Quote of the Day: The Apollo Program

 

“Apollo was like a command economy. And a command economy is like being on steroids – your muscles get big but your testicles shrink, so it’s ultimately not sustainable.” – Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit)

Forty-nine years ago today, Apollo 11 began its trip to the Moon. It was my 14th birthday, and the liftoff was the biggest, best candle any 14-year-old could have. It was not the first time men had visited the Moon. Two previous Apollo missions had carried six other men to lunar orbit. It would be the mission where humans would walk for the first time on another planetary body.

Four years later I was sitting before a board of officers deciding whether to admit me to the ROTC program where I was going to college. One question asked was “Where do you see yourself in 25 years?”

My answer was (I was in engineering) that I could see myself as a program manager in charge of developing one of manned orbital platforms we would have then. I explained I figured we would have at least 100 by then, so it would not be that unusual for someone in his early 40s to be heading up that kind of program.

It got me a lot of points. This was a kid who was ambitious but had his eye on an achievable goal. After all, we had been to the Moon two years earlier and already had a space station in orbit. Fifty to 100 more in 25 years? Of course, we would be doing that.

I started in the Shuttle program in 1979 — ten years after we first walked on the moon. If you had told me then that over the next 25 years we would not get further than 400 miles above the Earth’s surface by the time the program ended — and that there would barely be one manned space station when that happened — I would have laughed. That. Was. Not. Possible.

Except, it was.

So, what happened? I believe a large part of the reason was NASA and government intervention in space. Two things contributed to relative inactivity. First, there was the civil servant problem. No civil servant ever got punished for delaying a decision but could get punished (at least in the 1970s through 1990s) for making the wrong decision. So, after Apollo, NASA got very risk-averse. Whatever they didn’t do (beyond a bare minimum required to retain funding) was something that could not bite them and get them in front of a Congressional committee having to answer what were you thinking?

However, the biggest roadblock was the civil servants’ aversion to profit. The idea that someone would make money exploiting space rubbed them raw (especially since they could not). So they put up all sorts of barriers to money-making enterprises. Manufacturing in space? How grubby. How ignoble. Space was there for pure research. So there was little reason for anyone (other than government employees) to go there. (After all, the conquistadors said they came to the New World to serve God and get rich. They were serious in their own ways about serving God. But without the opportunity to get rich that the New World offered, they would have stayed in Europe and served God there. It would have been a whole lot easier.)

That is not to say there aren’t lots of for-profit space activities — think telecommunications and satellite television. But a lot of that was done despite NASA, not because of NASA. And none of it involves anything tangible. (Pretty much everything that comes down from orbit is radio waves, even commercial earth observation services.)

That isn’t to say there aren’t a lot of folks (including myself) who have gotten their rice bowls filled participating in space. It’s just that Reynolds is right. With the government maintaining a command economy in space — focused on research not profit — our exploitation of space is not sustainable.

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There are 20 comments.

  1. Member

    Happy birthday.

    • #1
    • July 16, 2018, at 8:13 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  2. Member

    Interesting perspective. Perhaps Musk is proving your point.

    Aside: Did you get into ROTC? Perhaps another post.

    • #2
    • July 16, 2018, at 8:17 AM PDT
    • Like
  3. Member
    Seawriter Post author

    Al French, sad sack (View Comment):
    Did you get into ROTC? Perhaps another post.

    Yes. Ultimately, when I graduated in 1979 there were too many new officers. I went into inactive reserve for six years without going through any school training. 

    • #3
    • July 16, 2018, at 8:22 AM PDT
    • Like
  4. Coolidge

    Seawriter: I started in the Shuttle program in 1979 – ten years after we first walked on the moon. If you had told me then that over the next 245 years we would not get further than 400 miles above the Earth’s surface by the time the program ended – and that there would only barely be one manned space station in the entire world when that happened – I would have laughed. That. Was. Not. Possible.

    So the shuttle program lasts until 2224? I really hope it wont take that long to get out of LEO again.

    • #4
    • July 16, 2018, at 9:10 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  5. Member

    Well, Columbus discovered the New World in 1492, but it was the 1560’s before the first permanent colony was founded in North America in St. Augustine.

     

    And it’s a lot easier to build a ship than a spacecraft.

