The First Moon Landing

What most people don’t know about it.

As I’ve noted for years, the reason that we haven’t been able to do Apollo again is that we just barely did it the first time, and it’s extremely unlikely that the stars will align to allow it to happen again. And that is as it should be, for America. There was a very powerful sense in which Apollo was not the right thing for a country based on entrepreneurialism and free enterprise to be doing.

I’m reading Roger Launius’s new book, in which he talks about four perspectives of Apollo. I noted to him privately that there was a fifth, that he didn’t address:

I felt a little left out. I think I represent a fifth perspective, in that I believe that Apollo was both necessary and not a waste of money for what it accomplished (a major non-military victory in the Cold War), but that it set us back in human spaceflight for decades (and continues to do so, as witness the current ongong Artemis fiasco).

He didn’t disagree.

76 thoughts on “The First Moon Landing”

  1. …but that it set us back in human spaceflight for decades (and continues to do so, as witness the current ongong Artemis fiasco).

    Your vision was unrealistic, Rand, and it continues to be. Instead of facing up to that unpleasant fact you’ve settled on Apollo to be the scapegoat to explain why your vision for human spaceflight didn’t come to pass.

    No one has yet figured out a roll for humans in space, not fifty years ago, not today. Maybe that will change, maybe it won’t. It’s a bitter pill to swallow but the fact must be faced. Wistful thinking about a golden age that never was because Apollo, NASA, the Outer Space Treaty, the missile lobby, Nixon, Vietnam, the Great Society, von Braun, or whatever one’s favorite scapegoat might be, is not the way forward.

    1. Well, no one’s figured out a vision for humans in North America, either. Anything the Europeans wanted to know about the continent could have eventually been learned more cheaply with robotic missions.

      If robotic probes are the path forward, why did we launch more lunar mission attempts in 1958 and 1959 than in each decade post-Apollo, with most of those later lunar missions flown by a new spacefaring country (Japan, China, India, Israel) just to show they can?

      The truth is, the probes aren’t well motivated unless they’re blazing a trail for people to follow. Absent that, they don’t really care about their mission, and time and again soon become despondent and hurl themselves into the moon or planet they’ve been observing. We will eventually tire of sending them, and it will become more difficult to justifying the ever-increasing cost of adding an ever smaller quantum of knowledge to planetary science.

      The number of people who will still have burning, unsatisfied curiosity about Callisto after the dozenth Jupiter probe’s close flyby is vanishingly small, and it’s going to become harder and harder to slip the 13th Jovian probe into the budget request. Eventually we’ll just stop sending them.

      1. Well, no one’s figured out a vision for humans in North America, either.

        George, lead this analogy into a dark alley, beat it to a pulp, set it on fire, and bury the ashes in a remote location.

        The argument that “if man can live and thrive in North America, man can live and thrive in space” is a total non sequitur. It’s a personal conviction, not a self evident fact. That by itself doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It’s just unpersuasive if one doesn’t happen to share it.

    2. I’m not saying that it was the scapegoat, but it did set us off on the wrong foot, and continues to do so. I’ve been advocating for a different approach to space policy for decades (e.g., NASA should procure services instead of hardware, on a competitive basis), and it is no coincidence as that belatedly is starting to happen, with programs like COTS and Commercial Crew, we are starting to see better results. It is also no coincidence that the attempt to recreate Apollo by Congress, as represented by SLS/Orion, continues to fail.

    3. “No one has yet figured out a roll for humans in space”
      Or even a “role”.

      1. To the contrary. In many star systems human rolls are quite a popular deli item.

        1. It’s the little room in the back where you need to discretely ask about human horn, not up front at the counter.

    4. –Jim Davis
      July 7, 2019 At 12:02 PM
      …but that it set us back in human spaceflight for decades (and continues to do so, as witness the current ongong Artemis fiasco).

      Your vision was unrealistic, Rand, and it continues to be. Instead of facing up to that unpleasant fact you’ve settled on Apollo to be the scapegoat to explain why your vision for human spaceflight didn’t come to pass.–

      What vision of human spaceflight does Rand have.

      It seems a vision of human spaceflight that NASA has had is to go to Mars.
      NASA has had a vision to use the resources of the Moon.
      NASA thought Saturn V was too expensive, and had vision to lower launch cost. And NASA thought Shuttle would lower cost.
      Then decided a space station would a step towards going to Mars.
      Then NASA decide a big rocket like Saturn V is what was needed to go to Mars- though NASA wanted a bigger rocket than Saturn V to go to Mars with.

      The fact is that NASA got rid of Saturn V because it finished their goal of getting a man on the Moon and return him safely. And NASA was looking for something else to do, and having space station was thought to be a potential step to Mars [or Moon] and if build a Shuttle is would cost less [as compared to doing anything else on the Moon or going to Mars]. And idea was to make cheaper to go to LEO, and roughly LEO is 1/2 way to anywhere.But then NASA threw out idea of refueling spacecraft in LEO, and thought their might some value of commercially using micro-gravity. AND then NASA could build a space station with Russians, and call the space station the international space station [but later exclude China]. Cancelled the Shuttle Program. And since that NASA has been extending the time before it plans to de-orbit ISS.
      And then President Bush wanted and got Congress to approve, going to the Moon and than go to Mars.
      And NASA needed a big rocket which uses parts of Shuttle.
      Then Obama wanted to focus going a space rock, which morphed into getting a small space rock.
      Now, Trump want to send crew to the Moon by 2024 [and later {when he is not in office] go to Mars.
      And for over decade, the Congress [led largely by Senate] has making a rocket which lift 70 ton to LEO, and will be improved to lift 130 tons to used for going to Mars. And it’s called SLS.

