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Lessons from the Apollo Program

Keys to NASA’s future lie in its past.


by Mark D. Johnson
February 3, 2003

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Lessons from the Apollo Program_Mark D. Johnson-Keys to NASA’s future lie in its past.
If we die, we want people to accept it. We're in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life."
— Gus Grissom, one of three astronauts who died in the launch pad fire during testing for the Apollo 1 mission in January, 1967.

"We choose to go to the moon in this decade, and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."
— President John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962
It is always heartbreaking when the space program suffers a setback and certainly never more-so when there is loss of life. Advances in space exploration and research represent some of the most difficult and remarkable achievements mankind has ever undertaken. To strive for that which is so seemingly beyond our reach invokes the human spirit that inspires us and ultimately improves our lives, and what natural mystery is more elusive than that of outer space?

On the evening of the Columbia disaster I watched Ron Howard’s movie Apollo 13, based on the true story of the lunar mission crippled by a major mechanical malfunction and explosion that nearly claimed the lives of three astronauts. Upon their safe return to Earth, the mission was called the “Successful Failure,” as NASA engineers brilliantly solved the complex puzzle of getting those men home with a damaged vehicle, limited resources, and severe time constraints. Though Columbia’s last mission ended in tragedy, some parallels occur to me as our nation ponders the fate of our future endeavors in space.

The Goals We Set

The dawn of manned space exploration in the sixties was an extraordinary milestone of human history, one that captivated not only this nation, but the entire civilized world. Driven by President Kennedy’s challenge to land on the moon before the end of the decade, some of the most brilliant technical minds in the country worked hard to meet that goal. The brave pioneers who first went into space became genuine heroes, admired by all.

Some might suggest that our motives were selfish in our effort to beat the Russians in what was called the Space Race, to show our superiority over the other superpower. While the race did provide incentive and dominance in space was a valid national security concern, surely it was good old-fashioned American know-how and the thrill of discovery that truly propelled the astronauts and rocket scientists to achieve these unprecedented feats.

As the Cold War ended, so did the Space Race. In recent years, manned missions have been focused on the International Space Station (ISS), a stark contrast to the competitive nature of NASA’s early programs. By working with other nations and pooling financial resources to further our knowledge in space, we have taken a step in the right direction to ensure that our goals are for the benefit of all mankind. In light of this, it is unfortunate that the goal of bringing this space station to fruition has been so nebulous.

The ISS has been roundly criticized for years. Even at billions of dollars over budget, many of the original plans had to be sacrificed so that the price tag would not soar any higher. Now, with an operational station in orbit, the vast majority of us have no idea what its ultimate purpose is. They may be constantly working hard on experiments that will benefit science, but the public hasn’t a clue as to what those might be, and why they need to be done by humans in space. It has been a serious public relations problem for NASA, and when lives are lost in fulfilling this goal, the failure to make the station’s purpose clear is dramatically underscored.

While there are doubtless solid reasons for maintaining a space station and a means to get there and back, the international space program is in need of a loftier goal with a timetable, as we had with the Apollo program. There are compelling reasons for manned missions to Mars, and while NASA is interested and has in fact been studying the possibilities for years, it should now be made a priority. Before the Columbia disaster set back NASA’s schedule, it was reported that President Bush would soon endorse using nuclear propulsion to explore Mars, which would cut travel time down from six months with current rocketry to two months and increase launch windows, allowing for much more flexibility in launch and return times. Although this in itself would take years to develop and would likely meet much opposition from environmentalists concerned about contamination upon a launch accident, it would appear to be an essential component toward going to Mars, and plans should proceed toward this end.

Without clearly defined goals with obvious benefits, manned space exploration is in jeopardy.

Routine and the Problem of Funding

At the time Apollo 13 was launched, many considered lunar space flights to be routine, much as shuttle flights were regarded before both Challenger and Columbia explosions. Less attention was paid to that 1970 mission than with previous flights to the moon and people were starting to wonder if it was worth the expense to keep going there. The explosion that damaged Apollo 13 (“Houston, we have a problem”) brought the spotlight back to the program, and under all the scrutiny, NASA dusted off its feet and landed on the moon two more times.

If you watched news coverage of the Columbia disaster and interviews with various NASA personnel, it’s clear that shuttle flights are never routine, and that NASA is never carelessly going through the motions. It wasn’t routine in the early seventies either. From the public’s perspective, however, the shuttle flights were once again routine. After all, more time has elapsed between shuttle disasters (17 years) than from the last lunar landing to the Challenger explosion (14 years). It does take a disaster like this for us to take notice of an otherwise smooth operation, and some have begun asking if manned missions are worth the loss of life, and whether we should continue funding such missions.

Though NASA continued with lunar landings after Apollo 13, we stopped going to the moon after 1972. The space shuttle became the next goal, and has now been flying for over twenty years. Having survived one disaster due to a fundamental design flaw, NASA must now find out what happened to Columbia, make any necessary modifications, and resume shuttle flights. But the “routine” is over. The shuttle program as we know it must come to an end relatively soon as these vehicles continue to age. A "next generation" shuttle fleet must be developed while at the same time pressing on toward Mars. Meanwhile, our national defense has an agenda in space as well (though this works against international cooperation). Funding quickly becomes a serious issue.

As the wealthiest participating nation, we should be willing to absorb the greatest amount of the cost as well as assume responsibility in the driver’s seat, but if we are serious about our future in space, all nations involved need to increase their space budgets, more nations must be brought aboard, and money must be sought from the private sector, and not by means of booking wealthy tourists (not for many years, at least). We should consider corporate sponsorship (The Home Depot Space Station?). As I understand it, the medical industry, notably the prescription drug industry, stands to benefit from space station research. They should pay a substantial share of the development. Politicians must stand in firm support of continuing financial support for the space program. While the specter of war might indicate that now is not a good time to increase the NASA budget, consider that the Apollo mission went forward despite the war in Vietnam.

Once NASA has a handle on what went wrong, the case must be made, loud and clear, for the importance of manned space exploration and research. We must be assured that the Columbia astronauts did not die in vain. We must find within us once again the driving force that took us to the moon and continue to make giant leaps for mankind.

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