     

    • #5
    • July 16, 2018, at 11:38 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  6. Coolidge

    NASA has several problems:

    1. it needs a destination and a schedule. Unlike other government agencies NASA is founded to achieve very specific things. Launch a satellite to counter Sputnik, goto the moon by the end of the decade. Not somehow, someday maybe send a manned expedition to Mars.
    2. Developing hardware – stop it! NASA should be working with vendors to develop capabilities that NASA could then purchase. Space launch is a unique market, its a high cost, high barrier to entry market with few possible customers. Until SpaceX, one could also argue it was a low technology, low innovation market.
    3. Congress has too many mandates and controls on NASA’s funding. Stop congress from designing rockets.
    4. too many NASA centers. NASA is too spread out – its politically design is uneconomic. SpaceX has shown that engineering and design processes work best when everyone is on the same campus. NASA’s budget would go much further – and be more effectively spent if it where spent in fewer locations.

    and happy birthday.

    • #6
    • July 16, 2018, at 12:28 PM PDT
    • 8 likes
  7. Member

    This thread reminds me of Robert Zimmerman and his web site http://behindtheblack.com/ . I first heard him on John Batchelor’s radio show and podcast. He does a good job of comparing the work of “Big Space” (NASA, … ) and the commercial space efforts. He is clearly skeptical of Big Space being able to compete with commercial space efforts.

    • #7
    • July 16, 2018, at 1:10 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  8. Member

    OccupantCDN (View Comment):
    too many NASA centers. NASA is too spread out – its politically design is uneconomic. SpaceX has shown that engineering and design processes work best when everyone is on the same campus. NASA’s budget would go much further – and be more effectively spent if it where spent in fewer locations.

    Then NASA would be down to two (2) supporters in the Senate, unless it was smart enough to spread its spending among several other states. 

    • #8
    • July 16, 2018, at 1:47 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  9. Member

    So what happened? Part of it was indeed probably bureaucratic behavior…but maybe there was a deeper reason. Perhaps the growth of narcissism, a turning inward and away from physical exploration or indeed exploration of any kind played at part. See my post Where ARE those space aliens?…With questions on social evolution.

    • #9
    • July 16, 2018, at 1:57 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  10. Thatcher

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    Well, Columbus discovered the New World in 1492, but it was the 1560’s before the first permanent colony was founded in North America in St. Augustine.

    And it’s a lot easier to build a ship than a spacecraft.

    Columbus was government funded also. It didn’t require a command economy, but still.

    What really made the space program, including the Apollo project, was competiton between the United States and the Soviet Union. Sputnik scared a lot of people. When the Soviet Union abandoned their moon project, it doomed ours as civil service careerism took over.

    Regarding the timing of the establishment of colonies; it was probably the result of competition heating up between the European nations that sped things up.

    There are some private sector firms that are now interested in space, and there’s talk of providing prizes to firms that successfully send people to the moon (and Mars) and bring them back safely. Similar prize money was offered for aviation feats in the 1910’s and 1920’s, including the Lindbergh flight (though I think his prize money was funded by the private sector).

    • #10
    • July 16, 2018, at 2:15 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  11. Coolidge

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    OccupantCDN (View Comment):
    too many NASA centers. NASA is too spread out – its politically design is uneconomic. SpaceX has shown that engineering and design processes work best when everyone is on the same campus. NASA’s budget would go much further – and be more effectively spent if it where spent in fewer locations.

    Then NASA would be down to two (2) supporters in the Senate, unless it was smart enough to spread its spending among several other states.

    I dont see it quite that way – or at least not as drastically as that.

    Huntsville Al, will still be needed for testing – SpaceX has testing stands in McGregor TX.

    JPL is part of CalTech in Pasadena CA, Dryden is at Edwards AFB also in California and is vital to NASA’s relationship to the USAF.

    There are good reasons to keep many of the NASA centers – just not all of them.

    • #11
    • July 16, 2018, at 2:58 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  12. Thatcher

    I was born in 1970. I cannot believe how sorry our space program is, or how little we have done in my lifetime. The Shuttle was a stupid craft, and it would have been hard to design something better built to kill occupants. 

    NASA wastes money on manned spaceflight and its best days are behind it. It should stick to robot probes. It will never get beyond LEO again.

    • #12
    • July 16, 2018, at 3:45 PM PDT
    • Like
  13. Coolidge

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    I was born in 1970. I cannot believe how sorry our space program is, or how little we have done in my lifetime. The Shuttle was a stupid craft, and it would have been hard to design something better built to kill occupants.

    NASA wastes money on manned spaceflight and its best days are behind it. It should stick to robot probes. It will never get beyond LEO again.

    The shuttles compromised design where the result of political compromises that allowed the politicians to design the launch system. Originally the shuttle was going to use a modified Saturn V first stage for launch – no solid rocket boosters at all.

    NASA could be much more efficient (as all government programs could be) however I dont think the manned flight program is completely wasted.