      I personally believe if not for the 300 billion dollar satellite market, there wouldn’t be any space agencies anywhere in the world.
      Or for a space agency to exist, they would need some plan.
      Lower launch cost would not be a plan, nor would making large rockets, be a plan. Looking for life on Mars, is not plan.
      Having government mine the Moon is not a plan. Nor having government make living spaces on Mars, be a plan.

      Basically, NASA still lives off the glory of Apollo which would be possible without a satellite market [which does something important].

    5. The log-term “roll” for humans in space will be the same as the long-term roll has been for humans everywhere – in the hay, to make more humans.

  2. What is the role for humans on Earth? When people look for a reason humans should be in space we forget there’s no reason for us to be on Earth (religious belief notwithstanding). We just are. And we don’t have to have some overarching reason to leave Earth. Overarching reasons are, in fact, part of religious belief and nothing else. If we leave Earth, it’ll be because we want to. Nothing else is necessary. What will humans do in space? Whatever we feel like.

    1. I would just add that the only reason we talk about “finding a roll” (or even a biscuit) is because if the government is footing the bill you need to justify the cost. I don’t have to justify the cost of moving to Hawaii even though my job is in Chicago and it costs a LOT more here.

      I wanted to come, and can telecommute. So I came.

      If I had instead needed to rely on government funded housing and government funded transport, I would have had to make up some convoluted reason I should be here to convince the commissar that I should be allowed.

    2. I think that considering human ‘incentives’ would be a far more fruitful way of addressing the problem.

  3. “No one has yet figured out a role for humans in space, not fifty years ago, not today.” – The role is obvious. The distinguishing characteristic of industrial civilisation is growth. At our present level of development, a zero-growth economy is not compatible with democratic politics. Therefore if we do not wish to submit to tyranny, we must continue to grow. The population and economy able to be sustained by the resources of the Solar System are at least half a dozen orders of magnitude greater than those possible on Earth alone (see further John S. Lewis in his book, Mining the Sky). Growth on an interstellar scale is effectively unlimited. The long-term future of mankind will therefore broadly resemble either Star Trek, or Game of Thrones.

  4. Apollo went about as well as could be expected. It did everything it was supposed to. It delivered two men to the surface of the moon and brought them back alive. It was just within our capacity then.

    What didn’t happen is progress. 50 years later if we’re willing to spend the money we can do the same thing all over again. Maybe four men instead of two, maybe a few days instead of a few hours. No closer to some sort of permanent base and still a stretch.

    The underlying problem is cost. We could, if we were willing, probably build enough rockets to sustain some sort of base, but not at a cost we can afford. The cost curve seems to be moving in the right direction everywhere except NASA.

    Right now, space exploration is sort of a national hobby. Earth orbit is profitable but the rest really doesn’t offer much short term advantage. Gold is what drove the Age of Discovery, eventually it’s what will drive space development.

  5. There are lots of people with a vision for humans in space, with or without rolls. The thought croissants my mind, though, that only two of them have anything close to sufficient, reliable, sustainable funding. The rest of us are going along for the ride.

    1. You know, the real legacy of Apollo is probably that it got more than a few eventual billionaires interested in space colonization, and then made them wonder why space travel was so ridiculously expensive, why government agencies didn’t seem to care that it was ridiculously expensive, and why progress on cost had no only ground to a halt, it had gone backwards.

      The first linked article mentions that after building fourteen lunar landers for $750 million (2019) dollars each, Grumman said it could build additional ones for $250 million (2019 dollars). And that’s doing everything by hand, including a hand-wired computer. I doubt NASA could come close to that cost today.

      1. I’ve seen that Grumman claim; and even if they were lowballing it, I don’t doubt that they could have realized some economy of scale and efficiency in producing more landers.

        But it wasn’t just the economic cost of Apollo that killed it, but also the risk of human cost. NASA was extraordinarily lucky not to lose any crews on its nine lunar flights; had it continued flying, say, a couple of lunar missions per year, the odds were strong that it would have lost a crew. Some NASA managers lobbied to wind down the program while they were still ahead – Bib Gilruth being the most prominent. From Eric Berger’s series on Apollo last year:

        …If each mission had a one-quarter chance of not landing on the Moon and a non-negligible chance of losing a crew, why keep at it? That feeling only grew within Gilruth as NASA accomplished more Moon landings.

        “I put up my back and said, ‘We must stop,’” Gilruth said. “There are so many chances for us losing a crew. We just know that we’re going to do that if we keep going.”

        This is where Rand would probably jump in and argue that this was a reasonable risk to take, and cost to bear, for the advances and knowledge gained – even on a not terribly sustainable series of J class missions that left no infrastructure to build on – and I would agree! But given the mood at the time, it’s hard to see that enough stakeholders would agree, after witnessing the public spectacle of American astronauts being killed on or around the Moon.

