On Avoiding Some of the Mistakes of Apollo

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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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
  1. Some quick googling suggest that 2/3 of living Americans were born after Apollo 17 launched from the lunar surface
  2. 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.
  3. I’ve used more colorful ways of describing this elsewhere…
  4. 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.
Jonathan Goff

About Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
This entry was posted in Commercial Space, COTS, Lunar Commerce, Lunar Exploration and Development, Propellant Depots, Space Development, Space Exploration, Space Policy, Space Settlement. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to On Avoiding Some of the Mistakes of Apollo

  1. mike shupp says:

    Good points. Where I’d quibble is a psychological thing — the people who designed and flew those Apollo missions (and Mercury and Gemini and early Soyuz) didn’t have the least idea that manned spaceflight was going to be cut back so severely and for so long as we now know. Remember, this was an age in which military expenditures were about 10% of GNP — the workers employed on those spacecraft had cut their teeth on big never-ending programs to build high tech fighters and bombers, continent-spanning superhighways, ever larger passenger planes, nuclear power plants, etc. 15 years after the end of WW 2, 25 years after, it was just unimaginable that this near feverish activity would be so quickly curtailed.

    I recall starting at Rockwell’s Space Division in Downey, California in 1974 to work on the Space Shuttle. A couple of times I expressed worries about the slow pace of space exploration, and my coworkers were quick to assure me this was just a politically inspired hiccup — one the first shuttles were out the door, we’d all be back to work on the next generation of space stations and moon rockets and getting men to Mars. Didn’t happen that way.

  2. Dave Salt says:

    Unfortunately, in the minds of the people who actually fund it, what we regard as human spaceflight has never been about exploration or exploitation but simply jobs here on Earth.

    Even the initiator of what culminated with Apollo 11 (i.e. President Kennedy) was “not that interested in space” and saw Apollo solely as a national defence project with a very simple mission goal. Once that goal was achieved, the only concern was how to ‘consolidate’ the resulting technology base and resources (e.g. jobs) without major political blow-back… hence Shuttle.

    In summary, people pushing for national or international initiatives in human spaceflight are wasting their time discussing technical solutions because the real drivers of Agency activities are socio-political. Our only hope is via non-government initiatives, though that still faces many significant challenges related mainly to markets… or lack of them!

    Personally, I think the only worthwhile goal of space advocates is to push for development of truly reusable launchers, which are the only path to achieving frequent, safe and affordable access to space. Obviously, space stations, tugs, transfer stages and landers will all be necessary to enabling an effective space transportation infrastructure. However, their design should be driven by markets that we are currently unable to define because most do not exist, though many have been envisaged.

    I’ve always favoured small launch systems ( e.g. <5t to LEO), as they tend to cost less to develop and can be worked hard (i.e. fly as frequently and as full as possible) in support of relatively small markets. However, I appreciate that other options may be better suited to current circumstances, so I’ll take whatever enables the necessary size and variety of markets to justify a growing and sustainable human presence in space.

  3. spacerfirstclass says:

    “I have many friends who verge on a “we should just give Elon all the moneys” attitude”: I haven’t seen anyone advocating giving the entire NASA HSF budget to Elon, maybe people say different things when face to face, but there is no such thing online.

  4. Probably the biggest thing you could do to avoid the mistakes of Apollo is describe what it is you want to achieve – and make sure that’s more than “beat the Russians”. Off the top of my head:

    * Characterize the ice deposits at the poles.

    * Can you use that ice? Or is it too mucky?

    * Find all the open “skylights”, whether there’s any accumulated ice in them, how extensive the caverns are that they indicate are, etc.

    * What other resources are there?

    * Is it possible to build a permanent settlement? How many people can it support? How much resupply will be required? etc

    * What will they do there? I think the answer is bioscience – can big mammals (like us) be born and raised to maturity there? What else?

    A lot of this was done back in the Apollo Applications reports but that was 50 years ago.

  5. Tony Mach says:

    On the “Reusability From Day One” point, I want to just throw out something:
    The Space Shuttle had reusability from day one – Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 did not.