    There should be a program to return to the moon. I am personally in favour of a COTS style program to develop the technology to do this in an economically sustainable method. A launcher that is capable of sending men to the moon, is also capable of sending missions to mars – although possibly in 2 – 3 launches as advocated by Robert Zubrin in “The Case for Mars”. Since launch windows are only open to mars every 26 months, the moon program would be a cost control measure for the mars program – by keeping operational tempos up, each flight costs a little less. By maintaining a flight level of 3-5 launches per year the Moon/mars program would rapidly advance technologies and allow us to push deeper into space.

    • #13
    • July 16, 2018, at 4:34 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  14. Thatcher

    David Foster (View Comment):

    So what happened? Part of it was indeed probably bureaucratic behavior…but maybe there was a deeper reason. Perhaps the growth of narcissism, a turning inward and away from physical exploration or indeed exploration of any kind played at part. See my post Where ARE those space aliens?…With questions on social evolution.

    I would add that the WWII veterans knew how to focus on deadlines (“take that hill at 04:30”) and work together to win the war. And the scientists and engineers who remained stateside were just as focused on advancing the state of the art. Some of us baby boomers took drugs and muttered “If we can send someone to the moon, why can’t we eliminate poverty?” 


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    • #14
    • July 16, 2018, at 6:24 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  15. Member

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    Well, Columbus discovered the New World in 1492, but it was the 1560’s before the first permanent colony was founded in North America in St. Augustine.

    And it’s a lot easier to build a ship than a spacecraft.

    The problem with space exploration is that there is ultimately no reason to go there. Columbus discovered a new world not only habitable for man, but filled with all manner of good and wonderful things: Corn, buffalo, deer, silver, gold, millions of acres of arable land, navigable rivers, trout streams, etc., etc. And you could get there with wind power.

    It’s dangerous and requires tremendous energy just to get into space, and once you get there, you’ve arrived at an environment that is utterly hostile to human life, filled with vast spaces of nothing at all, and punctuated by the occasional dead rock or ball of gas. And nothing else. Anything of value that might be out there we can get far more safely and efficiently with robots, which survive an unimaginably cold, irradiated vacuum much better than men do. 

    The only reasons to send men into space are romantic (think Star Wars), but reality in the form of the Space Shuttle program has pretty much put paid to the romantic view of space.

    • #15
    • July 16, 2018, at 6:45 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  16. Member

    Great post. And happy birthday!

    • #16
    • July 16, 2018, at 7:43 PM PDT
    • Like
  17. Coolidge

    Great post. My love of the Apollo program has giving me some weird feelings as a free market conservative. I feel a little bit cleaner watching the new “space race” with a bunch of money grubbing capitalist modern day robber barons. I just don’t know enough on the subject to know how serious the current efforts are and if they will go anywhere.

    (Of course my first post as a Ricochet member would be about space. You got me, Rob.) 

    • #17
    • July 16, 2018, at 9:34 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  18. Moderator

    The issue with Apollo was that it was focused on a goal. Government can pull off incredible results with a defined engineering goal.

    The most important element, however, is to smack down whiny hippies. “But but I want free college and sex changes and money for useless cause number #913” The constant moan over social justice needs to oppressed relentlessly. Then people might look to a more inspirational use of government funds.

    • #18
    • July 17, 2018, at 1:25 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  19. Thatcher

    William P Thomas (View Comment):

    Great post. My love of the Apollo program has giving me some weird feelings as a free market conservative. I feel a little bit cleaner watching the new “space race” with a bunch of money grubbing capitalist modern day robber barons. I just don’t know enough on the subject to know how serious the current efforts are and if they will go anywhere.

    (Of course my first post as a Ricochet member would be about space. You got me, Rob.)

    Welcome to Ricochet!

    Didn’t Rob tell you that you’re required to comment on all Quote of the Day and Group Writing posts? ;-)

    • #19
    • July 17, 2018, at 2:27 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  20. Coolidge

    I’ve seen good cases made that NASA’s biggest problems stem from how their funding is budgeted. The constant threat of losing funding or having a new administration or new Congress change priorities leads to projects that (like most government projects) are overly long and overly expensive. The other (related) issue is a overly cautious management. NASA has gone from taking lots risks (calculated risks to be sure) to taking none. The responses to the two Shuttle disasters made the problem worse by adding more layers of bureaucracy. Find a problem with something before launch and fix it, but now you can’t launch because the fix has to go through all the same certifications and tests that the rest of the rocket went through. Sometimes that makes sense, but sometimes it’s pure bureaucratic CYA. I don’t see it getting better anytime soon. All their best talent is headed to companies like SpaceX. 

    • #20
    • July 17, 2018, at 10:55 AM PDT
    • 1 like