The Value of the Moon: How to Explore, Live, and Prosper in Space Using the Moon's Resources (2016)


The Moon Conquered—
and Abandoned

How is it that America went to the Moon, going from nearly zero space capability to the lunar surface in less than a decade, and then rapidly left it? Why have we not been back since? Within that tale are important lessons, some never fully absorbed by either historians or our national leadership. Millennia before we achieved it, humans dreamed about going to the Moon. The actual circumstances of our journey had not been imagined by science fiction authors and as a result, virtually all science fiction dealing with lunar travel made the first landing the beginning (not the end) of humanity’s movement into space. Now, it remains to be seen whether our first steps on the Moon really was an ending, or merely the prelude to a delayed golden age of spaceflight.

Journeys to the Moon in Fiction and Fact

The idea that some day we would be able to journey to the Moon is very old, conceivably going back as far as the early cave dwellers. The first literary description of trips to the Moon, Sun, and other heavenly destinations was likely the work of Lucian of Samosota (125–180 CE). Johannes Kepler, the discoverer of the laws of planetary motion, wrote Somnium (“Dream,” published posthumously by his son in 1634). In his novel, Kepler describes a trip to the Moon and the view of Earth and the solar system from its surface. English clergyman John Wilkins wrote several books about trips to the Moon, the most famous being The Discovery of a World in the Moone (1638). In it, he outlined the idea that someday people might inhabit the Moon. Included in Wilkins’s work were exotic and infeasible techniques on how to get there, such as transport by angels or with the help of harnessed fowl.

During the Industrial Age, authors of classic science fiction took more reasonable (if still fanciful) approaches to the problem of lunar flight. In Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1865), voyagers were shot from a huge cannon (the Columbiad) in order to reach escape velocity and land on the Moon. Verne skipped over how the acceleration from a cannon shot would create enormous g-forces that would kill his crew; he also misunderstood the nature of weightlessness by having his passengers experience it only when his moonship crossed the gravitational spheres of influence between Earth and Moon. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the inventor of astronautics and the first to derive the rocket equation, was inspired by Jules Verne and penned his own novel, On the Moon (1893). The character in Tsiolkovsky’s story wakes up on the Moon and experiences the unusual effects of being on an alien world. Curiously, considering his contributions to rocket science, Tsiolkovsky does not record the details of the trip from Earth. The approach of H. G. Wells was even more fantastic: A special substance called Cavorite (named for its inventor, a character in Wells’s 1901 novel First Men in the Moon) cuts off the force of gravity, allowing his sphere to effortlessly travel to the Moon. Once there, the voyagers find large insectlike creatures that live below the lunar surface.

The Moon was lifted out of the realm of fiction and fantasy and put back into the domain of science with the advent of modern rocketry (an outgrowth of the Second World War). Starting with a few eccentrics, the Moon once again became a topic for scientific inquiry. Ralph Baldwin, an astronomy student at the University of Chicago, after noticing the spectacular series of telescopic photographs on display in the lobby of the Adler Planetarium, began cogitating about the origin of craters, basins, and the evolution of the lunar surface. He wrote down thoughts for a couple of articles before being pressed into war service, where he helped develop the proximity fuse. After the war, Baldwin collected his lunar ideas into a book, The Face of the Moon (1949).1 This pre–Space Age synthesis was a fairly complete and accurate account of the Moon’s processes and history—how the craters and basins were formed by impact, that the dark smooth maria were volcanic lava flows (Baldwin correctly identified them as basalt), and that the Moon’s surface was very old compared to that of Earth’s. Baldwin’s study of the Moon continued throughout his life, and he lived to see virtually all of his surmises validated through the exploration of the Moon by the Apollo missions.

Shortly after this work appeared, the noted science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke published The Exploration of Space in 1951.2 Clarke outlined an expansive vision of the future, including rockets into Earth orbit, trips to the Moon, and voyages to the planets. Interestingly, he made some careful and prescient observations about the issues of landing and sustaining a permanent human presence on the Moon. Clarke considered the Moon an essential way station on the road to the planets. Here humans would learn the techniques of exploring and living on an alien world. Clarke specifically recognized that using the mineral resources of the Moon to support human presence and create new capabilities was essential. He pointed out that, at least in the early phases of operation, centralizing operations at a single site on the Moon would permit concentration of resources to maximize capabilities quickly. Thus, Clarke advocated building a base, not multiple sortie missions to many different locations. After the establishment of a presence at a base, we would be able to explore the entire Moon at our leisure.

