…is alive and well. Just not at NASA:
…the legacy of Apollo, at its core, isn’t about big rockets; it’s the boldness of new, game-changing ideas. It’s John Houbolt’s proposal for lunar orbit rendezvous in 1962, an idea that flew so wildly in the face of accepted wisdom that NASA’s uber-engineer Max Faget protested, “Your figures lie!” — before realizing it was the right way to go.
It’s Office of Manned Space Flight chief George Mueller pushing for all-up testing of the Saturn 5, because he knew testing one stage at a time would require too much hardware and too much time, and most important, wouldn’t reduce the risk of failure. All-up testing so horrified members of Wernher von Braun’s rocket team that Mueller basically had to tell them they had no choice.
And it’s George Low’s summer of ’68 realization that with the lunar module seriously delayed, the only chance of staying on schedule was to fly Apollo 8 around the Moon, without a lander. Once again, some resisted; NASA Administrator Jim Webb yelled at his deputy over a transatlantic phone line, “Are you out of your mind?” But once again, the wisdom of the idea won out. Like all of Apollo’s bold moves, it looked from the outside like a Hail Mary pass, but in reality it was a stroke of genius.
Four decades later the challenge is not just to follow Apollo’s trail into deep space, but to do it affordably and sustainably. That’s not going to happen if NASA continues to be run as a jobs program as much as a space program.
As I’ve noted before, today’s NASA would never be able to do Apollo 8. It’s far too risk averse. Of course, back then, space was actually important.