    (AFAIK however the cost of even an early expendable Falcon 9 compared favorably to existing launchers – the cost of STS was bad, bad, bad.)

    Furthermore, to compare again STS with SpaceX, the Falcons evolved quite a lot, while STS did not really (and even SLS is a rehashed STS, with almost no evolved technology – SLS is early seventies tech, for crying out loud).

    More important than having “full up” system from day one, IMHO, is to have a path towards lowering costs, and evaluating and evolving that path constantly, in order to continue to lower costs.

    Reusability is key, no question, but we should be careful to be a bit more agnostic on what the most cost effective time is to ramp up from zero reuse to full reuse.

  6. Dave Salt says:

    Tony, I’m sorry to disagree but Shuttle was at best repairable and could not be reused in anything like the way we ‘reuse’ all other transportation systems (e.g. airplanes, ships, trains, trucks). Claiming that Shuttle was in anyway ‘reusable’ is, at best, misleading and has caused too many influential people to conclude that a fully reusable launch vehicle was effectively impossible.

    The original concept for a full reusability shuttle was rejected back in 1971, as shown in Slide 8 of this presentation…
    …and resulted in all maintenance related features being consciously removed from the design (e.g. on-pad access to the nose wheel). Therefore, saying it had “reusability from day one” is completely wrong.

  7. Tony,
    It’s a topic for my next post, but in-space reusability tends to be a lot easier to integrate than earth-to-orbit reusability. In-space reusability in some cases could be as simple as designing a stage to be refueled and getting rid of single-use items like non-rechargable batteries. I think that for in-space vehicles, you can get the both of best worlds — some initial reusability to keep costs down, and get you in the practice of refueling/reusing stuff, while keeping the cost of evolving the capability relatively low.

  8. Pingback: Space-for-All at HobbySpace » Space policy roundup – July.23.2019

  9. We have a pretty good existence proof that Congress is willing to let NASA spend $4.8B on HEOMD pretty much forever, but we know that that money is predicated on two things:

    1) NASA had better not ask for a lot more than that.

    2) NASA had better not break the existing set of rice bowls.

    So any architecture has to fit into those two fundamental constraints. That makes things difficult, but not impossible. I don’t think that Boeing and the other contractors care that much about SLS’s success, just as long as they get about the same amount of yearly cash. So any successful architecture has to do that. If we can swap SLS for landers and habs and EVA suits, things will work out.

    The next thing to note is that if you take the proposed SLS and EGS budgets and extend them through 2028 and the 8 missions that are planned, you wind up with somewhere between $2.2B and $2.9B a launch. This seems to me to be the most realistic way to do the forward-looking accounting.

    A commercial-based architecture capable of getting Orion to TLI is doable. Be it the Frankenrocket (interstage+ICPS+OSA+ESM+CM+LAS all on an FHE), or a distributed-launch version where the Orion does a crewed rendezvous with the TLI stage, it’s really hard to get a per-mission cost that exceeds $500M-$800M, even when you factor in a couple billion for R&D.

    That gives you a pretty nice chunk of change to spend on the other architectural components you need. I don’t think we can develop all of the stuff needed for a sustainable system with nine years of an extra $2B a year, but we can certainly make a bigger dent in the problem than spending all of the money on the stupid launcher.

    Completely agree that the end state of the architecture needs to be completely reusable and on-orbit refuelable, but I do think that a sufficiently modular architecture can swap in second-gen reusable components for first-gen expendable ones in some cases. I also agree that the price of keeping the lander pieces-parts small enough to get tossed to NRHO by commercial launchers is a minimal Gateway, but I especially agree that the emphasis needs to be on the “minimal” part.

    Ultimately, NASA’s BEO architecture needs to stand on four legs:

    1) Capability development: on-orbit prop transfer, habs and ECLSS for surface use, lunar ISRU, etc. There’s a long list of things we need to get good at to push out BEO, and most of them don’t make enough commercial sense for private companies to spend the needed R&D.

    2) Infrastructure: The Moon can be a good business, but only if NASA enables enough stuff to bring the up-front private investment down to a reasonable level and defrays some of the risk.