Accounts hold that Nobel Prize–winning chemist Harold Urey became engrossed by The Face of the Moon when, by chance, he picked up the book at a party. Baldwin’s description of the lunar landscape and the impact origin of its craters convinced Urey that the primitive, ancient Moon held secrets to the origin of the solar system. He went on to lead an effort that applied the basic principles of chemistry and physics to the origin and evolution of the Moon and planets.3 Another astronomer, Gerard Kuiper, held the “heretical” view that the Moon and the planets were worthy objects for observation and scientific study. For further study and mapping, he collected the best telescopic images of the Moon at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory that he established in 1960 at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Geologist Eugene Shoemaker, who was mapping uranium deposits in northern Arizona for the US Geological Survey in the 1950s, decided to reexamine the geology of Coon Butte, the feature dismissed by G. K. Gilbert as not being an impact structure sixty years earlier. Using the geology of the crater to unravel the mechanics of hypervelocity impact, including the discovery of forms of silica created only under extremely high pressures, Shoemaker decided that Coon Butte was an impact crater. It has been known as Meteor Crater ever since.4

But Gene Shoemaker did more than just document the impact origin of Meteor Crater. In 1960, he made the first geological map of the lunar surface, showing the basic sequence of events that had occurred there. In brief, this technique involves using overlap and superposition relations to classify laterally continuous rock units, including sheets of crater ejecta and lava flows. These properties can be determined directly from visual observations and photographs. Shoemaker mapped the region near the crater Copernicus on the near side, working out the basic framework of lunar stratigraphy—that is, the sequence of layered rocks.5 He then used this information to estimate the time correlation between events on the Moon and those on Earth, concluding that the Moon preserved an ancient surficial record, which holds part of the early geological story missing from the eroded and dynamic surface of Earth.

These scientists and their research, each in their own way, made the study of the Moon and its processes scientifically respectable. After the launch of the first Earth-orbiting satellite Sputnik 1 in October 1957, it was reasonable to imagine that spacecraft might be sent to the Moon. Soon, observations of the Moon’s surface through telescopes, the mapping of terrestrial impact craters, and compositional studies of rocks from terrestrial impact craters and meteorites (rocks from space) became part of cutting-edge lunar science. A gradual but perceptible momentum began to formulate a conceptual model that would allow us to explore the Moon effectively and give us an understanding of its history. Some dreamed that they might live to see people travel to the Moon in their lifetimes (and Shoemaker planned on being one of them). Shoemaker’s dream would come true in part, but under circumstances that no one foresaw.

The Apollo Program

In a series of articles published in Collier’s in the 1950s, rocket scientist Wernher von Braun outlined a plan to send people to the Moon and to Mars.6 Accompanied with colorful illustrations by space artists such as Chesley Bonestell, von Braun’s articles caught the imagination of the public, including a very imaginative Walt Disney, who went on to feature von Braun’s ideas in a series of programs as part of his new television series Disneyland (1954). Viewers were treated to a four-program series outlining the basic von Braun architecture: rocket to Earth orbit, space station, Moon tug, and human Mars spacecraft. This steppingstone approach made both logical and programmatic sense. Each piece enabled and supported the next step into space. Although some technical details in von Braun’s plan were out of date before they were realized—for example, von Braun had electrical power in space generated by solar thermal power alternately vaporizing and condensing mercury to drive turbines, a technology made obsolete with the advent of solar photovoltaic cells—major parts of his scheme enabled the establishment of a robust and permanent spacefaring system.

However, international events soon intervened on von Braun’s orderly approach. The advent of the Apollo program altered what was to have been a logical, incremental, and thoughtful space plan into a race once competition with the Soviet Union became our overriding concern. The slow approach had to be accelerated once President Kennedy committed the nation to a decadal deadline. Under ordinary technical development, each piece would be designed, built, flown, and modified according to its performance. But with scheduling pressure designed to beat the Soviets to the Moon, a much faster approach was required. This caused von Braun and others at the newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to reexamine the problem of sending people to the Moon. Did we really need a space station first? Or was it possible to build a launch vehicle big enough to send an entire expedition to the Moon in one fell swoop?

