The End of the Apollo Era Finally?

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I recently finished the manuscript for a new book, “John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon,” and sent it off to the publisher. (Look for it early next year!) In my final chapter, I reflect on the impact of Apollo on the evolution of the U.S. space program in the half century since JFK declared, “We should go to the Moon.” Sending 12 astronauts to the lunar surface was a great achievement and will forever be a proud part of American history. But in my judgment, while Apollo’s impacts on subsequent U.S. human spaceflight activities have been lasting, they have been on balance negative. The reasons why are relevant to the current heated space debate.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy speaking before Congress
U.S. President John F. Kennedy speaking before Congress

I interpret the new space strategy set out by the White House Feb. 1 to be at its foundation a proposal to move from the 20th century, Apollo-era approach to human spaceflight to a new approach consistent with 21st century national and international realities and future exploration and other strategic space objectives. It is not surprising that those with positive memories of Apollo and with vested interests in continuing the space status quo have been so strong in their opposition to the new approach; they are defending a space effort that to date has served them well. These critics have been met with a — literally — incoherent defense of the new strategy by its advocates inside and outside of the government. U.S. President Barack Obama confused the situation even further in his April 15 speech at the Kennedy Space Center. The result has been a polarized debate unprecedented in my more than four decades of close observation of space policymaking. I am an optimist by nature, and so I hope that we will see emerging over this summer an approach that accepts the main tenets of the new strategy and allows NASA to start implementing them. But that outcome is far from assured, and the alternative is distressing to contemplate.

U.S. President Obama at Kennedy Space Center in April 2010. Credit: NASA
U.S. President Obama at Kennedy Space Center in April 2010. Credit: NASA

Apollo was aimed at beating the Russians to the Moon; it was not propelled by a long-term vision of space exploration. To meet Kennedy’s “before this decade is out” goal, NASA chose a set of hardware systems and an architecture optimized for getting to the Moon as soon as possible; these choices had unfortunate consequences. The Apollo spacecraft and the magnificent Saturn 5 launcher proved not to be relevant to any post-Apollo mission that could gain political support in the early 1970s, and were quickly discarded. But in developing, testing and operating the Apollo-Saturn system, NASA developed a large facility infrastructure, an extremely competent and dedicated work force, and a widespread space industrial base; those remain. One way of understanding the 40 years since Apollo is by viewing the space shuttle and the international space station as attempts to preserve and take advantage of that infrastructure, work force and industrial base. Pursuing an “Apollo on steroids” approach to the Constellation program was an understandable sequel to those programs, once again trying to employ the heritage left by Apollo.

But this, like the hardware developed for Apollo and then abandoned, is ultimately a dead-end approach. Yale University organizational sociologist Gary Brewer more than 20 years ago observed that NASA during the Apollo program came close to being “a perfect place” — the best organization that human beings could create to accomplish a particular goal. But, suggested Brewer, “perfect places do not last for long.” NASA was “no longer a perfect place.” The organization needed “new ways of thinking, new people, and new means.” He added “The innocent clarity of purpose, the relatively easy and economically painless public consent, and the technical confidence [of Apollo] … are gone and will probably never occur again. Trying to recreate those by-gone moments by sloganeering, frightening, or appealing to mankind’s mystical needs for exploration and conquest seems somehow futile considering all that has happened since Jack Kennedy set the nation on course to the Moon.”

Introducing “new ways of thinking, new people, and new means” into the NASA approach to human spaceflight has not happened in the two decades since Brewer made his observations. That was the conclusion of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board in 2003, and despite the positive steps taken since then to operate the shuttle as safely as possible, much of the Apollo-era human spaceflight culture remains intact. Trying to change that culture and thereby close out the half century of Apollo-style human spaceflight seems to me the essence of the new space strategy. There is no way of achieving that objective without wrenching dislocations; change is indeed hard. Gaining acceptance of that change will require more White House and congressional leadership and honesty about the consequences of the new strategy than has been evident to date.

There is a coherent explanation of what is being proposed, but NASA has given it little emphasis and it seems not to have registered with those trying to understand the new strategy. That strategy involves a restart — a five-year period of building the technological foundation for the future. That restart would be followed by another five to seven years of developing new systems based on that foundation, then a series of human missions to various destinations beyond Earth orbit. There is no commitment to a specific destination on a specific schedule; that avoids the narrowing effect that was a characteristic of Apollo. To me this is a quite sensible and easily understandable strategy, if the United States wants to be in the vanguard of 21st century space exploration. But it does not follow the Apollo model of setting a date to arrive at a specific destination that gave the United States unquestioned space leadership. It will be a challenge to maintain focus and technological discipline in implementing a strategy without a “date by” goal, but a capabilities-based approach can pave the way to U.S. leadership in reaching all the interesting destinations between the Earth and Mars. To me, the greatest threat to U.S. space leadership would come from our political system insisting on staying with the Apollo-era approach to the future, not from adopting this new strategy.

One element of the new strategy that is serving as a lightning rod for opponents is the proposal that the private sector take on a larger role in providing transportation services for people travelling to low Earth orbit. This fundamentally is a side issue to the main thrust of the strategy — developing capabilities for going beyond Earth orbit. The report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board is being cited in the current debate as if it were scripture, particularly in support of the contention that only NASA can operate systems for carrying people to orbit with adequate provision for their safety. In fact, much of the board’s report was a strong indictment of NASA’s safety culture, not an endorsement of NASA’s uniqueness or its performance with respect to ensuring crew safety aboard the shuttle. While it will be a long time, if ever, before launching people into orbit can be “routine,” and while NASA must play an important role in overseeing the safety of government-funded spaceflights, the notion that only NASA can assure adequate safety seems to me to be a product of the obsolete thinking identified by Professor Brewer.

It is really too bad that the announcement, and since then the defense, of a fundamental paradigm shift in the way the United States carries out human space exploration, and human spaceflight overall, have been so poorly articulated. The White House and NASA dug a rather deep hole in mismanaging the rollout of the new strategy, and the president really did not improve matters much by announcing a quickly conceived resuscitation of Orion, blowing off the Moon as a valuable destination, and setting an ambiguous target for a heavy-lift vehicle. NASA seems unable to provide clear or convincing answers to the congressional critics of the new strategy, and those of us who support it are having difficulty in getting our views heard. Going back to the drawing board and starting over on a modified strategy as the next budget is announced does not seem to me to be an option. Forcing NASA to continue to move grudgingly forward on Constellation while it is planning its replacement is untenable. There is a pressing need for a sensible outcome.

The time is now for ending the era of Apollo. When it began, John Kennedy was clear in purpose and consistent in explaining his reasons for going to the Moon. Now we need JFK-like leadership to be equally clear in purpose and equally convincing in arguing for moving to a new era in U.S. human spaceflight.