Apollo+40: “Hope for all…we can do anything.”

For century upon century, to explore the Moon was considered the dream of the addle-brained or the foolhardy. Only divine beings or supermen could withstand the rigors and distance of such a journey. But then, early in the twentieth century, mortal humans went aloft on mechanical wings, defying gravity and redefining the realm of possibility. For ever after, the Moon became a goal within the grasp of those on Earth: for if man could build a machine to make him fly, he would eventually build one to take him to the Moon. When and how and who was only a matter of time.

From December of 1968 to December of 1972, twenty-four representatives of the human race voyaged to the Moon, and half as many walked upon its surface. In all, nine voyages across the quarter-million mile distance from Earthly safety to Lunar emptiness, each one of them dangerous and expensive. The requirements to make the voyage a reality were the qualities that make humankind unique: our desire to achieve, our wear-with-all and perseverance, our willingness to sacrifice time, energy, and even life in the long labor needed to solve the problems one by one over the course of the endeavor. Most important of all was humankind’s tendency to imagine things that are not possible. Imagining that it could be done was the very first step taken in the journey from the Earth to the Moon.

— opening narration by Blythe Danner, Episode 12: “Le Voyage Dans La Lune”, From the Earth to the Moon (1998)

At 2:24:59PM, Eastern Standard Time, December 19, 1972, Apollo 17 splashed down in the south Pacific Ocean. Less than an hour later, astronauts Gene Cernan, Ron Evans, and Jack Schmitt were safe aboard their recovery ship, the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga (CV-14). Their flight – man’s final flight to the Moon – had lasted 12 days, 13 hours, 51 minutes, and 59 seconds.

Apollo 17 Commmand Module America with the USS Ticonderoga in the background

Ticonderoga was an appropriate ship for the voyage to end aboard. Six years and eight months before, Ron Evans was flying combat missions over Vietnam from her deck when he found out he had been picked to be an astronaut.

The Apollo Program was over.

Now forty years on, where do we stand as a nation of greatness, and when can we expect the human race to exceed its high point of achievement?

On May 25, 1961, just twenty days after the United States’ first suborbital spaceflight with Alan Shepard aboard, President John F. Kennedy in an address to a joint session of Congress challenged our Nation to amaze the world:

Finally, if we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take. Since early in my term, our efforts in space have been under review. With the advice of the Vice President, who is Chairman of the National Space Council, we have examined where we are strong and where we are not, where we may succeed and where we may not. Now it is time to take longer strides–time for a great new American enterprise–time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.

I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshalled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment.

Recognizing the head start obtained by the Soviets with their large rocket engines, which gives them many months of leadtime, and recognizing the likelihood that they will exploit this lead for some time to come in still more impressive successes, we nevertheless are required to make new efforts on our own. For while we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last. We take an additional risk by making it in full view of the world, but as shown by the feat of astronaut Shepard, this very risk enhances our stature when we are successful. But this is not merely a race. Space is open to us now; and our eagerness to share its meaning is not governed by the efforts of others. We go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share.

I therefore ask the Congress, above and beyond the increases I have earlier requested for space activities, to provide the funds which are needed to meet the following national goals:

First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar space craft. We propose to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters, much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is superior. We propose additional funds for other engine development and for unmanned explorations–explorations which are particularly important for one purpose which this nation will never overlook: the survival of the man who first makes this daring flight. But in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon–if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.

When President Kennedy spoke the words that sent us on our way to the Moon, the United States had fifteen minutes and twenty-two seconds of spaceflight experience. Shepard’s flight had traveled 116.5 miles high and 303 miles downrange. The Moon sits at an average distance of around 240,000 miles from the Earth. This was, indeed, man imagining the impossible in May, 1961. There were 3,142 days to make it happen. As a conversation between the NASA Administrator James Webb, and the Director of the Manned Spacecraft Center, Robert Gilruth, was dramatized in From the Earth to the Moon‘s first episode:

Webb: Bob, can we do this?

Gilruth: We’ll need thousands of people, special facilities, technology and material that haven’t been invented yet.

Webb: Yeah. Can we do it?

