Mike the Mad Biologist

Could We Still Put a Man on the Moon?

Every so often, we hear or read someone who asks, “If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we do X?” But it’s not so clear that we could still do it if we wanted to:

The Apollo and Gemini programs aren’t truly lost. There are still one or two Saturn V rockets lying around, and there are plenty of parts from the spacecraft capsules still available. But just because modern scientists have the parts doesn’t mean they have the knowledge to understand how or why they worked the way they did. In fact, very few schematics or records from the original programs are still around. This lack of record keeping is a byproduct of the frenetic pace at which the American space program progressed. Because NASA was in a space race with the USSR, the planning, design, and building process of the Apollo and Gemini programs was always rushed. Not only that, but in most cases private contractors were brought in to work on every individual part of the spacecraft. Once the programs ended, these engineers–along with all their records–moved on. None of this would be a problem, but now that NASA is planning a return trip to the moon, a lot of the information about how the engineers of the 1960s made the voyages work is invaluable. Amazingly, the records remain so disorganized and incomplete that NASA has resorted to reverse engineering existing spacecraft parts that they have lying around in junkyards as a way of understanding just how the Gemini and Apollo programs managed to work so well.

Last I heard, we’re not planning on returning to the moon, but this is institutional memory we shouldn’t lose. The Agonist puts this in perspective:

The United States has closed its manned rocket program. In a few months, after retiring the shuttles, the U.S. will no longer have the capability of taking people to or from the International Space Station. The country that put people on the moon can’t fly anymore. There is only a hope that private industry will somehow find its way into orbit but meanwhile the Russians do it for us. They are laughing, they won the space race after all. The United States is going backwards, a regression that will become permanent if something isn’t done about it.

Maybe instead of worrying about Musselmen taking over the country and other ersatz notions of honor, the Tea Buggerers could worry about losing technological know-how.

But that would cost money. Which is totally Hitler.

Comments

  1. #1 Moopheus
    September 2, 2010

    I guess worrying about technology isn’t a problem if you expect to get carried into space by Jeebus.

  2. #2 natual cynic
    September 2, 2010

    Interesting. There was a movie made about this kind of a thing- Space Cowboys with Clint Eastwood, James Garner, Tommy Lee Jones & Donald Sutherland. They are a group of long-retired astronauts that that had the knowledge that just wasn’t around anymore. They have to work to disable an old Soviet satellite that secretly held nukes. Fluff.

  3. #3 Art
    September 2, 2010

    Yes/no/maybe this is an issue.

    Technology comes in waves. There are substantial advantages to being the first to exploit a technology and engineer a working solution to a problem. But these advantages are often short lived.

    People who catch the second wave get all the capabilities of the first wave with none of the development costs and often at substantial savings in time and materials as processes become standardized and consistency and quality improve.

    There are also the burdens of a developmental mindset. The engineers who first create a technology get locked into the way they did it the first time. The nation that creates the initial technology often gets saddled with the first generation designs and sticks with them long after the cutting edge has move past them. The US pioneered the internet and digital communications but has one of the worse networks of any developed nations. There are third-world nations that do it better.

    Even in the laboratory young, innovative engineers who set the world on fire turn into ossified directors who can’t manage to move beyond the one really good idea they had fifty years ago. I have friends who were part of the Apollo program who noted that ideas from entry level engineers and unschooled machinists often became the basis for a new development. Now, not so much.

    To some extent losing the old technology opens up opportunities to start over with a blank sheet of paper. New methods, new materials, new paradigms. The whole manned versus unmanned question is part of this. This wasn’t a question when the manned space program was going gangbusters. Only in the face of slashed budgets and much smaller programs has the question been taken seriously.

    I think a manned program is vital but the question needed to be asked.

    IMHO it also has to be noted that the distance you fall when you give up a technological lead has become much smaller. The ability to transfer know-how and technology rapidly has improved. Starting from nothing but given the raw inputs of labor, energy and materials, and a small but critical amount of technical expertise, you could start doing cutting-edge engineering and development in a very few years. Many of the techniques and tools early developers had to create from scratch are now available off the shelf. Many of these tools and techniques have been standardized and simplified to the point that they can be run by any well trained technician.

