To the Moon, Alice

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This being the year of the 50th anniversary of that one small step, you’ll be seeing a lot of nostalgic babble about how great it all was and what a shame it is that we sorta stopped serious space exploration in 1972.

What you won’t hear as much is that the entire moon thing was just a geopolitical stunt. President John F. Kennedy admitted he wasn’t that interested in space, but he was interested in national prestige, favorable election positioning and seizing the high ground against the malevolent Soviets.

Last week, in even more nakedly strident language, Vice President Mike Pence called for a return to the moon by 2024, with landings on the lunar poles. And yes, it’s once again just another geopolitical stunt, but at least Pence made it more obvious.

In the famous 1962 Kennedy speech in which he set landing on the moon as an end-of-decade goal, his writers dressed it up with reaching-for-the-stars glory, but it was really all about the national spectacle. Then a funny thing happened. Science stuck its thumb out and got a lavishly funded ride to the moon that yielded more knowledge about lunar physics, chemistry and geology than had been accumulated in recorded history. By the end of the Apollo program, we plopped a genuine geologist—Harrison Schmitt—on the lunar surface. (Plopped is the right word, too. During training, when Gene Cernan and Schmitt were driving the lunar rover across an alluvial fan in the Southwest, the geologist was tossed overboard when they hit a rock. “The Schmitt,” Cernan couldn’t resist observing, “hit the fan.”)

Whether this can be done by 2024 is questionable, in my view, as is whether it can be done at all. Kennedy somehow summoned a national will—and the funding—to put the country on an aggressive program to develop lunar-capable technology. In 1966, NASA’s budget was 4.4 percent of the total federal budget. Most recently, it’s 0.49 percent, or about one-eighth of the mid-60s levels.

As Pence noted, the Space Launch System booster is behind schedule and will need to be accelerated, if that’s possible. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is a contender, but it lacks the payload to carry the equivalent of the Apollo stack and would need a second launch, at least, to put crews on the moon, plus the stuff necessary to accommodate a longer stay of a week or more. The next lunar missions aren’t envisioned as short stays. The SLS is supposed to have greater lift capability than the Saturn V that boosted Apollo, but not so much greater that a lunar mission could be done in the single launch elegance of Apollo.

Lockheed is developing a multi-crew lunar lander with an eye toward an eventual Mars mission. For comparison, the contract for Apollo’s Lunar Module was awarded in 1962 but the first flight didn’t occur until 1968—almost six years, and it was continually delayed. Of course, the new lander builds on what Grumman had to learn on its own and with more powerful analytical tools, design work ought to go faster … even though it somehow doesn’t seem to. And a reusable lander carrying four astronauts is a much more complex undertaking than the rather quaint LM Grumman built for one-time use. Multiple launches for such missions increase cost and complexity.

The overarching question is whether repeating the geopolitical stunt is worth it. My view is that it absolutely is, because once again, the science will tag along in the glare of the spectacle. And eventually, we’ll fly humans off to Mars.

I don’t care what the nattering nabobs of negativism* say, we’re gonna do that some day. Might as well make it sooner than later.

*Extra points if you can identify the quote.

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Hey Paul, you're showing your age! Only those over 60 will have much chance at understanding that title. Luckily(?), I'm way over 60, so loved the title.
Bob Dillon

Always enjoy your commentary. The quote is from Spiro Agnew, but he's not a household name these days.

Ted Spitzmiller

They have formed their own 4-H Club — the ‘hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.'” Spiro Agnew.

Sandy Munns

Vice President Spiro Agnew. I am REALLY old!

Joel Ludwigson

It has been stated by NASA personnel, "We do not have the current technology to make a flight to the moon and land." Because this is true, then it follows that NASA never did make a trip to the moon and land on it! It is only the infinitely gullible that give credence to such fake news! Make sure this information is given wide coverage!

A faithful pilot for the past 60+ years who received all of his initial flight training in the USAF.

E. W. Mickey

"The SLS is supposed to have greater lift capability than the Saturn V that boosted Apollo, but not so much greater that a lunar mission could be done in the single launch elegance of Apollo.”

I have a feeling you were referring to a stay on the lunar surface longer than 72 hours but your remark along with the drifting references of being both for and against future manned space flights including lunar surface missions makes it a bit challenging to keep up.

Perhaps you should allow others like Aviation week and space technology handle the manned space aviation corner and Paul covers air shows and new product releases.

Michael Atkinson