A Legendary Voyage.
As I write this, it was 40 years ago that Aldrin, Armstrong, and Collins were on the return leg of their legendary voyage to the Moon. I was busy being an infant. The only Apollo related activities I remember were Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz. They are only Apollo related in that they used hardware designed for the Apollo program. And for Skylab I remember its final days much better than any launch.
I say it is a legendary voyage. Legendary in that it seems somehow impossible that humans once walked on the moon. The very same agency that did it says it will take twice as long and many times more money than it did 40 years ago. The facility that got the size of the Saturn V just about right by assuming the spec for the lunar lander and command modules was much smaller than reality would allow now has difficulty designing a vehicle to meet the specifications of the spacecraft that would sit on top. The facility that solved thrust oscillation problems on the Saturn V F1 rocket engines, has difficulty solving vibration issues with their choice of engine.
I cannot blame the teens and twenty-somethings today if they believe the Moon landings were a hoax. Throughout our history books we learn of the great discoverers and travelers being the first to cross some rough terrain, discovering new lands, and opening them up for millions to soon follow. An unknown Asian going across the Bering Strait, Erikson, Polo, Columbus, Magellan, Lewis and Clark, Lindbergh, Earhart, all made incredible voyages and they were soon followed by many others. And yet, no one walks on the Moon today or even goes beyond low Earth orbit. I would argue that NASA at present cannot go to the moon at all, let alone in a decade.
I still have hope though. In the opening years of the 20th century Shackleton, Amundsen and Scott explored the South Pole region, yet it would be 1956 before another person went to the South Pole. There are a number of similarities, both places are unforgiving. Both involved large numbers of people and difficult logistics. And yet, we now have permanent bases in the Antarctic.
There are a lot of really good people at NASA, and there is a lot of promise. The recent Hubble servicing mission, the Mars rovers, Cassini-Huygens, and many other successful missions show the potential. But NASA needs to change. NASA needs to get away from the big program mentality. They need to learn to do more multi-tasking, and figure out how simple space infrastructure improvements can greatly help all missions.
NASA should be focused on exploring our solar system, both robotically and with people, in a sustainable, inexpensive way. Small investments in a wide variety of infrastructure projects can enable better exploration throughout the Solar System including a human presence on the Moon and Mars. NASA can use commercial launch vehicles to reach low Earth orbit, do on orbit assembly and refueling, then launch missions from orbit. The devil is in the details, yet I firmly believe NASA can do so much more than they do without increasing their budget.
Here’s hoping that Aldrin, Armstrong and Collins will soon be associated with leading the way to the Moon for many, many people, and not just be legends fading into mythology.