small space station from which astronauts would be ferried back and forth to the lunar surface. Neither technology currently exists.

The price tag for trying to achieve the new goal by 2024 is between $20 billion and $30 billion and require NASA to add an extra $4 billion to $6 billion per year on top of its existing $20 billion dollar per year budget.

Whether or not Congress has the gumption to appropriate such funds, the question once again arises, what will we do if we succeed? The additional funding required over the next five years is not sustainable, and once we have beaten the competition will the interest in following up once again fade among legislators and the public?

If we are to not once again waste an incredible investment of financial and human capital, we need to ask ourselves why we want to return humans to the moon, and how an initial effort can be the cornerstone of a longer-term national, or international program of human space exploration.

There are many reasons to consider returning to the Moon, beyond simply scientific benefits that might come from putting geologists back on its surface. We could learn how to construct objects like buildings in a harsh environment that might pave the way for a later effort to visit and establish a base on Mars. We could put a radio telescope on the far side of the Moon, where it would be immune from the pesky radio noise emitted by humans on earth.

But to achieve any of these goals in the long term we will be required to develop a sustainable program of human space exploration, and that means one with much more modest near-term expenditures that can be built into a longer-term NASA budget. And it means deciding exactly what technological challenges really need to be met, beyond building a rocket that can get humans there and back again.

Finally, we need to come to terms with the questions of what role humans should really play in the exploration of space. As robotic and computer technology continues to improve, the opportunity cost of sending humans vs machines into space becomes more manifest. My geology colleagues like to point out to me that a human geologist on Mars could have done in a few days what the rovers took years to do. However, I have replied that we could probably send thousands of rovers for the price of launching a human mission. Indeed, we can send a rover to Mars for a cost comparable to making a movie about sending Bruce Willis or Matt Damon to Mars. A large fraction of the cost of sending humans into space is simply developing the technology necessary to keep them alive. If the rovers crash, or break down on way or on the surface, however, the result is less tragic.

Of course, that very fact provides part of the allure of the human conquest of space. Facing possible death or injury is what draws so many to adventure, and I think it is fair to say that human space exploration will always be driven by the thirst for adventure, and less by an interest science or technology.

But that is the story of much of human history. Our long-term future may be in space because we are a species that simply wants to explore and experience the unknown. Or it may be that we are driven to space to avoid the catastrophes we are creating here on earth.

Either way, if we are to realistically continue to boldly go where no one has gone before, we need to look before we leap.

Lawrence M. Krauss, a theoretical physicist, is the President of the Origins Project Foundation, and the host of The Origins Podcast. His most recent book is "The Greatest Story Ever Told.. So Far".

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