The Apollo Program, the Saturn V rocket, and the end of history

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the last manned Luna landing, demarking the history of high-earth orbit to a previous generation.

Yet the Apollo program continues to hold a strange and powerful hold over my imagination – and, I am sure, the imagination of most of my peers. Cameos by Buzz Aldrin feature in films such as Transformers: Dark of the Moon [trailer | clip] and the closing scene of Mass Effect 3, and ‘Moon Shots’ has now become a byword for ‘game changing’ investments.

However, marking those four decades can also make me feel that, as a race, our best days are behind us. This is uncharacteristic – one of my favorite authors is David Brin, who favours Science Fiction over Fantasy because of its belief in the “possibility of learning and change.” Even after walking through the ruined splendor of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum a couple of years ago, I comforted myself with the knowledge that western civilization can emerge from virtually any darkness.[1]

Yet now, early 21st Century, I begin to suffer from Gernsback syndrome – obsessing over a vision of the world we could have had, but have failed to create.[2] In the face of all of the environmental destruction we have wrought,[3] I am starting to feel that our opportunity is past.

Strangely, I do not even believe we should waste resources on any space program[4] – so why then do I take the Western world’s effective abandonment of the moon[5] so personally? I think the answer lies in what this reflects about our societal drive: our technology has clearly increased magnitudes, and yet our priorities[6] have shifted from the ambitious to the decadent.[7] The United States’ space program has gone in effectively the opposite direction than what it should have[8] – from putting a man on the moon, to what should be a humiliating arrangement where we rent seats and luggage space on Russian launches.[9]

Yet this is not just about any particular space program. The moon landings represent a great achievement – however, there are numerous other manned and unmanned missions from which to choose.[10] Most of these require some heavy lifters. The problem is, however, that we do not have any.

The changing strength of the rockets we are using reflects the changing strength of our collective will. Since Skylab, which used up the last of the Saturn V series – the launch vehicles of the Apollo Program, and absolute powerhouses compared to the puny Shuttles (one planned version could have installed the International Space Station with only a single launch) – we have built no stronger rocket.

It is also worth noting how much the Saturn V has helped us achieve – even after it delivered and returned the crew of Apollo 11:[11]
Finally, there are the amazing plans for the Saturn V that NASA never realized: such a permanent base on the moon.[12] With a steady stream of unmanned Saturn V rockets sending supplies and some manned missions providing relief crews, we might be instead be celebrating the fortieth anniversary of our Luna colony – and not the fortieth anniversary of the Saturn V’s retirement.

Image: Apollo 17

End notes

[1] Having said that, when asked by a reporter what he thought of western civilization, Mahatma Gandhi replied, “I think it would be a good idea.”

[2] I was reminded of this recently in Haruki Murakami’s novel 19Q4, where, in the parallel universe in which one of the characters finds herself, there is a joint Soviet-American base established on the Luna surface.

[3] Cases in point: ecolocide – the destruction of ecosystems, of which coral reefs will be the first casualty – and resource depletion, from which no superhero can save us,

[4] As the Dalai Lama remarked: “Still much work to be done here, on this Earth. Until there is no poverty, no illness. Once everything is okay on this planet – no further problem – then we’ll need a holiday!”

[5] The People’s Republic of China, Iran, and even the civilian sector has proposed manned missions to the moon.

[6] Of course, much of this is due to resourcing – in 1966, NASA commanded 4.41% of the federal budget, yet since 1975, it has generally commanded no more than 1%. (Curiously, right at the time of the ‘We are the 99%’ movement, there is a growing movement to boost/maintain NASA’s budget.)

[7] “As far as I am concerned our civilization peaked with the Apollo missions and it has pretty much been downhill ever since. Modern astronomers typically prefer small robotic satellite missions over human space flight. The claim is that robots can do what humans can do only better and more effective. The reason is that robots do not require the complex life support systems that humans do and that robots can be built to measure parts of the spectrum that humans can’t see.” - Jacob Lund Fisker

The following tweet, however simplistic and patronizing, adequately sums this up: “Your mobile phone has more computing power than all of NASA in 1969. NASA launched a man to the moon. We launch a bird into pigs.” -- @GeogeBray

[8] I actually disagree with Jacob. I understand his romanticisation of space travel - that the universe is collectively improved and enriched by having a handful of souls see the planet from orbit, or from another cosmic body such as the moon. However, I also think of the immense cost of such indulgences; I figure that robots can also accomplish much in space, and the presence of men on the international space station, or on the moon, was purely an ego trip. Case in point: the Soviets collected rock samples from the moon and bought them back without putting any one’s life at risk. The Dalai Lama’s remarks about travelling into space only once you have succeeded in feeding anyone - these sound a lot smarter to me than Jacob’s remarks.

[9] “It’s now been some 40 years since mankind set foot on the moon. No astronaut has visited the moon in my lifetime. As a kid I used to read books about space from the 1960s and 1970s depicting lunar colonies, Mars colonies, interplanetary space travel and even interstellar space travel. None of this has come to pass. Priorities are such that we no longer even have an operating shuttle program. Humanity’s vision has turned inward. These days we’re more concerned about whether some 13 year old sings well enough to win American Idol.

The story of NASA in many ways resemble my space dreams in reverse. We’ve gone from buying passage on other countries rocket launches, to having a space shuttle, to having a space station, to sending probes to other planets, to landing men on the moon.” – Early Retirement Extreme

[10] Even Buzz Aldrin has argued that we should forget about trying to reclaim past glories, and instead focus on the installation of an L1 Gateport - or, we could just mine asteroids; the options are endless.

[11] It’s also working keeping in mind that NASA didn’t satisfy JFK’s proclamation when Neil Armstrong landed – but when the crew of Apollo 11 actually arrived safely back on Earth.

[12] Such settlement would naturally include constantly upgraded technology, much of which would be, out of necessity, far superior to what we have now.