        1. I agree. Exploratory missions with the same basic capability and technology have a decreasing return on investment. Apollo 19 or 20 wasn’t going to tell us much more about lunar geology than the prior missions did, but would carry basically the same risks as Apollo 12 or 13.

  6. In the grand scheme of things, the fact that we went to the moon as part of the Cold War battle, and generated the Apollo Program:

    Just. Doesn’t. Matter.

    Maybe we could have been further along. Or perhaps not. No one really knows – including Rand.
    It’s annoying because many of us wanted to be in Space and we thought that it could possibly happen that Everyman could go into space. Well it didn’t happen. Annoying to us.

    But, again, in the grand scheme of things 50 years doesn’t matter.

    I don’t mind arguments about how we should do it differently/better NOW. But to incessantly wail about how Apollo slowed us down is a total waste of time and energy.

          1. Except that I’m NOT the one wailing about how Apollo slowed us down.

            I’m the one saying it’s a waste of time to wail about it.

          2. No, you’re wailing about how others are wasting their time. We obviously disagree with you, and don’t think it’s a waste of time. It’s our time to “waste.” Why do you care?

          3. “We obviously disagree with you, and don’t think it’s a waste of time. It’s our time to “waste.” Why do you care?”

            For the exact same reason you repeat your view over and over.

          4. I don’t care how you spend your time. I do care if I think an often-stated point of view could block the bigger picture – which matters.

            Do you have a problem if someone disagrees with you on a point and occasionally rebuts it? You seem to. I don’t address your comments on this topic every time you utter it – and you utter it often – not even most of the time.

            But it seems that it bothers you when I do now. I think it’s a misleading path to go down that leads to ignoring the big picture. I think that’s important.

            “Important”…i.e. the exact same reason you do.

            Why do you care about my stating it? Why do you respond defensively? It’s my time…why do you care?

          5. I just find it amusing that you’re concerned about me “wasting my time.” I don’t think I’m wasting my time. I believe that Apollo was a setback for American human spaceflight, and that if we don’t understand that, it’s hard to figure out the best way to go forward (e.g., SLS supporters don’t understand that). You’re entitled to disagree, or to think I shouldn’t be saying it, but that doesn’t change my mind.

          6. If your view had been more understood twenty years ago, we might have avoided Constellation and SLS and tens of billions spent on, well, a few tickets to a lunar halo orbit.

            There is a sizable cadre of important folks who think redoing Apollo, the same way we did it the first time, is NASA’s logical path forward.

          7. “I just find it amusing that you’re concerned about me “wasting my time.” ”

            I’m pleased to amuse you. It is not your time I care about – see below.

            “I don’t think I’m wasting my time. I believe that Apollo was a setback for American human spaceflight, and that if we don’t understand that, it’s hard to figure out the best way to go forward (e.g., SLS supporters don’t understand that). ”

            It no longer matters what SLS supporters think. Musk, Bezos and (possibly) others are leaving them in the dust. Imagination and private economics are making the changes.

            I disagree with your belief that Apollo was a setback if you choose to take the long view (and you’ll note that my initial post this time – as in all times I attempt to make this point – emphasized that mine is a long view argument):

            Taking the long view, the ~10 years of Mercury -> Apollo years means nothing.

            Mercury-> Apollo 11 took about 10 years. Your argument seems to be (happy to be corrected if I misunderstand it) that what we did in those 10 years seems to have cost us huge amounts of progress.

            My thesis is: in the long run they did not. The change in what you might have done in those 10 years really isn’t going to make much difference in 2019. A much more important change since then is that rocketry has come within the financial capabilities of rich people. This allows the tremendous superiority of private/business projects vs centrally planned governmental projects to wield it’s enormous power.

            The power of free individuals to dream up and execute their own projects will – has, I would say – rendered whatever the government does as totally irrelevant.

            “You’re entitled to disagree, or to think I shouldn’t be saying it, ………..”

            I would never say you shoudn’t be saying what you think.
            Saying what you think engenders useful debate.

            “……….but that doesn’t change my mind.”

            You make a common mistake of many bloggers:

            I’m not trying to change *your* mind.

            In general – a reply to a post by anyone in a blog isn’t aimed at changing the mind of the initial poster…but to supply an alternative view to the readers. They are writing for the readers.

            Not you.

          8. Well, that’s an interesting thesis: That the lack of sufficient capital in the right hands explains more than any governments’ approach to space flight. I would say there’s also much more too it than that.

            Impediments to private rocket development:

            After WW-II, the technical details of how to build big liquid fueled rocket engines, guidance, and the rest came from Nazi secret weapons, was studied on classified US missile ranges, and stayed purely military and highly classified. That forms a continuous backdrop up through today, where the Falcon 9 is classified as ordnance and details remain restricted. To accomplish their mission, all space launch systems are as good or better than ICBMs at being ICBMs. It was a realm for defense contractors, and only defense contractors.

            The aerospace companies building the missiles weren’t their own launch customers, and the commercial market started out small, especially in comparison to military launch contracts, so they had little incentive to drop prices. Rockets stayed expensive because that’s what the market would bear.

