I was born into the post-Apollo generation. Whenever I’ve looked at the Moon, it’s always been with the knowledge that humans have been there, walked on that surface, brought back rocks. As a child I became obsessed with space travel, devouring any book I could find on the subject. I memorised every detail about the rockets and spacecraft I read about, absorbed the stories of the brave astronauts and cosmonauts who flew them – these people became my heroes.
At the time I neither understood nor questioned why we stopped going to the Moon. The age of the Shuttle was here. Spaceflight would become safe and routine for my generation, no longer the preserve of steely test pilots – or so I thought as a small child, glued to the TV watching John Young and Bob Crippen take Columbia on her inaugural flight. They launched on April 12, 1981 – 20 years to the day since Yuri Gagarin had become the first human to experience spaceflight. How far we’d come in two decades! Where could we go in the next twenty years?
As an adult I’m still obsessed by spaceflight. I still devour any book I can find on the subject and count myself fortunate that through the Internet I can access a treasure trove of archival information via NASA and other organisations. I can dive into the histories of the programmes that fascinate me and learn as much as I wish. I’ve seen a golden age of space exploration develop as mankind’s robotic probes have swept through the solar system. What we previously imagined to be dead rocky moons almost beyond the Sun’s warming light have been revealed to be fascinating, dynamic worlds in their own right. Almost without exception, everywhere we have been, everything we’ve looked at has been revealed to be both more amazing and fascinating than we could have imagined. But Apollo still has a particular fascination for me and holds a special place in my heart.
…human flight remains locked in Low Earth Orbit, carving endless arcs across the sky. There have been no more giant leaps to other worlds since Gene Cernan lifted his foot off the lunar surface in December 1972. Apollo has not been followed by anything on a similar scale and this makes a big part of me feel very sad, but it also raises a question in me that makes me feel uneasy – almost disloyal to those heroes of my youth. Was Apollo the right thing to do in the first place and, maybe more importantly, has Apollo stifled progress on our journey beyond Earth?
When Kennedy rose before congress in 1961 and pledged that America with her 15 minutes of suborbital human spaceflight experience would, before the decade was out land a man on the Moon and return him safely, the hearts and imaginations of a generation were captured. Here was a politician with the foresight to dream big, to believe in the best that human ingenuity could offer as opposed to the bleak certainties of Mutual Assured Destruction. In describing the venture, the President sought to invoke the primal human need to explore. We would set out on this new ocean as our predecessors had set out across the seas – unsure of what waited for us but certain that this was part of our manifest destiny. He invoked Mallory’s famous response when asked why he wished to climb Everest, “Because it’s there.”
Of course in reality Kennedy’s fine rhetoric masked a more pragmatic truth. Reeling from America’s perceived inferiority on the new battlefield of space he had tasked his advisors to work with NASA and determine an achievable goal that would be suitably impressive to win the hearts and minds of the world. NASA, having already carried out some preliminary work on the question of a lunar expedition felt sufficiently confident to state that with the necessary financial and political backing they could overhaul the early Soviet lead and put a Man on the Moon by 1970. And so began Project Apollo’s race to the Moon. Against a geopolitical background where America had to demonstrate supremacy, this colossal venture would stand as a beacon to all. And so it was, although Kennedy would not live to see his vision fulfilled. By the time Neil Armstrong took that historic small step onto the Sea of Tranquility in July 1969, the Soviet space challenge appeared to have evaporated. But by then the world was a very different place with concerns over the escalating conflict in South East Asia and civil rights within America itself occupying the headlines.
Support waned quickly for further moon landings. Even within NASA some felt it was best to quit while they were ahead. Kennedy had set the nation a goal and that goal had been met. He had never said anything about continued exploration of the Moon, permanent settlements or even a scientific raison d’être for Apollo’s voyages. The political imperative for the programme’s very existence had been satisfied.
Acting Administrator Thomas O. Paine felt that President Nixon would look for his own bold initiative – his ‘Kennedy’ moment in space, but against a background of Vietnam and rising inflation this simply wasn’t going to happen. There was no sustainability in Apollo, no overwhelming justification why it should continue, no demonstrable lasting benefit to the United States. Flights were cut and soon mankind retreated again to Low Earth Orbit.
So was a moon landing the right goal for Kennedy to reach for?
Well, it’s difficult to say ‘No’ in so much as Apollo absolutely achieved the political goals he set, but it also placed spaceflight in the setting of a ‘crash’ programme akin to the wartime Manhattan Project. During the first half of the twentieth century spaceflight advocates had seen humanity making more measured progress towards the stars. First by limited orbital flights, then by the colonisation of this near-Earth environment in space stations of increasing complexity. With the skills required to live and work in space mastered, new ships could now be constructed to take us outwards. First destination would be the Moon where we would be able to apply these space construction skills and build colonies for our extended stays as we explored this new world. Eventually missions would seek to go further from these extraterrestrial outposts, moving to Mars and other planets. But these grand visions didn’t take into account the public reaction to Sputnik. Leaders on both sides of the Iron Curtain were surprised by the reaction and, in the case of the United States, fear and political anger this created.
Sputnik sparked a Space Race and this in turn set up the momentum that led Apollo to the lunar surface in 1969. Kennedy had been no fan of space exploration prior to taking office, but when it became clear that this new frontier would be the battleground between East and West he was determined not to be found wanting. Ideas of orderly progression were put on hold and NASA, marshalling the best that American science and engineering could offer, forged forward on an accelerated course of unprecedented progress fuelled by massive budgets.
