Today is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. With a blog named Selenian Boondocks, I figured it probably made sense for me to say something. Earlier this year, thanks to some good advice from several friends, I took my boys to watch the Apollo 11 movie while it was still available in IMAX theaters. That movie was powerful, and really for the first time in my life helped me really connect with that historic feat. But on reflecting today about the Apollo 11 landings, I can’t help but feel somewhat depressed. NASA may have gone to the Moon 50 years ago, but we haven’t been back in over 46 years–longer than I, or most living Americans have been alive1. While NASA is currently in the planning stages of trying to send people back to the Moon, I’d like to see if we can avoid some of the mistakes we made last time.
The Fruits of Apollo2
While the Apollo Program succeeded brilliantly at its narrow goal of “before this decade is out, landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” the way Apollo was carried out practically guaranteed that we wouldn’t be going back for a long time. There has been a lot of commentary on this topic over the past several years, but I’d like to highlight a few of the reasons why I think the Apollo Program ended up not leading to anything more lasting in lunar development:
- Probably most fundamental, creating a long-term human presence on the Moon was never a goal of the Apollo program. The goals of the Apollo Program were very narrow, and we shouldn’t be surprised that, as I wrote almost a decade and a half ago, your focus determines your path.
- The Apollo Program was built around expensive, expendable launch and in-space hardware for which NASA was the only user, and for which there weren’t really many other real applications. With an expendable architecture for which NASA is the only customer, NASA either had to pay to keep the assembly lines open or lose the capability. And because keeping those assembly lines had required such a big surge in NASA funding earlier, that funding surge became increasingly hard to justify in the face of other fiscal pressures.
- The Apollo Program, as John Marburger put it, did almost nothing to “build a lasting infrastructure to reduce the expense and risk of future operations.”
Additionally, while Apollo dramatically advanced the state of the art in human spaceflight in countless areas, it has also left us saddled with many negative effects we’re still feeling to this day:
- A key part of politically selling Apollo the first time, was setting up NASA centers throughout the Southern United States. As I understand it, Johnson sold Apollo partially as a way to help bring high-paying, high-tech aerospace jobs to the South, which in many areas was still not very industrialized. That we’re still paying for that Faustian bargain today is obvious given how much NASA human spaceflight policy over the past decade continues driven by parochial interests from legislators in Alabama, Texas, Mississippi, and Florida.
- One aspect of that has been the Apollo “standing army” of contractors. After Apollo ended, NASA’s shuttle program was partially driven by finding ways to maintain as much of the Apollo workforce as possible, and that has continued on through ISS, Constellation, and now SLS/Orion. I can empathize with the desire to not let good people go when you have them, but this desire to keep the team together in perpetuity is still distorting our human spaceflight program 50yrs later.
- The processes behind how NASA approaches human spaceflight were developed in an environment of a “waste anything but time” budgets. While those processes might be an appropriate fit for Apollo-level budgets, they pretty much make it impossible for NASA to do anything in human spaceflight for less than $1B.
In some ways, in spite of how amazing the Apollo Program was, and how many advances it made to the state of the art of human spaceflight, I think it is reasonable to wonder if we wouldn’t be further along in our exploration and economic development of the solar system had Kennedy not made the Moon shot goal in 1961.
We can’t change the past, but I’d at least like to suggest a few ideas for how to hopefully avoid repeating the same mistakes this time around.
Suggestions on How To Avoid An Apollo Redux
Here are a short, non-exhaustive list of ideas for things we could do differently this time, to avoid repeating the same mistakes:
- Leverage Multi-User Systems as Much as Possible: We may be politically stuck with SLS for the foreseeable future, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to design an architecture that leverages, as much as possible, vehicles that have other customers outside of the lunar program. The obvious example being launch — if NASA can design their architecture to take maximum advantage of commercial launchers used for commercial, DoD, and non-human spaceflight NASA missions, that means that even if NASA had to pause lunar missions for some reason, the launch portion of that transportation system wouldn’t go away. I think people don’t realize how much Von Braun would’ve loved to have today’s commercial launch industry when he was trying to do Apollo3.