            But the Apollo program didn’t do anything to correct the situation, and even made it seem much worse by spending about four times more than the Manhattan project and employing 400,000 people – to accomplish a goal that didn’t generate any revenue.

            To keep much of that workforce employed, NASA came up with the Shuttle Program, and to keep that program going, insisted that all government satellite launches should use the Shuttle. Nobody with any sense would try to compete with a government monopoly that was put in place to maintain a government workforce.

            What seems to have changed was a wannabe launch customer crazy enough to think it would be cheaper to build his own launchers than to pay what the legacy aerospace industry charged. Warren Buffet or Bill Gates were rich, and they could have easily funded what Musk did, but they didn’t have a burning desire to fill the sky with satellites and colonize Mars, perhaps because NASA’s activities gave them impression that such activities were beyond the reach of the private sector.

            And the affordable launcher Musk wanted is changing the market. The first generation of Iridium satellites were launched on Delta II’s, Protons, and Long March rockets. These expensive launchers meant the first generation cost about $6 billion, so the company went $4 billion in debt and was bought for $25 million in a fire sale. The new generation of Iridium satellites only cost $492 million to launch on Falcon 9’s. And both Musk and Bezos plan to absolutely dwarf the size of the Iridium constellation, and it will soon be the case that the vast majority of satellites in orbit, the thousands in these two constellations, will be owned by their own launch providers, rocket companies founded so they could be successful launch customers.

            The question is whether Apollo sped or delayed that fundamental shift.

          9. “The question is whether Apollo sped or delayed that fundamental shift.”

            If by “fundamental shift” you mean that economic growth and wealth levels of individuals making private sector rocketry feasible, then in my opinion the answer is: no.

            1960-1972 there wasn’t enough wealth in private hands. And you bring a good point in that aspects of rocketry back then were (and still are I suppose) classified.

            Also, when people use the term “Apollo” I wonder if they mean explicitly “Apollo” or if they mean Mercury through Apollo. Because even if private millionaires could have afforded to build their own rockets and capsules there wasn’t much known about humans in space in 1959. Mercury – and to some degree Gemini – was designed to answer many of those questions.

            Now if you were a billionaire in the 60’s (i.e. suppose you had the cash) you would have had to run your own research program to test out all the gear (rockets and capsules) and answer all those questions….they were valid questions.

            Not a whole lot of profit in that. And you, the billionaire, are in it for the profit. It just so happens that the area in which you are interested in making profit is in space. I also wonder if that sort of rocketry would have been legal. You are, in effect building your own ICBM-capable device. I have my doubts that it would have been allowed but maybe I’m wrong.

            The point is that even if you had the cash there is a lot you would NOT have done differently.

            If you mean strictly the Apollo program slowed progress then you have to answer for the fact that Gemini was designed to solve problems the Lunar Mission presented. Yet many of those issues (rendezvous for example) are useful in the general case.

            So would you, the billionaire have done it much differently than Mercury or Gemini? I don’t see why you would. You need those questions answered. But that’s an expensive research project. JUST the sort of thing I and others (including Rand I believe) think NASA ought to be doing. High risk technological advancement to be used by the private sector.

            I agree that if you, the billionaire, don’t care about humans in space then a lot of what Mercury and Gemini did was not relevant to your goals. So what’s left? The satellite business.
            Enough of a market to make it worth your while? I doubt it. Besides why spend all that money if the government is doing all the reseach for you anyway?

            So from the 50’s and 60’s space ops was a government game. This is due to the cost of space ops, the level of wealth in the private sector available, and whatever legal issues there might have been regarding a start up company designing what was essentially an ICBM-capable device, the lack of knowledge about the space environment, and the lack of profit potential.

            Once you say “Well ok it’s alright if the government does it…they just did it wrong.” you then are forgetting the whole point of why we don’t like centralized government projects like this:

            1) They do it for THEIR reasons which may not be your reasons (politicians etc)

            2) They do it THEIR way which may not be your way

            3) They choose THEIR goals which may not be your goals.

            …and you have to live with the consequences.

            To complain that the government chose to go to the moon in the way it did for the reasons it did is to totally forget the negatives of large government projects…all the graft, double dealing, turf battles, power politics…..

            To expect the government to do otherwise is folly.

            To lament that they didn’t do it the best way is to complain that a completely naive expectation was not met.

            We learned a lot of useful things in those 10 years. Musk et al benefited a LOT from what we learned.

            And if today some people still adhere to the Apollo Methodology I contend it makes absolutely ZERO difference. They are the buggy whip makers at the point where Henry Ford is churning out Tin Lizzies. They will be left in the dust because entrepreneurs can do it themselves and the private sector is much better at coming up with innovation than the government.

            Musk et al have changed the game.

            The complaint that we did it wrong back then and that’s causing some people to do it wrongly today is, well, silly. Because now that the private sector can do it, it will be done better and more cheaply.

          10. I don’t think money was so much the issue, at least regarding a private launcher, assuming no major technological changes were required that didn’t exist back then (CAD, CNC, etc).