Gilruth: Put a man on the Moon in nine years? (pause) Yes. Absolutely! We have to.

Over four hundred thousand Americans contributed their toil, their sweat, their ingenuity, and several of them their lives, to make Apollo a success; to make the impossible, possible. Twenty-four Americans ultimately made the trip to the Moon; each of them carried the spirit, hopes, and dreams of thousands. Learn about as many of them as you can, both the well-known and the obscure, both their triumphs and their failures, because they made the greatest achievement in human history happen.

The greatest achievement in human history: putting a man on the Moon. And we did it: we, the United States of America – Apollo 11‘s landing on July 20, 1969, their safe return on July 24, 1969 – 2,982 days since President Kennedy’s challenge, with exactly 160 days to spare.

We then repeated the basic (if one can call going to the Moon “basic”) feat five times, with missions of increasing complexity and duration. Six times in all to the surface. We even sent another landing attempt to the Moon which failed, and it was yet a success for how out of disaster and potential catastrophe, the mission came home thanks to the courage of the men who flew it and the refusal to give up by those on the ground. I contend the Apollo years were the “finest hour” of not just our Nation, but our species.

Six times. No other nation has even come close. No other nation has even sent a human beyond Earth orbit. And we did it all forty years ago or more. I’m guessing that most of the people who will wind up reading this weren’t even born when man last walked on the Moon. For myself, I was 19 months old the day after Apollo 17 landed.

The Apollo missions spent 104 days in flight, 30 days in lunar orbit, 12 1/2 days on the lunar surface, and 113 hours, 44 minutes, 26 seconds – about 4.7 days – in lunar EVAs. They returned about 840 pounds of lunar samples to the Earth.

Since those awe-inspiring hours on the Moon, our nation has forgotten how to achieve the impossible. Our society, and the ever growing government leviathan that forces itself into the minutia of daily life, is being dragged down by itself. Yes, Apollo was a “government program” funded by the taxpayers. It was also unlike any government program before or since. Apollo was a massive success because it was a true public/private cooperative.

  • NASA and the government did not design and build the Apollo Command/Service Module spacecraft; North American Aviation did.
  • NASA and the government did not design and build the Lunar Module; Grumman did.
  • NASA and the government did not invent the most powerful, compact, and reliable computer the world had yet seen; MIT’s Draper Lab did.

The list goes on, and on, and on. The American private sector built Apollo and made it succeed. Without harnessing the financial and intellectual might of the entire United States, Apollo would have remained impossible.

Eight months ago in my essay “Where We’ve Been and Where We Need to Go Back” I compared Apollo-era expenditures, corrected for inflation, to present day cash run rates of our Federal government. One point from that is worth repeating: in one month, today’s United States Government runs a deficit that is as large as every dollar spent on the Apollo Program over fourteen years.

Think about that for a second. President Kennedy correctly identified at the time that no project would be as expensive to accomplish and today the amount the government borrows in one month is as large as what it took to put twelve men (not one) on the surface of Moon. That is simply staggering.

We couldn’t execute Apollo again today for what it cost between 1959 and 1972, correcting only for inflation. Unrestrained government spending, and other automatic escalators like baseline budgeting, have made doing business with the federal government an endless cash cow – since there will always be more money, why worry about cost controls, or for that matter, even providing a value commensurate for the cost paid? Government expenditures breed complacency and unaccountability.

Complacency and a failure of imagination crept into NASA’s operations as well, as the aftermaths and investigations into the losses of Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia showed. Government is now the driving force behind all of NASA’s activities. All one need do to prove it is to compare the design and construction of NASA’s spacecraft of tomorrow to the Apollo spacecraft of 40 years ago.

The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle is being designed in part by teams at every single NASA center across the country. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for its construction, but there are so many cooks working on the design and technology – most, I suspect solely to justify their existence spread over the land and the tax dollars they consume – it will be a wonder if it ever flies.

The Orion spacecraft was first announced as the successor to the Space Shuttle by President George W. Bush on January 14, 2004. That was 3,262 days ago. That’s 280 days more than it took from President Kennedy saying “GO” in 1961 to Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin splashing down safely in Apollo 11.

