The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Apollo image
Returning humans to the Moon will require a very different approach than Apollo if it is to be sustainable over the long haul. (credit: NASA)

Breaking the shackles of Apollo

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The future of human spaceflight is in flux. Our current situation has left many wondering, “What happened to the days of Apollo?”

Some people clamor for a similar grand-scale government project that would take us back to the Moon or to Mars in just a handful of years. Apollo was an astounding achievement: a confluence of humanity and technology that still stands as arguably the greatest triumph in the history of our nation, if not our species.

However, we need to move on. The way by which we first touched the Moon is not what will carry us to our future in space.

The nature of Apollo project was unique in time. It was conceived through a combination of politics, wealth, and opportunity rooted singularly in its own era. It is something the likes of which we may never see again in our lifetime. While the achievement itself may have been transcendent, the circumstances that brought it about were certainly not, and it would be unwise to hold your breath waiting for history to repeat itself.

But let’s say that we did undertake a crash program to go beyond LEO again as quickly as possible, just to get there. Where would this leave us?

What we need instead is the sobering realization that the task ahead of us is far greater that simply getting back beyond LEO, or back to the Moon.

First of all, it is likely that such a project would be a one-off event, as the massive influx of funding necessary for such an operation would be unsustainable. It is hard to imagine that the political will would exist that would allow such grand expenditures indefinitely. That leaves us, at best, spinning our wheels again at the project’s conclusion, as many of us felt we’ve been doing for the last several decades. Or we end up with another cancelled program like Constellation. No one wants that.

If we did go beyond LEO—let’s say, for example, back to the Moon—as quickly as possible, what would we do there? How would we stay? If the main purpose of a program is just to get to a point in space as quickly as possible, how is there time or resources for the development of the technologies that would help us stay there? The tendency is that when you’re trying to get something done as quickly as possible, most of your resources are devoted to that end, putting everything else on the back burner. If we engaged in another Apollo-like program towards that end, we’d have to rely on existing technology, which as we all know is ill-suited to get us beyond the Earth-Moon system in a sustainable manner, and thus putting off the development of the technologies that would pay greater long-term dividends. Recent government attempts at an Apollo-esque undertaking, like the Congressionally-dictated design for a new heavy lift vehicle or the ill-fated Constellation architecture, are a testament to this tired, conventional thinking. Do we really want the things that will sustain our spacefaring future relegated to second fiddle?

What we need instead is the sobering realization that the task ahead of us is far greater that simply getting back beyond LEO, or back to the Moon. We’ve proven that we can get there and back. The road ahead of us now is to figure out how to stay there and go beyond. This is a process that will take much longer than we’d like, as the challenges we need to overcome are far greater than those of the Apollo era. There is no doubt that is going to be a gargantuan effort. But it has to be a gargantuan effort that will last in perpetuity.

We need to focus not on projects aimed at instantly gratifying our desire to get out there, but on a comprehensive development program that is going to allow us to have a full range of capabilities in space.

What we’re also overlooking is that Apollo was not as quick of an achievement as we’d imagine. Yes, while the time between putting the first man in space and landing a man on the Moon was relatively short, the foundations of that feat stretch back decades before Kennedy’s speech to Congress, or when NACA engineers began first toying with the idea of manned lunar missions in the late 1950s. Rocketry and spaceflight had been in development for decades before we finally landed on the Moon. If we had had to truly start from scratch, do we really think we could have done it in just eight years?

That’s a similar situation to where we find ourselves today. We want to go into deep space: beyond the Moon, to Mars, and even further. However, as far as getting there is concerned, we’re starting from scratch. In terms of propulsion we’re probably just about where Robert Goddard was when he flew the first liquid-fuelled rocket in the mid-1920s. We have a long way to go and it will take a good deal of time to develop these essential tools. It is doubtful that a crash program could deliver these in just a short number of years, because the foundation to build upon isn’t there yet. We are the ones who need to build it. Can this be achieved in our lifetime? Absolutely, but only if we are realistic and reasonable about it.

To do this, we need to focus not on projects aimed at instantly gratifying our desire to get out there, but on a comprehensive development program that is going to allow us to have a full range of capabilities in space. We need to develop the tools for sustained human survival, both in microgravity and against exposure to radiation in space. We need to develop propulsion methods that can radically shrink transit times between the Earth and the Moon, and yes, Mars. We need these systems to be more sustainable, so that our exploration of space as a whole is sustainable and that we might venture into space more frequently. That is the only way we will realistically be able to get out there and stay out there.

Such a major undertaking also requires a degree of flexibility and autonomy that a purely government program cannot provide. Gone are the days where NASA could operate relatively freely, almost as an engineer’s playground. Cost overruns, delays, and other setbacks have unfortunately become the norm. How confident can we be that government bureaucracy acting on its own, at least as it exists now, could be up to the challenge?

We need to incorporate commercial space to achieve some of these ends, as we are attempting to do to some degree now, because they have the flexibility to experiment and take risks that the government often lacks. By not being fully accountable to the taxpayer, private space is afforded a degree of protection from the miles of red tape and sometimes stifling oversight that NASA must deal with. Private companies are capable of quick mid-course corrections if something is not developing as intended, as they are not beholden to laborious budgetary processes or the political infighting that plagues government programs. Private space operators have the flexibility to pursue rapid, short-term innovation, and can build on making existing technologies leaner, more efficient, and cheaper. Private space can be agile. Federal programs, on the other hand, have access to a bevy of resources, particularly funding, that aren’t necessarily available to the private sector. In this regard, government programs are still capable of kicking off those grand research and development projects whose barriers to entry might be just too high for the private sector to initially overcome. There is still a place for both in our spacefaring future, but to really work, the capabilities of each must be wedded to each other.

Why consign ourselves to a path that can only sparingly deliver the Moon, when we should be promising ourselves, and our children, the stars?

But perhaps most damning is that by doing nothing to reduce costs, increase efficiency, or spur the growth of transformative technologies, a crash Apollo-like program thereby does nothing to open our access to space. Isn’t that the exact opposite of what we want to happen? Isn’t opening space to all our ultimate goal? Rather than nurturing a scenario where the next giant leap might be taken by any one of us, such a course of action would instead merely continue to reserve those glories for the chosen few that governments deem worthy.

What we need is a metamorphosis. We need to develop the technologies that will take us into space faster and more often, allow us to survive in deep space longer, let us explore further, and do it all cheaper. For example, the development of ion engines, radiation shielding, or nuclear thermal rockets are far more valuable to expanding and sustaining our presence in space, than continuing to propagate the existing, limited technologies that we’ve used for the past several decades.

None of this means that we should stop dreaming big, rather it means that we should dream bigger than simply getting back to the Moon as quickly as we can. What we need to acknowledge is that an Apollo-like paradigm would not allow us to do that. It is going to be a lot harder, and take a good deal longer, than what we’ve done before. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

Apollo was a great and glorious achievement. It was, and still is, a source of dramatic inspiration for a nation of aspiring engineers, scientists, and dreamers. It is a testament to what we are capable of if we care enough to try, and there is still incalculable value in that. But we need to start thinking bigger and more long-term about our future in space.

We need to think about not just how to get to a destination in space, but how to stay there. We need to think about how to get more of us into space, faster, more often, and cheaper. We need to think about how to make space travel and exploration the dominion of all of humanity, and not just of a few chosen to represent it. We need to think about how to fully transform ourselves into a spacefaring people. Why consign ourselves to a path that can only sparingly deliver the Moon, when we should be promising ourselves, and our children, the stars? That is truly the next giant leap.