            Wiki says that the Falcon 9 cost $300 to $390 million to develop, and inflation adjusted from 2010 dollars to 1965 dollars, that would have been $56 million. The flyaway cost of an F-4E Phantom in 1965 was $2.4 million, so developing a Falcon 9 might have only cost as much as 22 Phantoms, or 30% of the F-4E’s development costs. The 1972 price of a 707-320 was $10 million, and airlines bought plenty, so there was more than sufficient capital around to develop a private launch system.

            The lack of a clear market may have been a major impediment, as satellite communications were in their infancy, and nobody thought people would want 200 TV channels, and even so, those wouldn’t require an inordinately large number of satellites. The later GPS system, a “major” constellation, only required 24 satellites, so not many people would think of cranking out commercial launchers like sausages. Only the military would be thinking about that kind of production, to field weapons.

            However, the broader point regarding Apollo might be that even though it was successful in most regards, we should not try to repeat it because of the areas where hindsight shows it was not an optimal approach. For an analogy, Iwo Jima and D-Day were successes, but we would never repeat their human wave approach to a military assault if we could avoid doing so. Throwing wasteful levels of money and manpower at a problem, ala the Manhattan or Apollo projects, is likewise not the ideal approach. It’s perhaps akin to building a highway system by giving all the peasants shovels and wheelbarrows, or having them build the world’s largest bulldozer that will only be used once.

            I don’t think Apollo criticisms would even come up if Congress and NASA didn’t seem so determined to do it again, the same way we did it before, sucking all the oxygen out of the room.

    1. I’m not convinced that alternate histories would ever have happened but it is fun to speculate sometimes.

      Even though things were imperfect, I think the way things unfolded were the best that could be expected. We wouldn’t be where we are today without those things happening but it is possible that we wouldn’t be where we are today had other courses been chosen.

      The developments we are witnessing today aren’t taking place in a vacuum of the space industry. We are at a confluence of many different technological and societal advancements that are taking place at this specific moment in time.

      Time is important because many of the things people want from our expansion into space could not happen in the past just as they can not happen right now either. There are a lot of things you can come close to controlling when implementing an idea but timing is especially difficult, just look at Bigelow.

      So while I’m not so sure that Rand’s take on what could have been is accurate, it is something where the timing works out for where society and industry are right now.

      1. As we all know, by far the most important factor in how spaceflight developed was that it was driven by ballistic missile programs in Germany, the Soviet Union, and the US. Under any other environment, rocket pioneers would’ve put a lot of effort into making sure they still had a rocket after they launched their rocket. That didn’t matter if it was a special piece of government funded long range artillery that hurled a warhead.

        The first step in aviation was getting a plane to take off. That was almost immediately followed by the second step, getting it to land. Aside from the Shuttle, which was a strange architecture that reused the capsule and engines but threw away the big fuel tank, spaceflight skipped that step for fifty years. From the V-2 until the Delta Clipper, rockets were ordnance, not vehicles. Then in 2015 the Falcon 9 and New Shepherd started sticking the landings, and the writing was on the wall.

        A sustainable program needs the lowest possible launch costs, either by using the world’s cheapest, high-rate production expendables, or using re-usable launchers. The Apollo approach was to waste anything but time. The sustainable approach is to waste anything but money, and hardware, even cheap hardware, costs money.

    2. I think pointing out that Apollo wasn’t the way to do it is quite important because the Orion/SLS/Artemis program is doing the same thing the same way and expecting different results.

      Neither program is sustainable on cost, neither one can deliver the large payloads required to build a permanently manned lunar anything, and neither one can have the flight rate for a sustained presence. Both will be cancelled or wound down shortly after planting a flag.

        1. Well, no, not really. NASA thinks they’ll be doing a lunar landing with the second or third manned flight of SLS, and there’s no way in heck that their safety culture would even allow such an attempt, unless of course they throw caution to the wind and common sense out the window. I think Apollo 11 was flight #21 of Apollo and Saturn hardware.

      1. You can do that without muddying the waters by dragging in Apollo. 99% of people will be instantly turned off.

      2. I think Orion/SLS would and will fail of their own ponderous waste in the face of Space-X and Blue Origin.

        It’s not necessary to look back in history to see why SLS will fail – all you have to do is read the daily news articles. (Not that I’m against learning from history).

        1. You don’t even need to go into the history of SLS and its historic costs, just go into what it will cost when operational, how frequently it will fly, and the alternatives.

          The history of SLS is damning but most people are accepting of high tech government projects that cost a lot of money and take a long time to get going. They might not like it but will fall for the sunk cost fallacy.

  7. We interrupt this debate to remind everyone that I’m still looking for submissions to a new SF/F/H anthology I’m editing for Immortal Works Press: THE SECRET LUNAR WARS (1956-1979). Here’s your chance to give an inventive explanation as to why the ‘Space Race’ really happened and why humans have not been back to the Moon in almost 50 years. A great way to break into writing fiction if you have that itch. Details here:

  8. Simple question – Without Apollo would people like Musk and Bezos have been inspired enough to risk their personal fortunes? I know that Sci-Fi has had a huge influence in the science and engineering fields but how much did the pictures of men walking on the Moon influence their decision to spend millions of dollars for a dream?