Orion is not now expected to take to the heavens with a crew until 2019 or 2020. Another eight years could pass before NASA again has a manned spaceflight capability of its own. And really, what is NASA doing with Orion? They are recreating a modern version, albiet larger, of the Apollo Command/Service Module. They are not evolving or repeating though; it’s a reinvention that will probably take a decade of development before its first unmanned flight in 2014, hopefully.

Meanwhile, the Russians have been flying generations of the same Soyuz spacecraft and its derivatives – originally designed for Soviet manned trips to the Moon that never happened – successfully since 1968. Who can guess where American manned space exploration would be today if we had kept the basic Apollo hardware set, proven, reliable, and safe, and kept flying it with incremental improvements over the last forty years?

I bet we’d be back on the Moon already, and putting a man on Mars would be looking like the foreseeable future rather than imagining the impossible.

NASA has had some amazing successes, despite the organization’s shortcomings. The Voyager spacecraft are leaving the solar system and passing into interstellar space. Cassini continues to explore the Saturn system. New Horizons is going to be making the first flyby of Pluto in another two and a half years or so. Curiosity, the Mars Science Laboratory, is the most advanced robot explorer ever landed on another world, and its older and smaller cousin, Opportunity, is still trucking around Meridiani on the Red Planet – 3,075 Martian days and counting past its 90 “sol” design lifetime. All impressive. What we’re doing on Mars right now loses a bit of its luster though when one considers that the United States landed the first two robots successfully on Mars…in July and September, 1976 – over thirty-six years ago.

Perhaps there is hope for reawakening the full potential of Apollo. NASA, in a fit of common sense nigh unheard of when it comes to modern government, came to the fantastic conclusion that there are some spaceflight tasks they’re just not good at, like, uh, sending up cargo and men into space!

On January 18, 2006, NASA announced the Commercial Orbital Transport Services (COTS) program. Under the program, private enterprises would be given NASA “seed” money to develop and build space launch systems and cargo transport to the International Space Station (ISS). The private enterprises had to have significant private financial backing – equal to or larger than the government’s commitment – to be selected.

Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, “SpaceX”, was founded in 2002 by PayPal and Tesla Motors entrepreneur Elon Musk. Musk, a naturalized American, was convinced that the cost of space transportation and exploration was inflated and fraught with bureaucratic overhead and delays.

SpaceX earned their first NASA COTS contract on August 18, 2006: $278 million. Just 1,386 days later, SpaceX flew their Falcon 9 booster for the first time on June 4, 2010. Six months later, they became the first private enterprise in world history to orbit a spacecraft and return it to the earth: the first flight of Dragon, December 8, 2010 – 1,573 days after getting their “GO”.

The next day, SpaceX received an operational contract from NASA for Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) to the ISS worth $1.6 billion for twelve missions. $133 million and change per flight. SpaceX will make a profit doing it too. How much did the Space Shuttle cost per launch at the end? About $450 million. Ouch.

Dragon‘s first test flight to the ISS and first operational delivery mission were both flown this year, on May 22 and October 7 respectively. Operational success, with Dragon‘s recovery in the Pacific Ocean on October 28, 2012 took 2,263 days from the first contract award. That’s 719 days fewer than NASA needed to complete Kennedy’s mission assignment, nearly two full years sooner, and SpaceX hardly had the resources NASA had for Apollo. Yes, they have only gone to orbit thus far, but they have an advantage in that they do not know what can’t be done. They are making the impossible, possible.

There are between two and three-thousand Americans working today for SpaceX, primarily at their  Hawthorne, California headquarters. They are recapturing the spirit of innovation that was the hallmark of Apollo. Their Dragon spacecraft itself got its name allegedly from “Puff” of the famous song, as a taunt to naysayers who said a private company could never fly a spacecraft for as little money as they said they could. They are doing it as they claim: faster, cheaper, and more efficiently.

This past August, SpaceX received another development contract from NASA, this one for a manned spacecraft, worth $440 million. DragonRider, as the manned version is being called, may fly with astronauts in less than three years.

