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USA Today's hit piece against the flight of Apollo 11

Future astronauts on the moon
Future astronauts on the moonNASA (public domain)

The 45th anniversary of the first moon landing has caused commemorations and a certain wistful nostalgia for a time when the United States dared to do great things in space. The celebration is not exactly universal, however. Space blogger Rand Simberg has a piece in USA Today that not so much is meant to praise Apollo 11, but to bury it.

“Why did we spend so much to go to another world, and then almost completely abandon the effort?

“It was because we did it for the wrong reason.

‘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.”

The truth is a little more complicated than that. To be sure the race to the moon was partly motivated by a super power rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, just as the “race for the Americas” was partly motivated by a rivalry between England, Spain, and other European countries. But a close reading of President Kennedy’s Rice University speech suggests that other motives were in play.

While invoking figures such as Isaac Newton, William Bradford, and the purveyors of the Industrial Revolution, Kennedy stated, “Yet the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world's leading space-faring nation.”

Kennedy at least never imagined Apollo as an end in and of itself, but rather as the start if a process that would make the United States a space-faring nation. No one in the early 1960s imagined building the mightiest rocket ever designed along with all of the other hardware necessary for deep space missions and then throwing it all away,

Simberg goes on.

“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.”

Whether Von Braun’s monster space shuttles would ever have been practical is doubtful. In any case, after Apollo, the United States made a stab at doing a space shuttle to assemble things like the International Space Station. The experience has been somewhat less than encouraging if cost is all one is worried about. Von Braun, by the way, was the architect of the big rocket Simberg seems to hate,

“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.”

What Simberg is saying here is Apollo worked and that seems to be a big problem. It tends to obscure the model he favors, one that likely would not work.

He goes on to blather about cargo cults in the South Pacific, comparing them to people who think that Apollo is a perfectly valid model for space exploration. He is particularly miffed that NASA, following the guidance of Congress and the second Augustine Committee, is building another big rocket, the Space Launch System, to facilitate further deep space exploration. He is misleading about the cost of the launch vehicle, its launch tempo, and the payloads it is designed to carry. He cites a NASA study that suggests that using smaller rockets and fuel depots would be a cheaper way to conduct space exploration, but fails to mention that the same study noted that a lunar mission would require six launches and an asteroid mission nine. Mars would be flat impossible under this method. In any case only three or four missions would be possible per decade, exactly matching the launch tempo of the SLS that he decries.

Simberg goes on to praise the cool kid of the aerospace industry.

“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.”

SpaceX has done some remarkable things. However there are two salient facts that run counter to Simberg’s thesis.

One is that SpaceX is largely dependent on government contracts and subsidies to stay in business. The second is that SpaceX is building a big rocket of the sort Simberg abhors, the Falcon Heavy. While smaller than the Space Launch System, the Falcon Heavy may be just the first of a number of heavy lift rockets that SpaceX is contemplating. The company’s CEO, Elon Musk, strongly hints about something called the Mars Colonial Transport that would dwarf anything ever before sent into space. The purpose of the MCT is to fulfill Musk’s dream of starting his own private Mars colony, which he has been suggesting for the past few years is just ten years away. Musk, unlike Simberg, knows something about physics and economics. There is no way around building big rockets if we really want to travel in space in a big way,

“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.”

Simberg’s vision of a purely commercial space exploration program reminds one of Gandhi’s quote about Western Civilization. It would be a great idea. One would also add, if it could be made to work.

Entrepreneurial capitalism is certainly the American way, but so are big infrastructure projects funded and occasionally built by government, including the Eire Canal, the transcontinental railroad, the Panama Canal, and the interstate highway system. Apollo was just in that tradition. That it ended prematurely was not a result of its nature and its cost, but rather the particular politics of the early 1970s. Things could have just as easily turned out different. Someone should write a book about that.

Indeed NASA has proven that it can deliver, in a way, on big, Apollo style projects subsequent to the moon landing. The space shuttle and the International Space Station proved that. Each project had its problems, mostly caused above the pay grade of the NASA administrator. But they were completed and have rendered service to the United States and the world.

The bottom line is that Simberg is offering a false choice between a government run, Apollo style space program on the one hand and an impossible purely commercial one on the other. There is, of course, a third way, combining the strengths of both government and the private sector to truly open up the high frontier of space.