40 Years Later

Today is the 40th anniversary of man’s first landing on another celestial body. Could we do it again today? I wonder…

I attend meetings of The Luncheon Society, a group organized by tireless banker Bob McBarton.

At a recent, meeting Steven Squyres and John Callas – Principal Investigator and Project Manager for the Mars Rovers – spoke (this was before Spirit got stuck) about the status and findings of the rovers, and what they envisioned as the next acts in planetary exploration.

He was asked what he’d do with enough money and how long it would take to put a human on Mars.

After he replied, I challenged him. The US space program in the 50’s and 60’s was based on the missile programs of the 50’s which were in turn based on the aircraft programs of the 40’s and WW II. We grew a crop of engineers and mechanics who first built airplanes, and then went on to build more-sophisticated airplanes and nuclear missiles – and who directly transferred that core body of technique and knowledge up the food chain to the space program.

That doesn’t exist today. We’re outsourced it to Taiwan and China, and I worry – seriously – about what it would take to grow enough engineers to do the job.

I don’t recall the source of the quote, but a landowner talked to his gardener about having some trees to shade the property. The gardener said, “But sir – it will take 50 years for them to grow that big!”

The landowner replied “Then you’d better start planting them this morning.”

We need to start planting engineers in this country. So we can go back to the Moon, to Mars, beyond – and so we can build a smart grid, power plants, and all the other stuff we will need rebuild over the next 50 years.

That would be a fitting memorial to the people who built the things to allow men to walk on the moon.
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13 thoughts on “40 Years Later”

  1. Will the United States as we know it endure long enough to do all this development work? Will the economic backbone be there in the coming hard times?

  2. We don’t need the government to do these things any longer. Commercial space launches, and soon orbital trips, are possible now. Private enterprise is doing it sooner, with less, and with more likelihood of success.

  3. Interesting point. I suspect it ties in to something I find to be an perfect illustration of how inefficient and overly expensive government is by its very nature.

    Consider- the entire Apollo program cost the United States about 100 billion dollars (in 2009 dollars) and included 6 landings, a near miss, and several other orbits etc.

    They _estimate_ it would cost us 80 billion today in the same dollars to go back once. Which means it will cost at least 50% more in the end.

    Now somebody explain to me how it got _at least_ 5 times more expensive in real dollars to put a man on the moon… considering the _integrated circuit_ was cutting edge tech at the time. My phone dwarfs the combined computational power of the entire Apollo program.

    Anybody want to take a stab at why this should be? I understand that it is an unalterable reality that government will get bigger, less efficient, and more expensive as time goes on, but I its the mechanism that is fascinating.

  4. The NASA that landed on the moon was a managerial paragon that squeezed big results out of its budget, often resorting to cheaper second-line technology instead of cutting edge.

    In other words, these people were the opposite of the brats and fat-asses who run everything now, who are good for nothing but playing with other people’s money.

    Gene Krantz:

    Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity, and neglect … From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: ‘Tough’ and ‘Competent.’ Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into Mission Control we will know what we stand for. Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills.

    That America is just about gone. Now we tolerate nothing but carelessness, incapacity, and neglect.

  5. Glen Wishard, #4: That America is just about gone. Now we tolerate nothing but carelessness, incapacity, and neglect.

    While at the same time endlessly fretting over safety, and political and legal @$$-covering. PJM’s Jazz Shaw has a great piece on this subject today, in which he argues that we’ve become so risk-averse as a nation that we might as well just leave space exploration to unmanned robots from now on.

  6. A.L., I think it would be more accurate to credit our 50’s missile program as deriving from the German missile program of the 40’s and 30’s, after American neglect of Goddard et al.

    As far as America’s current comparative advantage at the nexus of Ricardo and Clausewitz, I worry more about the Israelis than the Taiwanese with respect to electronics/avionics/flight control/ECM (let’s keep them as allies, OK?). And with respect to aerospace airframes and engines, I’m given to understand that, e.g., the F-22 is a decent plane; I’m guessing offhand that it’s not outsourced so much.