On the last flight of the Space Shuttle, the STS-135 astronauts carried aboard Atlantis an American flag that had been carried aboard STS-1 and Columbia in 1981. It was left aboard the ISS, attached to the US docking hatch in the Harmony node, to be retrieved by the next American manned spacecraft to reach the station. The intent is for the flag to then be taken on the next manned American flight past Earth orbit, the first since 1972. I wouldn’t bet against that flag arriving in Hawthorne, or against a evolved Dragon derivative carrying it and a crew to the Moon or beyond. Musk and SpaceX have said that their ultimate goal is to reach Mars with a manned spacecraft. I believe they can do it.

The Columbia flag, with STS-1 and STS-135 mission patches,  aboard the ISS awaiting its claimant

There are others competing in the private spaceflight arena too, notably Orbital Sciences Corporation and Boeing. Both are larger, older, and more bureaucratic than SpaceX, and neither has yet gotten their spacecraft off the ground.

There are those who will say, “Space exploration is too expensive. There are so many problems in our own communities and cities that have to be addressed first.” What of that? Compared to what we spend on social welfare programs, space exploration is cheap and provides more lasting benefits. The device you are reading this blog on right now is a direct descendent of the Apollo Guidance Computer. Velcro. Mylar. Thermostabilization and irradiative food preservation. Fuel cells. Composite materials. The list of Apollo innovations that make our 21st century lives what they are go on and on. Would those things have arisen without Apollo? Likely, but probably not as rapidly. Bottom line is, they didn’t.

Astronaut Michael Collins summed it up best when the Apollo 11 astronauts addressed Congress in the fall of 1969 (full speech quoted in my earlier essay):

[…] We cannot launch our planetary probes from a springboard of poverty, discrimination or unrest. But neither can we wait until each and every terrestrial problem has been solved. Such logic two hundred years ago would have prevented expansion westward past the Appalachian Mountains, for assuredly the Eastern Seaboard was beset by problems of great urgency then, as it is today.

Man has always gone where he has been able to go. It’s that simple. We will continue pushing back his frontier, no matter how far it may carry him from his homeland.

One day, I hope and pray the United States will fully reclaim the destiny forged by Apollo. That one day we, as a whole Nation, will again dream the impossible and make it possible. That one day Americans will look up at the Moon, and past the Moon to Mars and beyond, and say, “We’re there.”

I hope I live to see it.

From the Earth to the Moon used a fictitious news broadcaster as a narrator and continuity tool throughout the series: Emmett Seaborn, played by the late Lane Smith. In the final episode, characters from throughout the series are interviewed as if for a documentary 25 years after Apollo 17 in 1997. Seaborn, a Walter Cronkite analog who witnessed the whole saga of Apollo from his news desk characterized what he saw:

What we learned about the Moon, you see, is not nearly as important as our going there. Apollo 8: witnesses to the first Earthrise in the consciousness of man. Apollo 17: Gene Cernan takes that remarkable photo of Jack Schmitt standing on the Moon with the Earth over his shoulder. See, that’s why we went to the Moon: to take those pictures. We didn’t go there to conquer it, or claim it, or simply beat the Russians to it. Sure, we wanted to find out what the Moon was made of, to satisfy questions of science that have plagued us since the dawn of Man. But more than anything else, we went to the Moon to see if we could make the journey. Because if we can do that, if we can voyage from the Earth to the Moon, then there’s hope for all of us because we…we can do anything.

We did it. We did it all, and in peace, with hope, and for the benefit of all mankind. We must do it again, and go further, ever expanding the boundaries of human achievement and exploration.

To the men of the Apollo flights, the countless thousands of men and women behind them who made the impossible possible, and to all those who have given their lives taking the human race beyond the surface of its native home, I salute you all. One day, we’ll live up to your legacies in our own times.

Can we do it?

Yes.

Absolutely.

We have to.

Earthrise, Apollo 8, December 24, 1968
When will Man have this view again?
Update: I found a YouTube clip of the end of the twelfth episode of From the Earth to the Moon. As the ending of that episode most definitely inspired how I closed this post, and gave it its title, I’m appending it here. I had originally intended to work in some of the JFK Rice University speech into this post, but as I had already used it previously, I opted not to. Enjoy.

 

 

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