Although the space agency had already begun planning for the development of a new super heavy lift rocket and had done some preliminary studies of manned missions to the Moon, the announcement of a lunar landing goal by President John F. Kennedy in May 1961 shocked many at NASA. It was one thing to daydream about sending people into deep space and to the Moon, but quite another to actually be given the task to do so—and then bring them back safely to Earth, a stipulation of Kennedy’s declaration. When the commitment to go to the Moon was made, the total manned spaceflight experience of the United States consisted of Alan Shepard’s fifteen-minute-long suborbital hop. A lunar voyage would require the mastery of a variety of complex spacefaring skills, including precision navigation and maneuvers necessary to change orbit in flight.

The design or “architecture” for a manned lunar mission was debated extensively before the “mode decision.” Initial plans called for either a direct ascent to the lunar surface or a rendezvous of two launched spacecraft in Earth orbit. Both approaches called for the development of a “super” heavy lift launch vehicle, Nova, a rocket capable of launching up to 180 metric tons to low Earth orbit.7 John Houbolt, an engineer at Langley, advocated instead for something called lunar orbit rendezvous.8 This called for a small vehicle that would land on the lunar surface, then return to rendezvous with the Apollo spacecraft that had remained in orbit around the Moon. Although this mission profile was thought to be very risky (a rendezvous had never been accomplished in space, let alone one involving two separate spacecraft orbiting the Moon), it did enable the voyage to be launched “all up” on a single heavy lift rocket. This design became the Saturn V, a rocket capable of launching 127 metric tons to low Earth orbit.

With the principal design features of Apollo outlined, the American space program next undertook a series of manned and unmanned missions in preparation for a lunar landing. While human missions practiced specific techniques (including rendezvous and docking), robotic missions gathered information about the Moon’s surface conditions and environment and sought to identify a smooth, safe landing site. In preparation for the Moon, we flew six single-man Mercury missions, ten two-man Gemini missions, and four three-man Apollo rehearsal flights. There were thirteen successful robotic precursor missions to the Moon: three hard-landers, five soft-landers, and five orbiters. All this occurred within the eight years between Kennedy’s speech and the landing of Apollo 11, a span of time that included the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963, and a twenty-two-month stand-down after the tragic fire on Apollo 1 of January 27, 1967, which killed astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee.

The Apollo spacecraft was extensively redesigned and modified after the Apollo 1 fire. Following a highly successful checkout of the newly refurbished Command-Service Modules in Earth orbit on Apollo 7, an eleven-day mission in October 1968, the planned journey of Apollo 8 to orbit the Moon seemed to be a bold, even reckless move. After all, a spacecraft sent to the Moon without any rescue capability using a lunar module (LM) could have ended in tragedy, as was demonstrated a few years later during the Apollo 13 mission. We now know that there was a reason, one that was withheld from the public at the time, for sending Apollo 8 on a lunar journey. The CIA had intelligence that the Soviets were planning a manned flight around the Moon by the end of 1968. They had just completed a circumlunar mission with their unmanned Zond 8, which demonstrated that the pieces for such a flight were ready. It was believed, probably correctly, that if the Soviets were able to pull this off, they would then claim to have won the Moon race, making an actual lunar landing irrelevant.9 This possibility lent urgency to flying a manned lunar mission as soon as possible, even one that simply orbited, rather than landed on, the Moon. So, just before Christmas in 1968, Apollo 8 orbited the Moon carrying Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders. Although it was not evident at the time, the flight of Apollo 8 effectively won the Moon race for the United States.

