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Op-ed | Reflections on the U.S. space program a half-century after Apollo 11

Command Module pilot Michael Collins practices in the CM simulator on June 19, 1969, at Kennedy Space Center. Credit: NASA

This op-ed originally appeared in the July 16, 2019 special Apollo 11 at 50 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

As the Apollo 11 Landing Module carrying Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin descended to the lunar surface, I was a college-bound 18-year old following the entire spectacle on television at my best friend’s house located on a farm in northern Illinois. It was the afternoon of July 20, 1969. Much later that evening, just before midnight Central Daylight Time, I was back home with my family watching on our black and white television as Neil Armstrong stepped out of the lunar lander and climbed down onto the moon’s surface for the first time. Indeed, we were witnessing “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Nevertheless, my maternal grandmother who lived with us and was born in Eastern Europe in 1890, exclaimed, “I don’t believe it and will never believe it.”

To put things into perspective, H.G. Wells published his novel “The First Men in the Moon” in 1901, two years before the Wright brothers flew their first experimental airplane at Kitty Hawk. The notion of machines flying even short distances through the air, let alone through space and reaching the lunar surface, was considered pure fantasy. Yet, the Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the moon less than seven decades later. Surely a number of college-bound 18 year-olds at the turn of the 20th century would have lived long enough to watch in awe as Neil Armstrong descended to the lunar surface in 1969.

Inspiration and Education. During that summer of 1969, I worked in the shipping department of a factory that produced springs primarily for the automotive industry. In the evening I usually came home dingy as a coal miner, my clothes often stained with industrial chemicals and my lungs full of factory smoke and dust, the unavoidable consequence of working in that type of job. But I needed to earn the extra money for help with college expenses. Although early the next morning, I was back in the factory packing springs and other automobile parts to be installed in Earth vehicles, the historical achievement that I had just witnessed inspired me (and doubtless countless other teenagers) to become scientists.

I had already determined to pursue a career in astronomy by this time, and was preparing for college, to major in both physics and mathematics. Eventually I would obtain a Ph.D. in astronomy and pursue a career as a college professor. My best friend was also destined to obtain a Ph.D., in his case in chemistry, followed by a career in research on polymers for the U.S. government. While neither of us needed to be convinced of the significance of this achievement, it nevertheless was inspirational for two young people starting to embark on their career paths in science.

The Space Race Begins. I was just starting elementary school when the space race was getting up and running in the late 1950s. In October 1957 the world was shocked when the Russians announced that Sputnik had achieved orbit about the Earth. My teacher told our class that we could see “this thing” in the sky at night if we knew where to look for it. I recall my parents telling me one morning that they saw it one evening after I had gone to bed. It should be emphasized to today’s generation that no one had done anything like this before, and many children and even a few adults (including my grandmother) were afraid of what the Russian satellite might be capable of doing to us.

In the mid-1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower had already planned to have the U.S. launch a satellite using a Vanguard rocket during the International Geophysical Year (1957-1958), not seriously considering that the Soviets might have similar plans.

When the news of Sputnik 1’s successful launch was announced, the reaction from our political leaders was one of deep concern that the Soviets had taken the early lead in the space race. To be sure, we were not going to allow them to hold on to it. In November 1958, a little over a year after Sputnik and at the president’s direction, NASA was founded to begin the American venture into space. The Mercury program was established that same year, and in 1961 Alan Shepard became the first American astronaut to go into space. John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth a year later in 1962, but Yuri Gagarin had already circled the Earth for the Soviets in April 1961. It was clear that the U.S. was falling behind in the space race.

The Apollo 11 Command/Service Module is shown being readied for moving to the Vehicle Assembly Building for mating to the Saturn V rocket in preparation for its July 16, 1969 launch. Credit: Wikicommons Credit: Wikicommons

We Choose to Go To the moon. In May 1961, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech to the nation stating that the U.S. should have as its goal sending a man to the moon and returning him safely to Earth, to be achieved by the end of the decade. The public was not yet convinced that JFK’s proposed initiative was worth the cost, and so in September 1962 he gave a second speech at Rice University in Houston to argue forcefully for this bold venture. Initially, Kennedy was not certain that the high price tag of such a monumental project would be worth the effort, but the great strides being made by the Soviets soon convinced him that inaction would mean second place in space.

