Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Apollo, Forty Years Later

I couldn't let the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing pass by without comment, and not just because of what that event meant to a space-obsessed 11-year-old in 1969. Aside from numerous calls for an Apollo program for energy, or the periodic allusions to energy and climate change as the equivalent of the space program for our time, Apollo's extraordinary accomplishment might still have some lessons to teach us about what it takes to achieve goals of such a magnitude--as well as the proper limits of those lessons. It's also high time to give some serious thought to the role of space exploration in our future.

Although I had originally intended to post on this subject next Monday, on the anniversary of the day that Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface, it struck me as more appropriate to commemorate the entire mission and the enormous effort that went into planning and executing it. I was pleased to find a website called "We Choose the Moon" that will retrace the events of Apollo 11 in real time, beginning exactly 40 years after the launch on July 16, 1969. NASA has put up a 360-degree interactive panorama of the lunar landing site, and the New York Times has extensive coverage. As interesting as these sites are, however, none of them can recreate the feeling of that long-ago summer, when families and neighbors gathered around their TVs--many of them new color sets bought for the occasion. That cohesion proved fleeting, and it seems almost alien today. Sadly, so does the remarkable combination of urgency and patient, meticulous planning without which the moon landing would have remained as impossible as it must have seemed a decade earlier.

When President Kennedy made his speech to Congress in 1961 setting the goal of landing on the moon within the decade, the technology to deliver that outcome did not exist. The first American manned space flight by Alan Shepard had taken place just three weeks earlier, and the first unmanned Saturn V moon rocket wouldn't be flight-tested for another six years. The financial cost of the moon landing program was so high--roughly $150 billion in today's dollars--because so much of it had to be designed and built from scratch, from the vehicles to the entire infrastructure to assemble, launch, monitor and control them.

It was also high because despite the intense pressure of needing to pull off this feat within eight years, it involved the step-by-step incremental development and demonstration of the capabilities that would ultimately be required. For example, the Gemini Program, involving 10 manned launches in 1965 and '66, was mainly intended to test techniques such as rendezvous, docking and spacewalking that were integral to executing the Apollo concept for going to the moon. Then, between the disastrous Apollo 1 launch pad fire, which forced NASA to redesign the Apollo capsule, and "The Eagle has landed", there were four other manned Apollo flights, each testing incrementally more complex elements of the lunar mission. This was the epitome of combining bold strategic planning with planning by doing; that much, at least, seems broadly relevant to our current energy situation.

The US moon landing effort of the 1960s created a vast technical and industrial pyramid. At its apex was the delivery of a cumulative total of 12 Americans to the surface of the moon and their safe return home. If Apollo 13 had not experienced its well-documented accident, and if the last four missions hadn't been cancelled and recycled into the Apollo-Soyuz demonstration of US-Soviet Detente, plus three visits to the Skylab space station, that figure might have reached 22. Yet as impressive and unprecedented as that was, and in spite of a host of valuable breakthroughs and spinoffs in electronics, medicine, and other fields, this is precisely where all of the analogies between energy and Apollo break down. Remaking our energy systems to provide the safe, secure, affordable and environmentally-sound means of energizing the entire economy--national or global, take your pick--will be nothing like making a few trips to the moon and then turning our back on it for four decades. It will require a durable bi-partisan consensus in government for at least a generation and enduring public support of a kind that NASA was ultimately unable to sustain.

At the same time, the US manned space program has reached an existential crossroads. The shuttle is on its last legs, and its planned replacement, the Orion/Ares system won't be operational until at least 2015. The International Space Station could be "de-orbited"--allowed to burn up in the atmosphere--as early as 2016 if new funding and a renewed purpose aren't found. This is the context for a blue-ribbon panel that will advise the administration on NASA's future direction. Ambitious plans for a return to the moon and an eventual manned mission to Mars look vulnerable to budget concerns.

I would be remiss if I didn't also mention the enormous potential of space to contribute to solving our energy and environmental problems. Whether in the form of space-based solar power or potential deposits of exotic nuclear fuel on the moon, the long-term solutions to the earth's environmental challenges and resource needs must eventually capitalize on the boundless energy and materials available outside our atmosphere. I'm also mindful of the profoundly-expanded perspective that space exploration has provided us. The widely-recognized "Earthrise" photo from Apollo 8's trip around the moon in late 1968 probably did more to awaken our environmental consciousness than a thousand speeches and rallies.

With the economy sunk in a deep recession and the country grappling with the seemingly intractable issues of health care, gargantuan deficits, and a looming retirement crisis, I can't imagine a better time to recall a moment when we proved that we could accomplish almost anything, if we set our minds to it. I don't know how much the media intends to play up this anniversary. NASA certainly has big plans. Although 50th anniversaries tend to make bigger splashes, the ages of the Apollo 11 crew and the surviving scientists, engineers and others who made their journey possible preclude waiting another decade to stage a proper celebration of their achievement. I'm looking forward to explaining to my daughter just how thrilling it was to watch that first fuzzy broadcast from the moon.

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