    Apollo may have derailed a government plan to have humans in space but maybe, just maybe, it put us on a more sustainable path.

    Ultimately you can’t railroad until its time to railroad, but what motivates the men to railroad?

    1. “When it’s steamboat time, you steam,” is a quote from Mark Twain. He had a sense of historical inevitability. John Campbell suggested, in an essay that quoted Twain, the Vikings didn’t colonize America successfuly because it wasn’t time for America yet. Back in the 1960s, some of us thought it was time for Space, but it wasn’t. Maybe now?

      1. IMO, historicism is silly. The laws of physics, fundamentally, don’t know what time it is. They don’t know what place it is either. (Time translation and space translation symmetry: What gives rise to the law of conservation of energy and momentum, and most of what is thought of as mechanics.)

        To make the sort of wild leap to the philosophical popular in blog-posts: The only reason it is the 21st century right now (with all that implies), and it was the middle ages 500 years ago, is because of the technological tools and attitudes that people posses. Nothing about it is inevitable, or enabled/disabled by time. It could be the middle ages again in 200 years if people change their minds.

    2. I’ve wondered the same thing, but don’t know if the reason is that so many of the newspace entrepreneurs happened to be young when they saw the moon landings (creating a deep impression), or whether the people who happened to be that age then are now at their peak wealth.

      The question might be answered by looking at the slightly younger adults who grew up seeing the Space Shuttle. Did they also develop such a serious, passionate interest in space travel that will drive them to spend their future fortunes on making it happen, or will they stay spectators because going around the Earth in circles wasn’t nearly as profoundly inspiring as standing on the moon?

      Thus could be a crucially important question regarding the long-term effects of future manned lunar and Mars missions.

    3. Elon Musk is younger than I, and although I was born before Apollo 11 I was too young to remember seeing any of the missions live. For gen-x it was Star Wars and reruns of Star Trek.

    4. Simple question – Without Apollo would people like Musk and Bezos have been inspired enough to risk their personal fortunes?”

      Simple answer: yes

      “Ultimately you can’t railroad until its time to railroad, but what motivates the men to railroad?”


      The whole reason we are getting out of the box thinking, personal finance risking and big advances in space tech are for at least two reasons (none of which have anything to do with Apollo):

      1) Personal fortunes have risen to stratospheric heights (lousy pun intended).

      2) Tech advances have helped reduce costs. Computers have allowed us to do a lot that we couldn’t do in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s an d90’s…like land boosters.

      It’s economic expansion and untold wealth creation that put rocketry in the hands of billionaires. Same thing happened with airplanes after WWII:

      After WWII there was very little general aviation and aviation was largely limited to big companies (manufacturers, airlines, gubbmint).

      But the economy has expanded to the degree (and tech has increased) such that now private ownership of planes is extremely common. I own one. And I have equipment that used to be available only for big spenders…like an autopilot for example.

  9. Project Apollo proved that our big Soviet-style space program was better than the Soviet’s big Soviet-style space program. I’d argue that any agency whose founding decade operated under the unofficial motto of “Waste anything but time” isn’t going to do well in the long run. Other politicians will covet that funding to buy votes in their district.

  10. I’d like to address the flip side of this discussion: the idea that Apollo was destined to end. There were any number of ways it could have continued, and eventually led to a different space age.

    The most important thing is, it could have been at least as affordable as STS. The argument against that is false, because it assumes Saturn and Apollo would never have been upgrade, but would have continued with 1950s technology and manufacturing techniques. That’s prima facie ridiculous.

    Let’s look at a hypothetical. We know there was a plan to get a partially reusable S-1C stage by dropping the outboard engines for midair recovery, expending only the center engine and tankage. Doable at the time (1.5 stage to orbit, as with Atlas D). But let’s say you wanted a fully-recoverable S-1C. Stretch the tanks and replace the center F1 with a throttleable, relightable RS-27 equivalent (i.e, the Thor engine that evolved to Delta). Add legs, and la voila. Not capable of orbit. No. But there was a plan to create a 2-stage Saturn with S-1C + S-IVB. Replace that second stage with the hypithetocal SASSTO vehicle, with, lets say a strengthed SLA as a cargo bay, with an engineless Apollo on top (for crew and LES), and you have a TSTO fully reusable crewed LV with the same capability as STS, available in the same time frame, and likely cheaper to build and operate.

    Not impossible.

    1. Stretch the tanks and replace the center F1 with a throttleable, relightable RS-27 equivalent (i.e, the Thor engine that evolved to Delta). Add legs, and la voila.

      I don’t think there is any “viola” in this sentence. What’s missing is the computer power to control the landing.

      1. Well, they already had the computer power to handle a lunar landing. The only thing an atmosphere tosses into the equation is drag and wind. One way I’d approach is it, as a first slide-rule pass at the problem, is to waste fuel with a high-altitude horizontal braking phase, followed by a pure vertical descent with the stage gyro-locked in a vertical orientation.

        Then I’d look at shifting as much of the horizontal braking phase to atmospheric drag as I could. I’d look at compensating for wind with either fins or horizontal side-thrusters while maintaining the vertical orientation, which turns the descent into a simple targeting problem like following a guidance beam in two dimensions. It would waste more fuel, but should work.