- Avoid Single-Source Solutions as Much as Possible: Like with COTS and Commercial Crew, there are real benefits to having more than one potential provider for systems. Tying cislunar transportation to one launcher, one individual, one launch site, etc. makes things unnecessarily brittle–and I don’t just mean SLS here. I have many friends who verge on a “we should just give Elon all the moneys” attitude, but an open architecture that fosters competition, and provides redundancy is good.
- Maximize Reusability From Day One: I know a lot of people who think that we should focus on getting a basic capability as soon as possible, and save bells and whistles like reuse for later. But I’m not sure this logic is as wise as it sounds on the surface. An expendable architecture is likely going to be a lot more expensive, and requires a lot of ongoing funding to keep production lines open or the capability goes away. It’s harder to cancel a capability when you’re talking reusable systems that don’t take a huge amount of money to keep alive when you’re not actively using them. Also, reuse fundamentally requires refueling, which creates a natural market for ISRU–it’s a lot easier to sell ISRU when vehicles are designed for refueling, and you just have to make the case that you can better serve existing in-space refueling customers. In the long-term, in-space reuse of transportation elements is critical to lowering the cost of cislunar trade enough to pull the Moon into humanity’s economic sphere, and I think we’d be wise to start incorporating reuse as early as possible in the program.
- Create Infrastructure to Reduce the Expense and Risk of Future Operations: This one is a little more contentious, and could easily use its own blog series, but I think that creating and maintaining on-orbit space logistics capabilities can be a key part of avoiding the mistakes of Apollo. Having a modest facility4in lunar orbit both makes refueling of reusable elements simpler, but also may make surface operations safer by providing much closer search and rescue options. Avoiding overdoing the infrastructure prematurely is a delicate balance, but if done right, such a facility also provides something that doesn’t instantly go away if funding gets throttled back.
- Maybe Try Settlement From the Start? If a lasting human presence is important, it might be worth deliberately accelerating that process using something like a Lunar One-Way To Stay (for a while) architecture. Having early lunar explorers/settlers stay for deliberately longer duration than the typically proposed days/weeks long missions can dramatically improve the amount you can do on the surface for a given transportation budget, probably would make it a lot easier to get ISRU debugged and up to scale, and forces you to build lasting surface infrastructure a lot sooner.
There is probably a lot more that I could say on the topic, but I’ll save that for future blog posts.
I’d like to end with some more excerpts from John Marburger’s speech from about a decade ago about how we need to adjust our approach to human spaceflight. His comments have aged pretty well in my opinion:
If we are serious about this, then our objective must be more than a disconnected series of missions, each conducted at huge expense and risk, and none building a lasting infrastructure to reduce the expense and risk of future operations. If we are serious, we will build capability, not just on the ground but in space. And our objective must be to make the use of space for human purposes a routine function.
If the architecture of the exploration phase is not crafted with sustainability in mind, we will look back on a century or more of huge expenditures with nothing more to show for them than a litter of ritual monuments scattered across the planets and their moons.—OSTP Director John Marburger at the Goddard Memorial Symposium, March 7th 2008
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- Some quick googling suggest that 2/3 of living Americans were born after Apollo 17 launched from the lunar surface
- I originally had a more inflamatory title for this section, but I realized that it sent the wrong message. Most of these mistakes were made by well-meaning people who probably would’ve done things differently if they had known how things would turn out.
- I’ve used more colorful ways of describing this elsewhere…
- Heavy emphasis on the modest part. Creating an “everything to everyone” ISS in lunar orbit like some at NASA seem to want Gateway to become is almost certainly not the right answer, but the more minimalist Gateway currently envisioned is headed in the right direction. The PPE + Docking Node mini-gateway can potentially be kept cheap enough to leave money for landers and surface elements, while providing some very useful capabilities. My “platonically ideal” gateway would be a Propellant Depot + Docking Node, and I’d almost certainly put it in a polar 500km Low-ish Lunar Orbit, but the current mini-gateway if they can fight the temptation to bloat it is still somewhat promising.