The next two missions qualified the Apollo lunar module in Earth orbit and in lunar orbit. Then, on July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed two men on the Moon. There were a few heart-stopping moments when the ship’s computer sent the Apollo 11 LM Eagle toward a large, block-strewn lunar crater, but astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin successfully overrode the automatic system and landed safely. Initial concerns about possible dangerous surface conditions were soon dispelled as the crew conducted a successful 2.5-hour exploration of their immediate landing site. They collected rock and soil samples, laid out experiments, and verified that the surface was both strong enough to support the considerable mass of the LM as well as other equipment. The world watched as they demonstrated what it was like to move around on the Moon in one-sixth the gravity of Earth. Armstrong made an unreported traverse to a blocky crater that he had flown over during his landing approach and observed the bedrock in the crater floor. Twenty-two hours later, the two-man crew blasted off the Moon’s surface to rendezvous with Mike Collins, orbiting the Moon in the Command Module Columbia. With the crew’s safe return to Earth a few days later, Kennedy’s daring challenge to America eight years earlier was fulfilled.

Next came the question of what to do with the remaining Saturn rockets and Apollo hardware, the surplus equipment that had been procured in the event that more than a single attempt would be needed to successfully land on the Moon. Initially, Apollo engineers planned for more lunar missions and ultimately a human mission to Mars. However, it soon became apparent that the national will was not inclined toward additional human exploration beyond the Moon—or even to it. An ambitious program to push the boundaries of human reach into space was shelved.10 Apollo continued for a few more flights, but lunar bases and Mars missions were not in the cards. Our focus shifted to completing the Apollo program, then to developing a reusable transport-to-orbit vehicle for people and cargo—the flight program that designed, built, and operated the space shuttle.

Despite the political decision to abandon the capabilities of the Apollo-Saturn system, NASA was able to wrangle permission to fly out part of the remaining original plan for Apollo lunar exploration. Several interesting landing sites were selected for these missions, most of which had advanced capabilities and tools for exploration. Even with some notable mission problems, flight and surface operations steadily improved. Despite being struck twice by lightning during liftoff, Apollo 12 successfully landed on the Moon in November 1969. This mission validated the technique of pinpoint landing by setting the LM Intrepid down within a hundred meters of Surveyor 3, a previously landed robotic probe. This technique allowed us to safely land at future sites of high scientific (but dangerous operational) interest. After the disaster and near-loss of the Apollo 13 mission, following the explosion of an oxygen tank in its Service Module, which cancelled its landing on the Moon, the Apollo 14 crew traveled to the highlands of Fra Mauro in early 1971. Here it was expected that they would find material thrown out from the largest, youngest impact basin, the Imbrium Basin. From this site, the astronauts returned complex, multigenerational fragmental rocks called breccias, parts of which dated to the earliest era of lunar history.

On the final three Apollo missions (15, 16, and 17), the astronauts spent longer times on the surface and possessed greater capability for exploration.11 The first three lunar landings had no surface transport, so the crews had to stay within a few hundred meters of their LM and could not remain outside the spacecraft for more than four to five hours at a time. The next three landings used more capable spacecraft and each mission carried a surface rover—a small electric cart strapped to the outside of the LM. Once they were on the surface, the cart was taken off, unfolded, and then driven by the crew to locales several kilometers away from the landing points. In addition, a redesigned spacesuit allowed moonwalks of up to eight hours duration. Consequently, an extraordinary amount of high-quality exploration was conducted on these latter missions. Each subsequent mission improved upon the total distance traveled, the amount of samples collected, the experiments performed and the data gathered. These were the “J-missions,” and because of them, the Apollo program wrote great chapters in the history of human exploration.

Figure 2.1. Oblique view of the Hadley-Apennine region, landing site of the Apollo 15 mission in 1971. The site is at top left; the sinuous channel near the top is Hadley Rille, a channel carved by flowing lava. (Credit 2.1)

Apollo 15, the fourth manned lunar landing, was sent to the rim of the Imbrium basin, at the base of an enormous mountain range called the Montes Apenninus (Figure 2.1). The mission occurred between July 26 and August 7, 1971. Astronauts Dave Scott and Jim Irwin spent three days exploring the mountains and the mare plain that surrounded them. The landing site was also near Rima Hadley, a winding, sinuous canyon believed to have been carved by flowing lava. With the Apollo 15 astronauts well trained in the sciences, especially field geology, this mission demonstrated a new and growing sophistication in lunar exploration. The astronauts found and returned a fragment of the original lunar crust, the “Genesis Rock,” and an unusual emerald green glass, created by volcanic fire fountains erupting more than three billion years ago. They also used a power drill to recover a core of the upper three-meters of the regolith at the landing site.