        The landing portion is pretty simple to calculate, and one easy way to do it is to use the regular rocket trajectory math with time reversed. The “launch” starts out on the landing pad with some minimal amount of fuel (the safety margin for touchdown), and then proceeds with a negative fuel flow rate, negative ISP, and a negative drag vector, which lets all the launch equations work to calculate a landing. I’m not sure anyone but me does it that way, but it’s simple and it works.

        However, SpaceX smashed up a whole lot of Falcon 9’s learning to land with modern computer and control systems, so Lord only knows how many Saturn stages would have made the highlight reels before they finally recovered one intact.

        1. Well, they already had the computer power to handle a lunar landing.

          With a pilot in the loop.

          The only thing an atmosphere tosses into the equation is drag and wind.

          I don’t think this sentence has an “only” in it, either. Wind is variable. It can’t be precisely predicted; it has to be dealt with in real time.

          …waste fuel…

          And this is the real kicker. The quantity of fuel available to “waste” is decidedly limited. Otherwise they could do 50’s-style SF vertical landings and taken 10 seconds to drop the last 100 meters. (I think 70’s flightweight computers could probably have handled that. But it took too much propellant.)

          1. With a pilot in the loop.

            OK, I correct myself before anyone else can do so. Surveyor did it without a pilot in the loop.

          2. The pilot wasn’t so much in the loop as providing one, two, or three rate bumps for forward/back, left/right, rotate, and an altitude or throttle selection. The AGC was programmed to land automatically, but no test pilot was ever going to allow that because they’re test pilots, so a rock or small crater was always going to be in the spot the computer had selected for touchdown. They had tried putting the pilot in the actual control loop but there were just two many degrees of freedom for a human to successfully control. To simplify things, pitch and roll were eliminated by having the computer keep the lander absolutely vertical.

            On a large flat surface, such as a parking lot, a slam-landing wouldn’t be a problem even for an Apollo computer as long as the altitude and rate data was accurate, if it canceled out wind drift so it touched down without a horizontal velocity component.

            That probably wouldn’t need a whole lot of processor power, as the Delta Clipper was flying all kinds of advanced maneuvers with a slow (by modern standards) 32-bit processor.

  11. What was the motivation for developing the Aerojet 260? Seems to me 4 of those surrounding a Saturn 5 core would lift a large payload a long ways up with enough fuel to land part of it. And steel tubes that big could be cleaned up and used for habitat in orbit. Or weld a few of them together and make a station out of them?

  12. Computer power and algorithms are the conventional wisdom arguments put forward for saying a Falcon-9 equivalent couldn’t have been done “back then.” There are two ways to show this is false reasoning:

    One is to note the necessary computer power and algorithms were developed in the 1970s and were available by 1980. This is the same time period when STS was being developed, and thus is the same time period when RTLS/S-1C would have been developed. In fact, the project to develop the reusable Saturn V derivative would be the driver for developing the computers and algorithms. In addition, we’re not talking about landing on a barge here, just on a big expanse of concrete back at the Cape. For Falcon 9, RTLS worked first, and 100% of the crashes were barge attempts.

    Second, if you absolutely had to (let’s say you were doing it in the 1950s, instead of the 1970s), you could simply put a pilot in the loop. A supersonic fighter plane cockpit with an ejection seat wouldn’t take a prohobitive amount of margin. Risky for the pilot, you say? Young and Crippen went aloft on STS-1 riding in ejection seats. Riding aloft on an S-1C in an ejection seat would be less risky because the staging was low and slow, and no solid fuel was involved.

    So I still say, “la voila.”

    1. There are two ways to show this is false reasoning:

      Coulda, woulda, shoulda but didn’t.

      There are a lot of reasons why it can happen now but didn’t in the past. Trying to imagine ways that it could have is an interesting, but totally unrealistic, exercise. Who knows what other things would be different?

      It is far more interesting to see this creativity applied to what can be done today, right up until it enters Zubrin underpants gnome flights of fancy.

      1. Well, I think the chief reason it wasn’t tried back then was because nobody in the Air Force or NASA was really looking to dramatically lower commercial launch costs, and their vehicles were already so expensive that crashing a bunch of them to figure out how to land wasn’t going to get approved, either.

        As for processor power, minicomputers from DEC or Data General (PDP-11’s and Novas) probably would have been fine until something like the 8088 was available. Keep in mind that the computations could be subdivided among several computers, with one perhaps processing telemetry and radar, another thrust vector control, another landing calculations, etc.

        The bigger question isn’t why they didn’t start landing first stages in the 1970’s, it’s why they weren’t even doing it in the first decade of the 2000’s, long after DC-X showed that it wasn’t that difficult.

      2. Reasoning that because something didn’t happen it couldn’t have happened is a form of historical determinism and constitutes cicular reasoning. In any case, where not talking about alt.hist SF or historical counterfactuals, just whether or not the technology of the 1970s could have led to a reusable, Saturn V derived LV by 1980. It’s pretty clear it could. The reason it didn’t is not technical, nor economic, it’s wholly political.