To ensure that young school children like myself were kept informed of the historic effort that our nation was undertaking, black and white TVs with typical American brand names such as Zenith or Admiral and topped with rabbit-ear antennas were wheeled into our classrooms. My classmates and I were able to watch in real time the various mission launches from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

What Was Known About the Moon Prior to 1957. Prior to the space age, the best resolution that the largest Earth-based telescopes could achieve was only about one-half mile, so that even objects the size of a football stadium would be too small to see. Surface temperatures were measured using infrared detectors, and crude chemical compositions were deduced using spectroscopy. The field of lunar geology was still in its infancy, and lunar chemistry and lunar physics did not yet exist. But that was all about to change.

The Russians Strike (Literally) First. The Russians (the former Soviet Union, or U.S.S.R.) were first to send unmanned spacecraft to the moon. Luna 2 was first, crashing on the lunar surface in 1959, while that same year Luna 3 returned photos from the moon’s far side. In 1966, Luna 9 landed on the lunar surface and transmitted pictures. But the U.S. was not to be outdone. In that same year 1966, the U.S. launched five Lunar Orbiters which mapped entire lunar surface in detail. A total of five Lunar Surveyors landed, conducted experiments and took detailed pictures. The information gained paved the way for the first Apollo landing three years later.

The Apollo Program. The Apollo program is responsible for most of what we know about the Moon today. It consisted of nine manned spacecraft that traveled to the Moon between 1968 and 1972. A total of 12 astronauts reached the lunar surface over six landings. The first three landings were on flat plains (geologically safe), while for the last three landings more geologically challenging sites were selected. In fact, a geologist, Harrison Schmidt, was among the crew for the final Apollo landing. The Apollo missions accomplished the most important objective of collecting nearly one-half ton of rock samples to return to Earth for analysis; these samples allowed scientists to understand the Moon and its history. In addition, detailed photographic analyses of the lunar surface were conducted from orbit. The Apollo 11 mission conveyed an excitement that we had taken “one giant leap” forward in our exploration of the universe. It was a watershed moment, demonstrating conclusively that humans could leave Earth, travel to other bodies in space, and return to Earth.

Apollo Ends. The last human walked on the surface of the moon in December 1972 during the Apollo 17 mission, over three years after the Apollo 11 landing. In July 1975, an Apollo Command/Service Module docked with a Soviet Soyuz capsule, with astronaut and cosmonaut greeting each other with a historic handshake as a symbol of friendship between the two rival superpowers. Shortly thereafter, however, funding for Apollo was cut off due to rising economic pressures, and loss of interest by the public. Eventually, the giant Apollo rockets were put on display on the lawns of NASA in Florida and Texas for the public to appreciate the historical significance of the Apollo program. The cost of the entire Apollo program was about $25 billion (over $100 billion in today’s economy).

Mariners to the Planets. Not getting nearly the same level of publicity while running essentially concurrently with the Apollo Program (and costing much less) was the Mariner Program, which was conducted jointly by NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena. From 1962 to 1973, a series of robotic interplanetary probes were launched to investigate the terrestrial planets Mercury, Venus and Mars. The Mariner program boasted the first planetary flyby (Mariner 2, Venus), the first successful Mars flyby (Mariner 4), the first U.S. planetary orbiter (Mariner 9, Mars), and the first employment of the fuel-saving gravity assist (or “slingshot”) method (Mariner 10, Venus). The total cost of the Mariner program was approximately $550 million, a small fraction of the $25 billion for the entire Apollo program.

Robotic Probes Continue to Deliver. Following Mariner, NASA planned and launched a plethora of successful (and a few unsuccessful) robotic probes that have expanded our knowledge of the solar system bodies. The seven of the 10 Mariner spacecraft that were successful served as the starting point for many subsequent NASA/JPL space probe programs in the 1970s, including the Voyager probes to Jupiter and the outer planets and the Viking orbiters around Mars. In the 1980s, Mariner-based spacecraft included the Magellan orbiter around Venus and the Galileo probe which gave the first close-up images of an asteroid (Gaspra) and also explored Jupiter’s atmosphere. And in the 1990s, the Cassini–Huygens Mission, which also involved the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency, explored Saturn from orbit and also landed a robotic probe on the surface of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, both firsts. Most recently, in 2015, New Horizons became the first spacecraft to reach Pluto, and took amazingly detailed pictures of Pluto and its satellite Charon. New Horizons continued its outward journey and in 2019 sent back images of Ultima Thule, a bizarre trans-Neptunian object located in the distant Kuiper Belt.