Figure 2.2. Apollo 16 Commander John Young explores the geology of the Descartes Highlands landing site. The samples and data returned from the Apollo missions are the principal sources of detailed information on lunar history and processes. (Credit 2.2)

Continuing in this mode of surface exploration, the Apollo 16 mission visited the central lunar highlands in April 1972. Veteran astronaut John Young (Figure 2.2) and rookie Charlie Duke explored two large impact craters situated in the mountainous Descartes highlands region, northwest of Mare Nectaris. Against expectations of finding volcanic ash flows, the crew discovered instead that the highlands are made up of ancient rock debris, shattered and broken by eons of cataclysmic, large-scale impacts. Although the astronauts did not find the expected volcanic rocks, the results of this mission led us to a better understanding of the importance of impact in the creation of the lunar highlands. The breccias found at the Descartes site may have come from one of the large multiring impact basins, such as the magnificent Orientale basin on the Moon’s western edge.

Illuminating the Florida landscape with a brief false dawn, the last Apollo mission to the Moon, Apollo 17, was the first night launch of the program. This mission is renowned for the first flight of a professional scientist to the Moon, LM pilot and geologist Jack Schmitt. He and Gene Cernan spent three days exploring the Moon’s valley of Taurus-Littrow on the eastern edge of Mare Serenitatis, in a low region of smooth mare lavas situated between two enormous basin massifs. They found ancient crustal rocks, old mare lavas, and most spectacularly, orange soil (fine orange and black glass particles, pieces of lunar ash erupted from a lava fire fountain over 3.5 billion years ago). The magnificent scenery of the landing site and the abundant scientific return from the Apollo 17 mission was a fitting conclusion to the Apollo program. The 380 kilograms of lunar rock and soil in the sample vaults at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston are a lasting scientific legacy and testament to the achievement of the Apollo program.

Post-Apollo Legacies

Then it was over. When the last crew departed the Moon on December 14, 1972, no one knew when, or if, humans would return. Forty years on, Apollo 17 Mission Commander Gene Cernan remarked that he never would have imagined we would still be looking forward to man’s return to the Moon. Will we go back before the fifty-year milestone, or was it all just a big, one-time stunt? Did Apollo give us something of lasting value? What is the legacy of the Apollo program? And what does it have to tell us about our future in space and about America as a spacefaring nation?

The scientific legacy of the Apollo program is remarkable. The lunar samples have been studied more intensely than almost any other collection of material in the history of science, with some rocks taken apart atom by atom. These small pieces of another world have a scientific value not present in meteorites because we know exactly where they come from on the Moon, and that information allows us to interpret their history in a broader, regional-to-global context. By reading the historical record found in the lunar samples, we have reconstructed the story of an ancient world, one where entire globes of liquid rock crystallized to form the crust and mantle of the Moon. This episode was followed by an intense bombardment—giant impacts that formed the large overlapping craters and basins of the highland surface. Remelting of the deep interior created magmas that forced their way up through the mantle and crust, erupting onto the surface as extrusive lava flows. In some cases, the amount of volatiles dissolved in the liquid rock were so great that sprays of molten rock shot into space, then quickly cooled into the fine glass spheres that make up the dark ash deposits of the Moon.

The impact bombardment of the Moon was very intense early in its history, but tapered off drastically around 3.9 billion years ago and continues at a very low intensity to this day. Most of the debris hitting the Moon now consists of micrometeorites that constantly “rain” down upon the surface. This long-term process has ground the lunar surface into a fine powder. When these tiny particles hit previously made soil, some of the soil grains are fused into a melted mixture of glass and mineral fragments called agglutinates. Because the Moon is exposed directly to space and possesses no global magnetic field, its surface is implanted with solar wind gases—particles emitted by the Sun and galactic cosmic rays, mostly protons, or hydrogen ions, that induce radiation damage in the Moon’s dust grains. Thus, although the geological evolution of the Moon continues to this day, surface erosion happens at an extremely slow pace, about a centimeter every twenty million years.