    The point being that the difference between first and second tier nations is quite small and falling from first to third doesn’t mean you can’t catch up. There may be substantial savings to be had in letting the field go fallow for a time. Backing down a research and development effort may allow the dead wood to fall off and new blood, and new ideas, to emerge.

  4. #4 Markk
    September 2, 2010

    We would never go back to the moon the way Apollo did it anyway. The Saturn Rocket was a disaster waiting to happen, and I have this from the German designers in Huntsville themselves. They thought we beat the odds that none failed in the program. Note they were all proud of it and thought it a great achievement, but not something we would do again anyway.

    I personally think the closing up of the GOVERNMENT RUN AND FUNDED manned launch vehicle complex was long overdue. The new private launchers will have their spectacular failures but I am much more optimistic about manned space than I was even 4 years ago. And I am an old NSI and L5 member so I am a space enthusiast.

  5. #5 Min
    September 2, 2010

    Could we put a man on the moon now? Not since the Reps have convinced people that the gov’t is impotent.

  6. #6 daedalus2u
    September 2, 2010

    I don’t think it is a loss of knowing how to do things, I think it is more of a management problem, and a shift from the goal of getting to the moon to making as much money as possible.

    The smartest guys used to be the engineers who figured out how to do stuff from scratch for the first time because WE WERE GOING TO THE MOON!. The smartest guys are now the managers and they are using their smarts figuring out how to game the system to maximize profits for their company.

    Going to the moon was such a big and important goal that everyone worked together because success would bring enough kudos to everyone involved. Now, there is never enough money for anyone so everyone has to figure out how to get the most money for the least amount of work and screw everyone else and the success of the project doesn’t matter so long as you can CYA.

  7. #7 Kaleberg
    September 2, 2010

    Could we manufacture a television? Could we manufacture a computer? Could we manufacture a pair of running shoes? Of course not. It’s this new fangled American know nothing.

  8. #8 Ian Kemmish
    September 3, 2010

    During the 1990′s, there were a lot of experimental archaeology programmes on the BBC. I was always interested to see just how much technology we’ve forgotten. Then I built my harpsichord from a kit and I was frankly amazed at just how much technology we’ve forgotten.

    This is nothing new. It’s been going on since Anglo-Saxon brooches and even the pyramids.

    But of course, the real reason the US couldn’t go to the moon any more is that, these days, nobody would dare print that much money for that long….

  9. #9 possum
    September 3, 2010

    I’m sure the USA could get someone onto the moon by jury-rigging a Shuttle. The hard bit is probably coming back again.

  10. #10 Tex
    September 3, 2010

    Could we please, please try to put a man on the moon?

    I nominate Glen Beck.

  11. #11 IanW
    September 3, 2010

    “Could We Still Put a Man on the Moon?”

    You got something against a woman on the moon?

  12. #12 theon
    September 5, 2010

    My candidate for going to the moon has always been G.W. For his vision. And may he stay there a while.

  13. #13 Joyce
    September 6, 2010

    We might be able to go to the moon, the question is should we go to the moon when the earth has so many problems that urgently need money and help to solve.
    Can we live on the moon? No. We have to live here. Lets try the help the earth.

  14. #14 ArthurT
    September 6, 2010

    @mikekk. You must have talked to the true rocket scientists. Huntsville is the place. I disagree with them, I think that with similar goals, and better technology we would land a plane on the moon. It would take less time, because of improved communications, and we already have THREE Saturn V boosters left. ( two at Kennedy, and one in Huston ), but what has to be different is the management. Is the private sector more dynamic? Is there a hybrid solution? At the end of the 60s there were 35,000 people at Kennedy. Now there is less than 3,000. Do we have people who have the right stuff, the intense heroism and heart? Inspiration from a great leader?

    We can easily do it in 6 years, but for what? Space tourism by the elite?

    Better we work as hard to improve the conditions here and @Joyce “Lets try to help the earth.”

    “A Man on the moon, and people were starving.” – Space Age Sacrifice, Montrose.

  15. #15 ArthurT
    September 6, 2010

    And lastly, have we truly “Come in peace for all Mankind” have we lived up to those ideas? Have we been acting at our noblest?