do we really need another apollo?

NASA is trying to replay history at the cost of keeping its launch systems and exploration programs stagnant.
ares rocket liftoff

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge fan of manned spaceflight and everything that it can do not just for our technological advances, but for our species as a whole. For decades, the space enthusiasts’ symbol of drive and achievement was the Apollo program. Even though the program was embraced for very earthly political reasons first and foremost, what it achieved was nothing short of spectacular. Using technology we would throw away as worthless junk today, humans reached another world and had their sights set on leaving the Earth-Moon system for bigger and bolder ventures. Awesome? All kinds of.

Now, NASA wants to do it all over again with the Constellation program. And not only do it again, but do it almost the same way. Maybe I’m out of line here, but why? It’s not that we don’t want to go back to the Moon as much as whether we want to take designs from the 1960s, modify them a bit, build a couple of rockets using today’s technology and pick up where Apollo 17 left off in the same exact way. What exactly do we learn by resetting the clock? We already know how to get to the Moon with a huge rocket and how to launch manned capsules into orbit and beyond. In that context, Constellation seems a lot like running in circles and giving today’s generation of NASA engineers a chance to relive the agency’s glory days.

I can see why it’s an appealing option for NASA to stick to what it knows best. For its needs, it’s a woefully underfunded agency with all due thanks to our pop culture and government neglect. Rather than having a global leader in aerospace R&D, the government decided that it wants a fleet of flag planting vehicles in space to make it look like the country is still dominating the final frontier instead. When you’re on a shoestring allowance, going out and really innovating is awfully risky and asking for a reallocation of the money already destined to go to campaign contributors and pet projects designed to get lawmakers through the next election, is a grueling process which has a very slim chance of ending in success. Hence, it’s tempting to simply update the extremely well engineered Apollo craft and see what happens when it’s in working order.

At the same time, what happens is that we’re taking an opportunity to innovate and revolutionize the way we get into orbit and turning it into a nostalgic redo of the past. The shuttle was a significant step towards reusable spacecraft and ultimately, single-stage-to-orbit vehicles. Instead of building on that to cut costs and improve safety, NASA is actually rewinding the clock and going back to the capsule concept of the 1960s and 1970s, a concept that was supposed to be replaced by reusable orbiters which were a reliable workhorse for orbital construction, satellite launch and maintenance. Or rather, our current method of getting into space.

Getting back to the lunar surface is a great idea. It really is. But we also need to advance the spacecraft and propulsion systems of tomorrow while we do it. Otherwise, we’ll spend the next few decades hitting the rewind button for the sake of cautiously meeting small, resentfully doled out budgets.

# space // human spaceflight / moon / nasa

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