Mark Steyn reflects on the passing of John Glenn. I don’t agree entirely, and I think he misses some key points, one of which was that Apollo was a battle in the Cold War that didn’t have much to do with space. With regard to Charlton, anyone who thinks we’re in technological decline, and unable to do great things any more hasn’t been paying attention to what’s been happening in microelectronics, microbiology, and yes, spaceflight. I’d suggest that Mark read my recent essay on the need to get over Apolloism.
[Update a while later]
Henry Vanderbilt weighs in over at Arocket:
Apollo was amazing, yes. But it did things the brute-force, massively-expensive way. Just look at the size of a Saturn 5 ready for liftoff, versus how much came back. Multiply that by the size of the payroll for the hundreds of thousands building and operating it, spread over a handful of missions a year. That’s a lot of expensive aerospace talent and hardware spent on every mission – billions worth.
Of course, they had no choice but to do it that way. They had an urgent national goal, a tight deadline, an effectively unlimited budget – and a 1962 technology base. One example: The computer that flew a Saturn 5 weighed as much as a small car – and was less powerful than the chips we put in toasters.
Two things happened after Apollo, one immediately bad, one eventually good.
The bad thing is that in the seventies, bureaucrats took over, and did what bureaucrats do: They carved into stone doing things the Apollo way. Shuttle resulted: gorgeous, yes, but only somewhat less expendable and slightly less labor-intensive than Saturn 5. And, alas, somewhat more fragile.
For decades this bureaucracy defended their billions-per-mission turf and defeated all efforts to do things less expensively. (In fact it’s still trying, with a MANY-billions-per-mission bastard offspring of Shuttle and Saturn 5 called “Space Launch System”.)
But the other thing that happened is, back in the eighties a few of us saw this bureaucratic logjam forming, and looked into whether space really had to cost billions per mission. We concluded it didn’t. We began pushing the different approaches it’d take to get costs down to where all the useful things we might do in space begin to be affordable.
It took a lot longer than we hoped getting into this. But thirty years later, commercial space companies are doing things at a tenth of traditional NASA costs. And that’s even before the really radical new technologies kick in, like the reusable flyback boosters just entering test in the last couple of years.
I won’t defend the wasted decades. (It wasn’t us wasting them, though at a number of points we could have been less naive about how ruthlessly the bureaucrats would defend their turf.)
But at this point, despair over the wasted decades is obsolete. Costs are coming down fast, huge possibilities are opening up. We could still blow it, yes. But compared to even just five or ten years ago, right now the future’s so bright I gotta wear shades.
Space Access Society
(founded in 1992 with the intent of being no longer needed and disposed of in five years. yeah well.)
As I said on the Space Show the other week, the future for human spaceflight has never been more exciting.