    3) Science. Hopefully this is self-evident as a driver of consensus for the spending.

    4) Cool stuff and inspiration. We know from recent polls that human exploration ranks pretty low on the totem pole with the public. But I maintain that that reliably changes as soon as something nifty happens. Part of the mission has to be that a certain amount of flashiness is required to enable the other parts of the mission.

    But all of this is moot if we can cut out the SLS cancer. It eats all the resources and makes any sort of coherent discussion impossible.

  10. Andrew Swallow says:

    There is a major decision point on in-flight refuelling at the end on next month. Are the water, fuel and lox connector points on the 4 NASA docking ports connected together?

    Adding temperature controlled pipes to the outside of the Minimal Habitat Module once it is in space will be difficult. The contracts are currently being agreed.

  11. George Turner says:

    I don’t think the expendable/re-usable choice is so clear cut, simply because Elon said he thinks the eventual cost of a Raptor engine could get down to $200,000.

    NASA went to great lengths to re-use the Shuttle engines, putting them on the Shuttle instead of the external tank. If Elon hits his price point, which would be only $84,000 in 1985 dollars, and assuming an LH2 engine would be about the same, that would mean $252,000 (1985 dollars) for all three main engines.

    The Raptor is designed so that only minimal maintenance, if any, is required, but even if they threw them away, the overwhelming cost advantage argues that it would be cheaper to throw them away than to tear down and rebuild an RS-25.

    The future is re-usable, but that’s just gravy because the engines designed for mass production at affordable prices seem to be the more significant cost reducer, especially if you consider the diminishing returns on subsequent cost savings in comparison to the ridiculous amounts of money the Shuttle or SLS cost to launch.

    If the newspace engine costs 1% as much as the legacy engine, and if turning around a re-usable legacy engine comes to even 1% of its purchase cost per flight, then even expending a newspace engine is the cheaper option.

    I think I brought this up in the previous post, but when the cost advantages are that overwhelming, virtually any horrible, non-optimal lunar architecture using newspace vehicles will vastly outperform even the best architecture that uses legacy hardware, in cost, sustainable flight rate, and payload delivery.

    I of course don’t advocate turning everything over to SpaceX because then they wouldn’t have any reasonable competition driving prices even lower and capabilities even higher.

  12. gbaikie says:

    –On Avoiding Some of the Mistakes of Apollo–
    I don’t think Apollo made mistakes.
    It was part of battle of Cold War and it won a PR battle.
    A side effect of Apollo is it created the large NASA bureaucracy and bureaucracy was
    successful at maintaining some of it’s Apollo funding level.
    So the NASA bureaucracy was also somewhat successful at maintaining some of
    the funding levels, but failed evermore get as much funding as the Apollo program, briefly was able to get.
    NASA has wanted to repeat something like the successful stunt of Apollo to regain as much as it did with Apollo AND to maintain such high levels of funding.
    Though most realize this is not possible, and the battle has been to have big ticket programs that continue to help NASA maintain it’s funding levels.
    One could point to shuttle program as being quite successful in these terms. NASA promised to lower launch cost with shuttle program and this regard was huge failure, but they were successful in that they had continuous program that needed funding.
    Presently they have ISS and the future looks grim.

    What would ideal for the NASA bureaucracy is a Mars exploration program, but to date it’s been too stupid to know how to do it.

    I have suggested that NASA explore the tiny area of lunar polar regions to determine if lunar water is mineable. And I think NASA should not mine lunar water. Nor establish a lunar base. Instead NASA transition from Lunar exploration to Mars exploration.
    This is sort of using the Moon as testbed.
    Mars is hard to explore. It’s vast area to explore, unlike to lunar polar region.
    It seems to me that even if the Moon didn’t have mineable water, the polar regions would be best place on the Moon. But without any mineable lunar water, it seems to me quite questionable of whether anyone should go and do anything on the Moon.