        1. Reasoning that because something didn’t happen it couldn’t

          In the prime timeline, it couldn’t happen as evidenced by it not happening. Why it didn’t involves all three of the spheres you mention. Everything is simple once you know how to do it and people in the present are operating with knowledge that was not available in the past. There is no guarantee that had some alternate path been chosen that the results would be as imagined. The future past is just as tricky to predict as the present future.

          I’m not even sure we would be better off if these imaginings came to pass. What would it mean for the space industry today? Would there be one that wasn’t all just government contractors milking the budget? The alternate future is whatever we imagine it to be. This makes it super easy to be right about everything.

          I’m a bit more skeptical and look to the horizon in front of me.

          This is all a bit like arguing over who has the worst traffic. The winner is still a loser and the loser still has bad traffic, just not the worst.

  13. “there were just two many degrees of freedom for a human to successfully control.”
    You mean like a helicopter? I’ve seen helicopters defined as flying machines which require 4 simultaneous control inputs. Humans are capable of 3.

  14. I went for a long ride on the weekend up a muddy track, hilly, sweaty, cold, thick bush. Went exploring. Was the best fun I’d had for while, even though it sucked. According to my 14 yr old cursing like a sailor son. Better than my job though. Exploring is a role. A human call to be. Why the bejesus did Hillary climb Everest.

    From each according to their role, to each according to their greed. Doesnt work for me.

    Establish a beach head, take the family, then trade. A Victorian age in space. I can dream.

  15. I’d like to suggest the Intel MCS-4 chipset (buiolt around the 4004 chip), available starting around 1971, would have been enough to tackle the RTLS and propulsive landing problem.

    That said, suppose it was insoluble at the time. The Kistler solution of parachutes and airbags would also have worked (and was under consideration for recovering first stages even then).

    The real enabler of RTLS is supersonic retropropulsion. A large contingent of “rocket scientists” insisted it was impossible, right up until the moment SpaceX proved them wrong. At which point the same nay-sayers began insisting, well, maybe it’s possible, you see, but can never be made to work economically. I suspect this comes from a buy-in to the idea that the break-even point for reusable LVs is around 60 launches per year. Which also appears to be wrong.

    1. Heck, computers were advancing so quickly during that period that Intel, Motorola, DEC or somebody else would have next generation upgrade before you could roll the vehicle out to the pad.

      However, up above I linked a 2015 ULA paper on reusable launch vehicle, and it said:

      For example, in 1957, Convair investigated ideas that would have allowed the reuse of the basic Atlas booster as it participated in the Air Force SR-89774 study of reusable
      space boosters. ^1

      So I went looking, and though I didn’t find the Air Force study itself, I did find mentions of it. The studies were looking at winged flyback and horizontal landing, and subsequent studies looked at winged flyback of Saturn stages. Those studies, from a huge list of players in the industry, evolved into a wide variety of proposed re-usable and partially re-usable winged launch vehicles, which resulted in the Space Shuttle.

      I didn’t see any mention of retropropulsive entry or propulsive landing.

      This is a topic where Jerry Pournelle’s memory would be invaluable. I miss him.

      1. Heck, computers were advancing so quickly during that period that Intel, Motorola, DEC or somebody else would have next generation upgrade before you could roll the vehicle out to the pad.

        And it wouldn’t be “rad-hard”, “milspec”, “space-rated”, or whatever other buzz-word came to mind. Computers on NASA spacecraft have always been at least ten years old because of this issue.

        1. For landing a first stage, rad hardening shouldn’t be needed because the first stage doesn’t go very high.

      2. Ideas often come into existence before they are able to be realized. You note several different ways of tackling a problem and maybe some would work but only under the right conditions. There were/are strengths and weaknesses to each one. It is tough to predict how any chosen path would have turned out.

        I stumbled on this video the other night and it is exceptional in its nerdery. It is the history of Rainbow Road World Records. These gaming autists operate at an extremely high level of skill and still, it took many years for them to accomplish things that had been theorized as possible. A Rainbow Road World Record is no trivial task but it also isn’t as hard reusable rockets.

        Sure, some nerdy nerd could math out the programming quirks but then they would still have to carry out a method that leads to success.

  16. I’ll posit two possible scenarios if Von Braun and company had tried to solve all the problems of reusability and cost on the way to the moon.

    One: You would read an article in “The Saturday Evening Post” where NASA was projecting the first manned orbital flight for “not later” than 2024. Not so different from now, give or take a few dead trees.

    Two: (more likely) The administration in its third year finally gets around to naming an administrator for NASA. She announces that her first priority is the preservation of the never completes launch facility and that she would be appointing a commission to explore a possible mission for the agency in the 21st century. It’s too much to imagine that an agency would actually be shut down.

    Kennedy knew he could keep the circus going for only so long and he really wanted to be the one talking to the moon from the White House.

    Sometime in the early 70’s when it became obvious that the shuttle was never going to meet any of its objectives they should have started over. Instead we have projects without enough money to accomplish anything but too big to die.

    What’s changed is that even the politicians can see that NASA’s being upstaged and is soon to be irrelevant. Whether SLS succeeds just doesn’t matter anymore. Men will be on the moon for good when there is a reason and a profit. A few more footprints won’t get in the way or make it happen any sooner.

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