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Opening Arguments

Apollo revisited

For most of my adult life, I have been, A) touting the Apollo moon program as an example of what government initiative can accomplish, even when motivated by something as crass as "beating the Russians" and, B) lamenting the fact that we did such an amazing thing, then just quit on the whole space thing. Now, on the 45th anniversary (plus one day), Rand Simberg connects the dots on those two things in a way that never occurred to me:

The Apollo moon program was never really about space, or opening it to America or humanity. It was a peaceful battle in an existential war. In the post-Sputnik panic, the priority was not to do it affordably or sustainably but, to do it quickly — before the end of the decade, and win the race.

Wernher von Braun, originally envisioned fleets of low-cost reusable launch vehicles to deliver parts to assemble into larger systems in low earth orbit that could head out to the moon and planets. But at the time there were too many technical uncertainties to do that quickly, with confidence. Building a giant throw-away rocket to get the astronauts all the way to the moon and back from Florida was deemed the fastest, surest way to do it, albeit a very inefficient and costly one. Each lunar mission cost a few billion dollars in today's currency.

But Apollo succeeded at its narrowly proscribed goal of "...landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth," in 1969. And in so doing it provided a proof of how to send humans beyond earth orbit that haunts and hobbles us to this day.

[. . .]

Similarly, many in the space community, remembering the glory of Apollo, repeatedly attempt to recreate it, not understanding the historical contingencies that improbably allowed it. They recall the goal, the date, and the ridiculously expensive large rocket, and hope that if only they can somehow repeat those things, we will once again send men (and this time women) out beyond low earth orbit. They lack the vision to conceive any other way of opening the solar system, though what has actually trapped us circling the earth for over 40 years is not the lack of a giant rocket, but the false belief that such a rocket is either necessary or sufficient to go beyond.

[. . .]

Meanwhile, SpaceX has already shown the way to low-cost launch and plans to blazing a path to even lower costs through reusability, more in keeping with von Braun's original, more affordable vision until it was derailed by Apollo.

After over four decades, it is time to stop awaiting a repeat of a glorious but limited and improbable past. We must, finally, return to and embrace the true future, in which the solar system and ultimately the universe is opened up to all, with affordable, competing commercial transportation systems, in the way that only Americans can do it.

That's a very libertarian idea -- that private competition can get something big done much better than government efforts can -- so I should embrace it. But I've always made one or two exceptions to that rule, and the Apollo program was one of them. I still thing government can do a few big things, if it isn't insanely trying to do all the little things the way it is today. And the motive for something doesn't necesdsarily preclude a logical development of the idea. I do agree with him that we seem stuck on "one way only" to do space, but I'm not sure how much of that is government sclerosis and how much is sheer human perverseness.

The article has made me rethink my feelings about an issue, though, so I consider it one of the most valuable things I've read this month.