    I think to explore Mars, one should exploring to determine if there could be any place on Mars which would be good for human settlements.
    I don’t think the Moon is a good place for human settlements- even if there is mineable water. But if there is mineable water in lunar polar regions, but it seems that polar region would be a better place on the Moon to have settlements.
    And I can’t point to Mars and say where would be the better place to have human settlements.
    One could argue that Mars is not a good place for human settlements, but there are millions of people who think Mars would good place to live, and fewer to no one who want to live on the Moon.

    Now, I have instinctual hate of bureaucracies but there must some people who really like them. So despite my irrational revulsion, I going to help NASA bureaucracy get what it wants {and fighting bureaucracies is probably an winnable war}.

    So I think to explore Mars, it going to take a lot time and money. And require humans on Mars and requires a lot robots on Mars. So part lunar testbed is to build robotic capability, which going to be further expanded with Mars exploration program.
    Other testbed aspect [which the bureacracy isn’t going to like] is testing NASA to see if it is capable of exploring Mars. A fail is getting bogged down on the Moon.
    I think if NASA gets bogged down on the Moon, NASA might die. The bureaucracy goes bye, bye.
    International cooperation is: NASA determines if there is minable water on the Moon, and all the other space agencies put lunar bases on the Moon. NASA should not plan to put a lunar base on the Moon. BUT if Congress hands them truckloads of money to build a lunar base or do something on the Moon, you of course take the money.
    But the focus is to exactly what wants everyone wants you to do, explore the Moon and then explore Mars. So finish exploring Moon and start immediately exploring Mars.
    IF NASA does a good job exploring the Moon- determines if there is mineable lunar water which will result in the Moon being a near term destination. Then it will get funded for the Mars program. If does poor job- can’t determine if there is or is not mineable lunar water, maybe it will be get as much funding for Mars. But if does same poor job and then gets bogged down on the Moon instead going to Mars- well that is even worst {death knocking on the door}.

  13. DougSpace says:

    > Having early lunar explorers/settlers stay for deliberately longer duration

    I wrote an AIAA paper on this topic. The web page describing it including the link to my paper is at:


    In a nutshell, every time we rotate crew, it not only costs money but it endangers both the incoming and outgoing crews’ lives as demonstrated by Challenger & Columbia. Better if biomedical indicators are used to determine when the crew should return. Of staying beyond 18 months then, ideally, the crew should not have dependent children back on Earth and any spouses should be sent as teams. If they sell their Earth home and move to the Moon indefinitely then, technically, that’s the beginning of settlement. If they are company employees and not doing the NASA picking up rocks thing then they’re producing and maintaining infrastructure (e.g. telerobots harvesting and ice into propellant) and thats a private activity. They’re not government. Again, another indication of it being the beginning of settlement.

  14. Andrew Swallow says:

    If we want the lunar Gateway to refuel the lunar landers the interfaces have to be defined this summer. After that they will be designed out of the Minimal Habitation Module and its docking ports.

  15. Andrew,

    Not necessarily. You’re assuming the only way to refuel things is through a docking port umbilical. That’s a way, but Altius is investing an alternative approach under the pair of Refueling Element prototypes we’re doing for the Human Lander System BAA this year.

    But yes, that’s why NASA is funding several groups to do Refueling Element studies and prototypes between now and the end of the year, to make sure they lock down interfaces ASAP while there’s still time.


  16. Andrew Swallow says:

    A long arm can be used to refuel a spacecraft docked to a spacestation. The spacecraft would need a propellant door on its side.

    Hopefully the nozzle has a shaped end that will prevent oxidisers and fuel getting mixed by accident.

  17. Andrew Swallow says:

    Today NASA announced that the Marshall Space Flight Center has been put in charge of the human lunar lander. The Johnson Space Center has the Ascent Stage. The picture accompanying the press conference shows the Ascent Stage as having 4 fuel tanks.

    The Project Morpheus test bed lander Johnson developed had 4 fuel tanks. Its consumables were methane, lox and helium as a pressuriser. If chosen they will need refuelling on a reusable lander.

  18. Andrew Swallow says:

    p.s. It could be a hyperbolic fuel in the Ascent Stage’s tanks, depending on how worried NASA is about boil off.

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