The Shackles of Apollo

The future of human spaceflight is in flux. Our current situation has left many wondering:

“What happened to the days of Apollo?”

There is some 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.

The thing is…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.

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, serve only to bolster tired, conventional thinking. These inefficient and expensive systems are virtually unchanged since the Apollo era. At best, these kinds of programs would allow only limited access beyond LEO, and certainly wouldn’t take us beyond the Moon.

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.

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. Is this not the exact opposite of what we want to happen? Is not achieving access to space for the many the supreme aim to which we all aspire? Rather than nurturing a condition wherein the next giant leap might be taken by any one of us, such a course of action would merely continue to reserve those glories for the chosen few that governments deem worthy.

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, 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.