Which was the moonshot?
The term moonshot is often used to refer to an overly risky and unproven endeavour. Ironically, the methodical approach taken to develop the technologies that safely brought men to the moon in 1969 was abandoned when the Space Shuttle was conceived. I examine the different approaches, the tragic results, and what can be learned.
Long-range goal with an urgent timeline
I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.President John F. Kennedy, May 25, 1961
On July 20, 1969, at 10:56 p.m. EDT, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the surface of the moon.
A friend of mine who was old enough to be out on his bike at the time described the night. It was warm and many houses’ windows were open. The light of televisions flickered in the windows simultaneously, and through the windows the unmistakable Quindar tones (the tones that indicated the start and end of ground control transmissions) could be heard in unison. The world was transfixed by the realization of the challenge set by then President Kennedy less than a decade earlier.
Yesterday I watched the Apollo 11 movie with my darling Carmela and my son James. I’m a bit of a space nerd so I knew the story but there were still some striking moments and surprises.
In addition to documenting a historic achievement, the movie is a time capsule. White men in white dress shirts by the hundreds. Ashtrays on every desk. Acres of cabinets containing “computers” that combined couldn’t match the processing power of an iPhone. On many of heavy metal consoles in mission control sat phones with rotary dials. People waiting to see the launch sat reading newspapers, not scrolling through their phones.
Even the iconic Quindar tones harken to an analog era. When mission control pressed a button to talk, the distant transmitter would be brought to life by the intro Quindar tone and then turned off by an outro tone, all carried by a single telephone line.
Kennedy’s decision to send men to the moon inspired the ingenuity and optimism of the nation and the world and changed humanity’s sense of its place in the universe. It was also a Cold War demonstration of America’s might.
The scale of the Saturn V is stunning. The Apollo 11 rocket stood 363 ft tall and weighed nearly six and half million pounds. The entire mission apparatus spanning the globe makes the head spin. Not only were there hundreds of people at NASA but also at radar stations and transmitters around the world. The US Navy stationed ships in the ocean to recover the Apollo capsule after splashdown.
At its zenith in 1966, NASA’s funding was 4.41% of the US federal budget.
Crawl, walk, run
The entire Apollo 11 mission went according to plan. The flight plan was complex involving multiple rocket sections, docking maneuvers, exiting the lander to walk on the moon, returning to earth, burning through the atmosphere and splashing down under parachutes.
The entire space program leading up to the historic lunar landing was a textbook example of the iterative, experimental principles embodied in design thinking and lean startup.
The journey to the moon started with the Mercury program, which demonstrated the ability to propel a man to orbit, provide life support in the vacuum of space, and return him to earth safely. This paved the way for the Gemini program, which lofted two men to space and proved the ability to stay in space for long durations and perform the docking maneuvers required by the Apollo mission.
Landing on the moon required countless new technologies, machines and techniques, which NASA methodically validated with each mission. This contrasts starkly with the Space Shuttle program.
The Space Shuttle: One big swing
I have decided today that the United States should proceed at once with the development of an entirely new type of space transportation system designed to help transform the space frontier of the 1970’s into familiar territory, easily accessible for human endeavor in the 1980’s and ’90’s…
The new system will differ radically from all existing booster systems, in that most of this new system will be recovered and used again and again – up to 100 times. The resulting economies may bring operating costs down as low as one-tenth of those present launch vehicles…
The general reliability and versatility which the Shuttle system offers seems likely to establish it quickly as the workhorse of our whole space effort, taking the place of all present launch vehicles except the very smallest and very largest.President Richard Nixon, 5 January 1972
Although the Space Shuttle did fly many missions from 1981 to 2011, President Nixon’s vision of cheap, reliable and routine access to space was never realized. In fact, the Space Shuttle was the most deadly launch system every devised and cost more for each launch than the disposable rockets it was built to replace.
The shuttle, in retrospect, had many inherent flaws. At their centre was an institutional hubris. It was planned, built and flown with few prototype steps. To be safe for its occupants, every system had to work flawlessly – there was no room for error.
Unlike the capsule-based flights before it, the shuttle had no escape system. The heat protection tiles were unproven and fragile. Budgetary constraints meant that the original plan to have both the external tank and the shuttle return to earth had to be scrapped, so the main engines were moved to the shuttle even though they could not fire without the tank. Instead of sitting atop the rocket like a capsule, the shuttle sat its crew alongside solid rocket boosters and a full tank of fuel and oxygen.
Lessons in the contrast
The men and women who poured their heart and soul into building the space shuttle, a reusable marvel of engineering, who sincerely cared for the mission and for those who would ride their efforts into space, were collectively cornered by overly optimistic expectations and shrinking budgets. They were robbed of the chance to experiment with new technologies before relying on them for the only launch system they could afford for decades.
Even rocket scientists need to allow for incremental steps toward a goal.