Inspiration Apollo

Amy Shira Teitel writes that Apollo 8 was not done for the purpose of inspiration, though that was a huge side effect.

Here’s what I wrote in the book:

…despite all of the precautions, NASA did demonstrate its willingness to risk the lives of its astronauts, when in a daring mission, it won the space race in December of 1968 with the Apollo 8 mission around the moon. What was daring about it?

The previous April, there had been a partial disaster during an early test of the new Saturn V rocket, whose express purpose was to send astronauts to the moon. It suffered from the same “pogo” problems that had earlier afflicted the Titan, almost shaking the vehicle apart during ascent, with some structural failure in the first stage. Two of the second-stage’s five engines failed, and the single third-stage engine failed to reignite in orbit. Von Braun’s team went to work to sort out the problems, and a few months later, after some ground tests, declared it ready to fly again. NASA was under some pressure because there were rumors that the Soviets were going to send some cosmonauts to circumnavigate the moon with the Zond spacecraft by the end of the year (they had already sent some animals on such a trip).

While it wouldn’t have been a loss of the space race, the goal of which was to land on the moon, and not just fly around it, being beaten to that next first would have been another blow to the national psyche after Sputnik and Gagarin, and the first space walk. The lunar module wasn’t ready yet, and not expected to be until the spring of 1969, so NASA decided to scrap their plan of doing an earth-orbit rehearsal, and instead decided to go for the moon on the very next flight of the Saturn V, and without another unmanned test flight despite the problems on the previous flight. They were willing to throw the dice, and the astronauts (Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders) were willing to risk their lives, because it was important. The whole purpose of the program was to demonstrate that our system was superior to the Soviets, and to be afraid to fly would have rendered it pointless. It is hard to imagine today’s NASA taking such a risk with its astronauts’ lives, because nothing NASA is doing today is perceived as being sufficiently important.

[Cross posted at Safe Is Not An Option]

10 thoughts on “Inspiration Apollo

  1. ken anthony

    Too bad it was important for the wrong reason. Filling the solar system with human economic activity with freedom is the right reason, but even today fails to pass the giggle test.

    1. Michael Kent

      “Too bad it was important for the wrong reason.”

      What? It helped defeat one of the most evil, murderous empires in history. I can’t think of a higher calling at the time.

      1. ken anthony

        Unless winning the space race extended the cold war? The Soviet Union fell because they could not keep up with us economically. If they had been ahead and tried to keep ahead that might have ended the cold war much earlier.

        Unless of course, Jimmy Carter was still elected president.

  2. Thomas Matula

    Organizations go through life cycles just like individuals do,

    In the 1960’s NASA was in its youth, full of self confidence and will to take risks. Today it is old and overloaded with bureaucratic red tape. They probably could have even done the feas

  3. Thomas Matula

    Organizations go through life cycles just like individuals do,

    In the 1960’s NASA was in its youth, full of self confidence and will to take risks. Today it is old and overloaded with bureaucratic red tape. They probably could have even done the feasibility study in the time frame it took them to organize and implement Apollo 8.

    Sadly, thanks to COTS/CCD/CCP/What ever commercial crew is called today they are driving the New Space Contractors in aging prematurely killing off the great possibilities they once showed for opening space up.

    All the more reason to get rid of NASA now. At least if you want to do anything useful in space like planetary defense or the economic development of the Solar System.

    1. Ed Minchau

      Getting rid of NASA is unlikely. Severely restricting its operations is more plausible given budget realities like sequestration.

      I think Jim Bennett had a great idea with the Space Guard (to be established under the department of Transportation or Commerce, modeled after the Coast Guard). Offload any routine (e.g. TRL-9) operations from NASA to the Space Guard. Downsize the Air Force by transferring the orbital debris tracking functions (and other space-related non-warfighting functions) from the AF to the Space Guard. Limit NASA to moving technologies from TRL-1 to 9, more along the lines of the role of NACA. Change the various remaining NASA centers to Federally Funded Research and Development Centers like JPL. Above all, reorganize the HQ to reflect the much-reduced role of the organization.

      The creation of a Space Guard and downsizing of the Air Force and NASA (and a few other agencies with space-related routine non-military operations) would be political gold for Congressmen on both sides of the aisle. The cuts would be real, at first. It would be a short-term big cut in the budget, with a built in long-term growing component.

      This would allow NASA to focus on the edge of the envelope, with the Space Guard doing everything else inside the envelope. It would allow the Air Force to focus their space efforts on military applications. It would also encourage STEM education with the incentive of an actual Space Cadet corps.

      1. Gregg

        ” Limit NASA to moving technologies from TRL-1 to 9, more along the lines of the role of NACA. ”

        You have a good idea but I think TRL-9 is a little high. Not all tech is worthy enough to get to 9.

        But certainly moving tech from 1 to 4-5-6 is a great idea and then maybe specific promising tech, or tech someone has flown in a sounding rocket (for example), to 7-8-9.

        As a side note: TRL matters because NASA says it matters. And NASA has recently upped the importance of TRL to try and avoid repeats of recent failures. This has negative side effects:

        One project I’m working on is not using the best detector chip because it has a low TRL so we are using a less optimal chip because it has a higher TRL. We care, of course, because it’s NASA who will continue to give us more money for the project. So there are some political cross-connections that may not be the healthiest.

        But in general I’m on board with your idea and have long thought that NASA should be proving the risky tech and businesses should be building the spacecraft.

Comments are closed.