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.