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.

4 thoughts on “The Shackles of Apollo

  1. Travis,

    If you think we are shackled by Apollo, you’re looking for a fictional lock for which there is no real key.

    When it comes to space and Apollo, you’ve got to look at it in a macro-evolutionary way.

    Basic human intelligence is centered on fight or flight response.

    Humanity, at this point in time, choses to fight. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t. Sadly we accept it.

    We fight trillion dollar wars for which there is little return. Apollo had a $1 to $14 (US) ratio of return.

    With Apollo – the cold war – Kennedy’s search for something big politically – and then his assassination – forced the flight response – and it mutated into landing on the moon. “Blow the bolts, we’re going to the moon, no matter what.”

    As Michael Crichton would say “Life found a way.”

    Economic factors, political factors and not being able to answer the question of “Why” were the cancers which killed this mutation – and never allowed it to come back. (Sure we got the Shuttle – but it will only be a note in the evolutionary appendix).

    You say we need metamorphosis – I call it mutation. We need more mutations like Apollo as we continue to evolve. We need them fast and we need them aggressive.

    Apollo gave us the freedom to see it was possible to leave the planet and go elsewhere, if even for a short time.

    Mutations to space aside, the only other factor at the macro-evolutionary scale will be force. We will be forced to go into space via some calamity or future event (if it’s not too late). And even then – some won’t get it. They’ll ask – why risk it? Why go?

    Why you ask?

    The fact is evolve or perish. It’s not about XRays or the GPS. Never was. Not about footprints and flags.

    Space is the next step in evolution – it won’t be for everyone. That’s the other lie we tell ourselves in the space business. “Let’s open it up for everyone. So we can all go.”

    Resources and economic reality won’t allow that (other evolutionary forces at work).

    Our message should be – let’s pursue space exploration – so humanity’s children will get to survive here or elsewhere.

    It’s that simple.



  2. The moon base idea was about testing the survivability of humans in space unless you suggest we just send them out there and say good luck.

    Second there is no good ideas about space since there is a lack of a bold program, which is what going to the moon would help with. A basic supply of water can be launched from the moon far easier than earth.

    Nuclear rockets do nothing to help with initial launches and provide only modest improvements over traditional rockets. It’s one of those sounds cool type of technologies which is appealing to writers like yourself i guess.


    1. Yes, the moon base would test the survivability of humans in space. But there are other things we’d need to account for that aren’t as testable on the Moon. Deep space radiation, beyond the Moon, is the first thing that comes to mind. The ISS is also currently serving as a platform for survival testing as well.

      I will agree with you that the lack of a bold program has led to a bit of stagnation when it comes to new ideas about space. However, if you read into the Augustine report, or listen to people like Bobby Braun, it’s a given that the goal is to get to Mars and out into the solar system. Though I do think we’d all be better served if someone just came out and said it, said that’s where we’re definitely going, even if on an extended timeline.

      Well, nuclear rockets are not being presented as the only option for propulsion, but it’s one that’s been discussed and researched for a while so it’s certainly worth mentioning. VASMIR, or similar, technologies are also included in new propulsion ideas. The issue of dealing with initial launches is something else we’d need to address, and I am not suggesting that we’d be using nuclear rockets for that. And of course it sounds cool, but that’s not the reason for bringing it up. It’s brought up as a possible alternative or to at least try and get people to consider what else might be possible over existing technologies. To say that what we have now isn’t going to cut it, without presenting any kind of plausible alternative, would have been counterproductive.


  3. Good comments. I would tweak the call for certain technologies as (one) solution, though, because they alone are not our main sustainability issue. The way we do business is our single biggest issue. Thats’ why things like COTS, commercial crew, and the other commercial space development issues NASA -or at least parts of NASA – is so important. NACA, NASA’s predecessor, for aeronautics, was one key reason the US, which had lost its lead in aeronautics in 1915, not only caught back up but created a globally-dominant aviation and aviation services industry. First hundreds were flying, then thousands, then tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands…and not millions of trips, are ever decreasing real costs and increased safety. NASA’s biggest failure – and I speak as a 36-year NASA employee, so the failure includes me – is that we never saw as our job doing for space, what NACA did for aeronautics.

    In the 1960s dozens of select humans went to space every year. 50 years later, after hundreds of billions of dollars spent – dozens of select humans go to space each year. That’s called failure. For all of us.

    NASA’s main problem is not money; it’s attitude. Are there people on the inside that are trying to reform NASA so that we do for space what NACA did for aviation? Yes. Are there even more people fighting back against them to maintain the failed status quo? Yup.

    Let’s keep up the pressure for true NASA reform. Blow the whistle when reformers get sidelined (it happens). Make there be a price to pay for trying to keep America in its Apollo-style spiral downward. Fight!


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