From study of the lunar samples, we now understand the telltale signs of hypervelocity impact, which include both chemical and physical effects. Chemically, we can detect the small addition (on the order of a couple percent) of meteoritic debris in the lunar soil in the form of excess amounts of siderophile (iron-loving) elements such as nickel and iridium. Physically, in addition to the shock-melted glass agglutinates (mentioned above), we also see shock damage to the mineral grains of lunar rocks. The common mineral plagioclase is often turned into glass called maskelynite by impact shock, a transition that occurs without melting. Other features, diagnostic of the passage of a shock wave, include cracks, mosaicism (shattered grains that arrange themselves into geometric patterns), and lines of planar deformation. All of these chemical and physical features are found in and around terrestrial impact craters. Their occurrence in lunar samples verifies that the craters of the Moon are of impact origin.

An interesting and important consequence of this science only became apparent several years after the end of the Apollo lunar missions. Working with marine sedimentary rocks in Italy, geologist Walter Alvarez wanted to know their rates of deposition. His father, physicist Luis Alvarez, suggested that he measure the concentration of the element iridium in the rocks. Iridium is a rare element in Earth’s crust, but it is more abundant in meteorites. His thought was that meteoritic debris constantly rains onto Earth at a known rate and that it could serve as a clock for measuring the rates of carbonate sedimentation on the sea floor.

When the iridium was measured, surprisingly large amounts were found in the clay layer that marks the end of the Cretaceous Era. This Cretaceous-Tertiary (KT) boundary is demarked by a thin clay layer all over the world and is the youngest horizon below which dinosaur fossils are found. This discovery advanced the idea that a massive meteorite impact sixty-five million years ago was responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs and several other fossil families.12 Later, small grains of shock-deformed quartz were found within the KT clay layer, supporting the idea of a large body impact occurring at that time. Subsequently, it was found that in some cases, similar boundary layers that marked mass extinctions in the geological record also contained evidence for large body impacts.

This connection was made by recognizing the critical defining evidence for hypervelocity impact, a process learned from the collection and study of the Apollo lunar samples. It was often claimed in the immediate post-Apollo period that the Moon effort had all been for naught, scientifically. It was thought that we got some rocks and some ages for a few ancient events in the history of the Moon—but so what? That “so what” is now recognized as a revolutionary paradigm shift in our understanding of the significance of impact in Earth history. We now view the process of the evolution of life on Earth from a new and unexpected perspective. Because we journeyed to the Moon, a new concept of how life may evolve was discovered.

Most of what we now know about the timeline for the origin and evolution of our solar system is tied to facts obtained from our study of the Moon. Results from Apollo scientific work carry over into all of planetary science. The concept of a late heavy bombardment (that is, the apparent increase in the cratering rate between 4.0 and 3.8 billion years ago) and estimates of the timescales upon which events on Mars, Mercury, and other objects have occurred are all reliant on the dates provided by the Apollo lunar samples. Additionally, when requesting lunar samples, investigators had to show they could make their analyses on the smallest amount of material possible. This stringent requirement forced scientists to develop techniques capable of analyzing extremely small amounts of material. This work succeeded to such an extent that fully valid analyses are now done on mere specks of dust. In addition, because some samples were very complex, such as the impact breccias of the highlands, new techniques were developed that can reveal the interior structure of such aggregate rocks using X-ray tomography, a method similar to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the interior of the human body.

The political legacy of the Apollo program was no less significant than its scientific one. Despite subsequent claims to the contrary, it is now clear that the Soviets had accepted Kennedy’s challenge of sending a human to the Moon and returning him safely within the decade.13 The race to prove the superiority of an ideology had been joined. Each country needed to harness greater technology and science in order to win. This breathless competition in space was conducted with a seriousness that we can scarcely credit these days, with each new “first” being heralded as the key to space success, and, by inference, global domination. The Soviets orbited the first satellite, the first man, the first woman, and were first to hit the Moon with a man-made object. They orbited the first multiple-man crew, and in 1965, one of their cosmonauts, Aleksei Leonov, made the first “walk in space” when he floated outside his spacecraft. America stumbled at first but rapidly caught up, matching most Soviet achievements. Soon we began making our own space firsts—the first rendezvous and docking in orbit, the first long-duration space walks, and the first successful flight of the giant Saturn V booster. But everyone knew the true high-stakes measure of success was to be the first to reach the Moon with people.

