We should drop the Apollo model in space, but keep the inspiration

Instead of wondering how NASA lost its edge, we ought to lay a foundation for a systematic exploration of space.

Launch of final lunar landing mission in NASA''s Apollo program
The Apollo Moon landings were a reaction to the Soviet Union, not due to a sustainable space programme [EPA]

The Apollo Moon landings are among the most recognisable events of the 20th century; stories from moonwalking astronauts and breathtaking images of the Earth from space remain a source of inspiration. But fascination with the lunar programme is often tempered with a sense of frustration. It’s a very American narrative to wonder why we were able to get men on the Moon in 1969, but can’t do the same today with our modern technology and better understanding of the problems involved. At some point in the past half-century, the Apollo programme became the model average Americans expect their nation’s space programme to follow. But that’s a dangerous expectation. The Apollo model wouldn’t work today.

The first steps into space

Manned spaceflight was inevitable. In the early 20th century, science fiction writers explored possible and probable scenarios that became increasingly realistic as rocketry came of age. As pilots flew higher and faster, atmospheric flight started to give way to spaceflight. The Moon became a beacon for proponents of space exploration, a scientific, political, and even romantic goal. By the early 1950s, America’s military was man-rating its missiles; German rocket engineer Wernher von Braun was teaching the nation how to go to Mars with the help of beautiful animation from Walt Disney’s studios on national television; and Buck Rogers was showing kids just how exciting their space faring future was going to be.

 Moon landings significant 40 years later

But when America took its first steps into space they were reactionary, not proactive. In response to the Soviet Union’s Sputnik satellites launched on October 4 and November 3, 1957, the military fast tracked its efforts in space. In 1958, the United States Air Force scrapped the sophisticated space planes it was developing and proposed a systematic spaceflight programme based on capsules culminating in a manned research site on the Moon within five years.

The Army sought to use the missiles it had available to send men in capsules on suborbital missions within a year. The Navy envisioned recovering its own astronauts from splashdowns at sea. These were all crash programmes, the simplest solutions to an immediate problem with no long-term plan. When the National Aeronautics and Space Administration opened its doors on October 1 that year – President Eisenhower wanted a civilian space agency to avoid any military uses of space – elements from these military programmes formed the basis of the Mercury Program.

Officially, NASA’s purpose was to streamline the nation’s efforts in space. Unofficially, the agency was created to use everything in the nation’s arsenal to get an American in space before the Soviet Union. Beyond that, NASA didn’t have a concrete plan. Generally speaking, learning to live and work in the hostile environment of space would surely come next; an orbiting space station was the logical step after an orbital mission. The Moon was sure to follow. In 1959, lunar missions launching from a space station were projected to fly sometime in the 1970s.

A wrench in the plan

But NASA hadn’t been counting on the Soviet Union beating America into orbit, despite the success of the first Sputniks. Yuri Gagarin’s flight on April 12, 1961, caught America off guard, and the national reaction was significant. Forward thinking engineers had already worked out the logistics of going to the Moon as a scientific interest, but President Kennedy saw it as the perfect finish line in a political race between technological superpowers.

When President Kennedy stood before Congress on May 25, 1961, and committed the nation to the goal of landing a man on the Moon and returning him to the Earth within the decade, he did two things. He gave NASA a definitive if short-term goal, and ensured that Apollo as well as the interim Gemini programme that followed Mercury would be another crash programme.

For NASA to meet Kennedy’s deadline, the fastest and simplest solutions were necessarily the way forward. The intermediate step of a space station between the Earth and the Moon became impractical given the time pressures. Technologies like runway landing systems that would lower the cost of spaceflight by ending NASA’s reliance on the Navy were abandoned. Anything that didn’t directly push Apollo to the Moon was forgotten. 

“Leftover hardware from the cancelled Moon landing was repurposed and launched on the short-lived Skylab programme, NASA’s first space station.”

The tradeoff was financial. The cost of Apollo soared, peaking in 1966 when the agency had a whopping 4 percent of the nation’s GDP at its disposal. It was an entirely unsustainable level of funding. As that reality sunk in, exciting post-Apollo plans of extended stays on the Moon, large orbiting laboratories, and manned missions to Venus and Mars were cancelled. As were Apollos 18, 19 and 20. The Saturn V rocket’s life was cut short. The single-use Apollo spacecraft were abandoned.

Post-Apollo realities

Leftover hardware from the cancelled Moon landing was repurposed and launched on the short-lived Skylab programme, NASA’s first space station, and the first multi-national Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission. The Apollo era ended without fanfare in 1975. When men returned to space six years later it was in the space shuttle, a ferry to a non-existent space station as part of a programme with no concrete goal. Americans have been vocal in their disappointment with NASA ever since. The shuttle’s 30-year stay in low Earth orbit is often considered a step backwards from the pinnacle of the lunar landings.

And it’s not just the shuttle. Everything since Apollo has paled in comparison. NASA achieved so much so quickly it has given the nation unrealistic expectations. What we seem to forget is that Apollo didn’t go to the Moon because one man decided the time was right. Kennedy picked a technologically feasible goal and the political, economic, social, and technological climates were so perfectly balanced that we were able to rise to the challenge.

The model of Apollo – achieving a major goal with a crash programme – is not something we should try and repeat. Landscapes have changed, both in space and in the United States. Instead of looking at Apollo and wondering how NASA lost its edge, we ought to focus on the things the agency had hoped to do initially: lay a foundation for a systematic and lasting exploration of space. Because even if the model is different, the inspiring pioneering spirit that marked the Apollo era can remain the same.

Amy Shira Teitel has an academic background in the history of science and now works as a freelance science writer specialising in spaceflight history. She maintains her own blog, Vintage Space, and contributes regularly to Discovery News, Scientific American, Motherboard, DVICE.

Follow her on Twitter: @astVintageSpace