Return to the moon. Over the decades since Apollo, NASA has considered returning to the moon, but with changing administrations in Washington come changing priorities. The most recent directive is to construct a Moon-orbiting space station to be completed as early as 2024. The Lunar Gateway Space Station, as it is now designated, will be designed to provide an orbiting base around the moon from which astronauts could descend to the lunar surface, or as a starting point to go farther into space.

The Artemis Program. NASA’s successor to the Apollo Program will be the Artemis Program, a crewed spaceflight program with domestic and international partners. The goal will be to land the next humans on the lunar surface by 2024, as a first step toward a longer-term goal of establishing a sustained American presence on the moon, with the ultimate goal of sending humans to Mars. The Artemis Program will use the Orion vehicle, a planned spacecraft to take astronauts into space beyond Earth orbit, with crewed missions starting in the 2020s. Orion is similar in shape to the Apollo spacecraft, but much larger and more advanced. Orion will be designed to carry up to six astronauts to the moon or Mars. The proposed cost for the 2020 fiscal year would be around $23 billion, but this would need to be formally approved by Congress.

Epilogue. We went to the moon for reasons relating more to the international politics of the day than to the quest for scientific knowledge. That said, the science that was learned from the Apollo landings was unparalleled, and probably wouldn’t have happened at all (at least not during the 1960s) without the urgency of beating the Russians. As with any bold endeavor, Apollo proved to be a costly one in terms of human lives, as was evidenced by the tragic loss of three American astronauts in the Apollo 1 fire in 1967 (and likely many more Soviet cosmonauts who were competing with Apollo). But it also brought unintended rewards. The various compact electronic devices in use today (e.g., smartphones, laptop computers) can be traced back to the need for miniaturization of computers and electronics on board the various Apollo and later spacecraft.

Was it all worth it? Absolutely. Future historians will no doubt look back at the Apollo Program as a necessary early step in the human venture to the planets in our solar system and, ultimately, to planets orbiting distant stars. Above all, the Apollo Mission demonstrated that humans can journey through space away from their home planet and safely land on another world. It expanded our horizons and opened the possibility of constructing a permanent or semi-permanent lunar base which could serve as a springboard for future manned flights to Mars and possibly other solar system bodies. The water ice believed to be present in craters near the moon’s north and south poles could be a significant boon to supporting a human presence on the lunar surface.

Supplement: NASA’s Budget. The NASA budget as a percent of the total U.S. spending has been relatively small compared with, for instance, defense, and moreover has been decreasing since the 1960s. During the early years of the space program 1959-69, the end of which was capped by Apollo 11, the budget varied somewhere between 2 percent and 4 percent, with an average of around 2.5 percent. This dropped during the 1980s to about 1 percent, and has been steadily decreasing since the 1990s to the current value of around 0.5 percent of the total budget of $4.4 trillion for fiscal year 2019. The U.S. government has allocated a grand total of $0.60 trillion for NASA over its 60 year existence. When adjusted for inflation, this translates to $22 billion per year.

Whatever the budget constraints, an enormous amount of space science has been accomplished over the past six decades with not only robotic spacecraft, but also with orbiting satellites, both with and without crews, including Skylab, the International Space Station (ISS), the Hubble Space Telescope, and the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite, to name just a few. Some of the more recent ventures are joint missions with other nations, and some not involving the U.S. In addition, private companies such as SpaceX are now also launching satellites for communications and scientific purposes, and it is expected that space travel will be a multibillion-dollar tourist industry for the affluent. How things have changed since Neil Armstrong first planted his foot on lunar soil half a century ago!

Harry Augensen is the director of the Widener Observatory in Chester, Pennsylvania.