While Americans were enjoying the trill of victory with the epic flight of Apollo 11, the Soviets were having some difficulties. The Soviet Moon rocket, the gigantic N-1, a vehicle comparable in size to the American Saturn V, failed all four times it was launched.14 These disasters, kept secret for twenty-five years, sealed the fate of the Soviet Moon program. Without an operational heavy lift booster to deliver their spacecraft, no Soviet lunar mission was possible. American democracy and free-market capitalism had outmatched the USSR and won the Moon.

In programs of vast technical scope, particularly those requiring the practical application of high technology such as high-speed computing to very complex problems, Americans had shown the world both dogged determination and technical prowess for accomplishing whatever they set as their goal. The Soviets viewed America as having achieved through a combination of great wealth, technical skill, and resolute determination an extremely difficult technological goal, one that they themselves had vigorously attempted but had failed to achieve. America’s victory of getting to the Moon first and exploring its surface carried over, later figuring in a more serious conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union.

In 1983, President Ronald W. Reagan called upon the scientific and technical community of the United States and the free world to develop a system to defend the country against ballistic missiles, one that would make America and other nations free from the fear of nuclear annihilation. This program, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), was specifically conceived to counter the prevailing strategic doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD), whereby a nation would never start a nuclear war because it would fear its own destruction by retaliatory strikes. The price of peace in a MAD scenario was to live in a permanent state of fear. The promise of SDI was to eliminate that fear by having a system designed to defend countries from nuclear missile attack.

The Strategic Defense Initiative was roundly criticized and belittled by many in the West who considered it “destabilizing.” Numerous scientists, including those who had previously done weapons work, criticized it as “unachievable.” Arms control specialists decried “Star Wars,” as they called it, as provocative and an escalation of the nuclear arms race. Reagan did not retreat and insisted that SDI proceed. The number one foreign policy objective of the Soviet Union in the last years of its existence was the elimination of SDI. The famous Reykjavik Summit of 1986 collapsed on this very point when Reagan would not agree to crippling restrictions on SDI deployment in exchange for massive cuts in ballistic missiles by Gorbachev and the Soviets.15

If the bulk of academic and diplomatic opinion was so averse to SDI and the very idea of missile defense was so “unworkable,” why then did the Soviet Union fight so long and fiercely against it? Clearly, it was because the leaders of the Soviet Union were convinced that SDI would work—that the United States always achieved its stated goals. Because America had attempted and successfully achieved the difficult and demanding technical goal of reaching the Moon, it made any similar goal that we set out to do seem equally achievable. Moreover, this was a goal that the Soviets themselves had attempted and failed to achieve. With the specter of the American Apollo victory fresh in their minds, the Soviets had no choice but to spend whatever resources were necessary to compete with Reagan’s SDI program. In the end, they went bankrupt, and their communist economy collapsed—a very real and practical consequence of America’s successful Apollo program.16

Begun as a strategic Cold War gambit under President Kennedy, Apollo and the race to the Moon demonstrated to the world the superiority of America’s free and democratic way of life over that of our communist adversaries, an achievement still not fully appreciated today. America had achieved technical credibility from the amazing success of the Apollo program. When President Reagan announced SDI twenty years later, the Soviets were against it, not because it was destabilizing and provocative, but because they believed we would succeed. That success would render their vast military machine, assembled at great cost to their people and economy, obsolete in an instant. Among other factors, this hastened the end of the Cold War in America’s favor. Thus, the original geopolitical goals of the Apollo program were once again realized, and in a manner undreamed of fifty years earlier.

The story becomes less definitive and not completely positive when evaluating Apollo’s legacy to the idea of human spaceflight. During the era of the Apollo program, America learned how to journey in space with people and machines. The accumulation of such knowledge was not the result of any systematic attempt to acquire it for its own sake, but was developed and acquired because of need. The tight schedule dictated by a decadal deadline, coupled with the clear geopolitical need to demonstrate American technical superiority, made reaching certain technical milestones essential. We learned how to do orbital rendezvous because we needed to master that skill—and quickly. This lesson has been lost on many current space policymakers: the acquisition of true spaceflight capability results from the attempt to fulfill a mission, not from vague directives to “develop technology” so that we can eventually “go somewhere.”