But at the end of Apollo there was a vacuum while America waited for its new reusable Space Shuttle. This would do away with the seemingly profligate expendability that Apollo had represented and lead to a more routine, economical path into space. Perhaps now the natural progression predicted by the early visionaries would take hold.
Unfortunately, as we rapidly approach the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo’s first flight we still find ourselves locked in Low Earth Orbit. This is not to criticise the work done by the Shuttle or on Salyut, Skylab, Mir or the ISS – huge experience has been gained in the effects of long term spaceflight and how to work in this challenging environment. Sacrifices have been made and many lessons have been learned, but the bigger goals still seem tantalisingly beyond our reach.
Like Nuclear Fusion, our trip to Mars always seems a generation away
Many US presidents have sought to invoke the spirit of Apollo but these initiatives have resulted in so many frustrating false starts. In 1984 Reagan announced Space Station Freedom, an orbital outpost to encourage American industry to embrace the possibilities of space, yet it turned out to be very difficult to find a real world justification for the programme – the station would have to wait until 1998 and a new era of co-operation with international partners.
In 1989, twenty years after Apollo 11, George H. Bush announced the Space Exploration Initiative, a 20 to 30 year plan whereby America would return to the Moon and then travel onwards to Mars – a bold vision which lasted only until 1992 when, under President Clinton, NASA turned to a mantra of “faster, better, cheaper” and looked towards an expanded robotic programme as well as low cost access to LEO via the VentureStar commercial craft.
NASA had some successes during the 90’s, but also suffered failures. The agency was lacking a bold vision to ignite the nation’s imaginations, but not for long. In 2004, President George W. Bush sought to succeed where his father had failed by unveiling his own vision for NASA – a return to the Moon as early as 2015 with prolonged explorations by 2020. To facilitate this, a new class of spacecraft and launch vehicles would be developed under the Constellation programme. “We choose to explore space because doing so improves our lives and lifts our national spirit…so let us continue the journey” was Bush’s message at the time, but uncertain budgets and technical issues cast the whole programme into doubt. The financial heavy lifting would need to be done by his successor…
As Bush gave way to Obama, the new President concluded that Constellation was “over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation.” Constellation was cancelled and replaced instead with a “Flexible Path to Mars” that retained the Orion spacecraft but looked to develop a new super booster. The Space Launch System was announced in 2011 and development continues with an uncertain roster of infrequent flights pointing towards a human mission to a captured asteroid by 2025 and a mission to Mars sometime in the 2030’s.
Kennedy’s challenge set a template for the great political challenge…
…the test of a nation’s technical prowess and this is still the pattern that dominates the challenges set for NASA by it’s political paymasters. We now see the development of Orion and the Space Launch System seemingly repeating much of what Apollo achieved, but at a tremendous cost for NASA. In many ways, the challenges facing this initiative are one of the true prices to be paid for Apollo. To make Kennedy’s vision a reality, NASA had to play a political game under the leadership of Administrator James E. Webb. A consumate political player, Webb quickly realised that by spreading Apollo’s largesse throughout the country he could build up strong congressional support. In a crash programme, it didn’t necessarily matter if the work wasn’t being done by the lowest bidder, just that the work was being done, schedules were kept and a conducive political environment maintained. This system persists but now means huge projects like the SLS crawl along at glacial pace consuming huge amounts of NASA’s budget.
While the SLS represents a step back by NASA to a huge Saturn Class expendable booster, new initiatives by private industry are showing the potential in reusable rocketry. Both Space X and Blue Origin have flown boosters to space and safely recovered them and while these are early steps these companies are able to operate in more agile ways than NASA can. What will they achieve by the time SLS is due to launch its first crew?
And while NASA has its hopes locked into a trip to Mars, Russian, Chinese and European Space Agencies are looking back towards the Moon, but face their own budgetary challenges which may prevent any individual agency or nation pursuing this goal.
So maybe Apollo went too far too soon and set an impossible target against which everything since has been measured. It wasn’t primarily about exploration, although that did happen, and it certainly wasn’t about sustainability, but it has cast a long shadow over what has come since.
Am I committing some sort of heresy by saying these things? Well, all I can say is that the people who made Apollo happen are still my heroes. I still get a lump in my throat when I think what they did, the risks they took and the certainty they had in their belief that it was worth it. Armstrong himself has now left us, his surviving fellow moonwalkers are now old men – still active, still advocating the next big step, but a vivid reminder of the time that has passed since Apollo.
I guess my conclusion is that the further we get from those days, the more anomalous Apollo appears – an amazing adventure that will stand out as future generations look back on the twentieth century, but not something that can be repeated. We live in a different world now.
The answer to a continuation of the human exploration of our nearest celestial neighbours surely lies not in huge politically motivated single nation programmes, but in international cooperation. This way we can pool the best of our talents and abilities while spreading the colossal costs and challenges that may otherwise form insurmountable obstacles. Sustainable international programmes may also serve to isolate space agencies from the cycle of constant changing priorities as administrations come and go. That’s my hope anyway.
So Apollo, I still love you, but now I think I understand where you came from and what you really were a bit better.