The Apollo program architecture—the legacy of launching a mission “all up” in one or two launches that deliver all the pieces needed for a single mission, discarding the expendable hardware along the way—persists in the minds of most space policy makers and planners to this day. While this approach worked for the fulfillment of Apollo’s limited primary objective (“Man-Moon-Decade”), it is not conducive to developing a long-term, permanent spacefaring capability. The physics of spaceflight dictate that you use most of your rocket propellant to simply achieve low Earth orbit, with little, to no, fuel left to go beyond it. Apollo defied the “tyranny of the rocket equation”17through brute force, by launching a fully fueled Saturn IV-B stage that could throw some fifty-five tons along a translunar path. To go farther, or to go with more capability, requires either a much larger launch vehicle, multiple launches of a heavy lift vehicle, or the development of propellant depots in space. These depressing mathematics rapidly tally up to an infeasible launch rate, along with complex orbital operations needed to assemble an interplanetary craft. Yet, exactly such a cumbersome, impractical, and expensive approach is part of the current NASA Design Reference Mission for a human mission to Mars.18

For thirty years, following the end of Apollo, the enormous logistical requirements for sending human missions beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) made most manned space activity there unthinkable. In its place, other ideas began to emerge—concepts designed to take advantage of what space had to offer in terms of creating new capability from what we could find out there. Additionally, a more incremental approach was sought, whereby the pieces would be reusable, smaller, and less expensive. In part, the development of the space shuttle was pursued for these very reasons. Although the shuttle was not completely successful in obtaining this part of its various mission goals, the idea of an incremental program, developed using smaller, reusable pieces, remains attractive from a variety of perspectives.

The cost of the Apollo program still generates a lot of discussion.19 The entire program cost an estimated $25 billion in 1965 dollars (about $200 billion in 2014 dollars). However, that number includes the construction from scratch of an enormous material infrastructure, such as the NASA field centers and the facilities used to test and stage the lunar missions. Much was made at the time about the “misplaced priorities” of the space program, as if the cancellation of Apollo would cure a plethora of social ills. Looked at from the perspective of ending the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union, the race to the Moon was very cost-effective.

However, there was another aspect to Apollo, one that constrains our meaningful progress in space to this day. One of Apollo’s baneful legacies was the entrenchment of the notion of exploration as a public spectacle or contest, designed to distract and excite the public. Although an attempt was made to justify the race to the Moon in terms of technical spinoff benefits, such efforts were always subject to the criticism that technical innovation would have occurred anyway, without a space program—an irrefutable proposition because the counterfactual cannot be demonstrated. Instead, supporters of ambitious space efforts have spent the last fifty years trying to convince policymakers that the country needs challenging and “exciting” goals to engage and inspire the public. This panem et circenses mindset remains a fixture of modern society and is an especially well developed standard used by the media to evaluate (and usually, denigrate) proposed new space initiatives.

This entrenched way of thinking is ineffectual and counterproductive. By making the human space program into an overblown “reality show,” we are forever doomed to perform singular and unconnected stunts of no lasting value. Rationales for space exploration that require public “excitement” too often rely on being the “first” to do something. This involves promoting distant, unachievable goals such as human missions to Mars instead of reachable, near-term goals and destinations that we could accomplish on reasonable timescales, such as a lunar outpost. Current concepts of public support for space exploration are based on a false reading of public sentiment: Most people simply do not care about space, so attempts to “excite” them are bound to fail. There are always vocal proponents for space, individuals and small groups who hold strong opinions, but too often lack the necessary technical knowledge to understand what is feasible, against what they desire.

Despite this problem, a case still can be made that an affordable, long-term strategic goal for human spaceflight not only exists but can be adopted and attained without breaking the national bank. After fifty years of human spaceflight, we realize that there are tasks in space beyond the capabilities of robotic machines—tasks that require human presence. People must be present to interact physically and intellectually with the space environment in real time to accomplish some goals, such as scientific field exploration and the repair and maintenance of complex machines. We need to develop a system that ultimately permits us to go anywhere we need, with humans and machines, to accomplish whatever goals may be desired. A large ambition, to be sure, but we already have signs that the creation of such a space system is possible.

How? The answer is right next door.