    Our weaknesses are in the areas of cost, and corruption, and will, and risk tolerance. These are things that at best a “government program” cannot fix and very reasonably might be expected to make worse. (Absent, of course, an existential crisis of WWII magnitude – which everyone will forgive me for hoping we avoid).

    Engineering? We can still build it, if anyone wants to come, fly it, take the chance, pay for it, etc…

  7. Mark #3 — I’m not sure about your math. I don’t think the $80 Billion estimated modern price tag is _per mission_. I’m sure subsequent missions would be vastly cheaper now as they were then.

    Another part of the reason for the high modern cost would be that the Apollo program was built on an existing ICBM R&D and production base that was already operating at high volume. Today it’d be like the US trying to resume production of Iowa class battleships. Let’s see… first we need to reconstruct the shipyards, steel mills, and heavy ordnance factories…

    And still another factor would be the more expansive expectations for a modern mission. In the ’60s we were making an all out effort to land a plastic bag containing two men on the Moon and recover it. Today expectations would dictate development of more capable (and less risky, as others have mentioned) craft for the mission and landing.

  8. _”I’m sure subsequent missions would be vastly cheaper now as they were then.”_

    I’m glad one of us is sure! Regardless of what NASA is estimating now, they are surely low-balling substantially.

    _”Another part of the reason for the high modern cost would be that the Apollo program was built on an existing ICBM R&D and production base that was already operating at high volume.”_

    Ehh, there are Saturn rockets sitting in Houston ;) . The whole reason this is going to cost a fortune is that NASA is going to reinvent the wheel and massively over-engineer this thing. Why not? Budgets are meant to be spent.

    _”In the ’60s we were making an all out effort to land a plastic bag containing two men on the Moon and recover it. Today expectations would dictate development of more capable (and less risky, as others have mentioned) craft for the mission and landing.”_

    Capable of what? Dune buggying from one golf hole to the next? We accepted the danger on the Apollo mission because there was a huge incentive geo-politically and nationalistically to get to the moon first. That incentive is gone, and so indeed our risk aversion is increased. But that just begs the question of why we are going at all… just like the Discovery tragedy made us ask why we were launching inherently flawed Space Shuttles into orbit to find out if ants like to screw in low-g.

    This is a tremendous amount of money- far more than we have spent on something like fusion or a space elevator which would have humanity changing implications. Short of finding a Xenomorph hyve, nothing we do or find on the moon is going to change anyones life much, or really even tell us anything we couldn’t find out cheaper and safer.

  9. Speaking as an engineer who has spoken with two different aerospace engineers in as many days:

    1) We can probably build a moon rocket. The guy I was talking with today was telling me about the anti-missile missiles that he was building. The expertise is still here. Boeing (at least) is still going strong, and doing it in America.

    2) There is a domestic engineer shortage in America, but the problem comes from the financial sector. Why in the world would anyone want to be an engineer when you can make way more money with a similar skill set in the world of high finance?

  10. This is why we’ll conquer space by making money there. Once aerospace engineers are paid solid six figures and can generate economic value worthy of the pay, we’ll have lots of them. Until then, why would a kid smart enough to be a rocket scientist want to work for a defense company and get laid off every time someone wants to “feed the poor”?

    We’ll do manned space profitably initially the old fashioned way: with tourism and sex/pr00n. I suspect the first orbiting hotel will include a large zero-gee brothel.

    A lot of the same tech will eventually have us living on the moon, mining, doing science, and building a space-faring civilization.

  11. I suspect the first orbiting hotel will include a large zero-gee brothel.

    Not worth the multi-gee trip to go there, but I await the video of a weightless Rob Lowe trying to dodge his own vomit.

  12. Adam Renzig (#9):

    _2) There is a domestic engineer shortage in America, but the problem comes from the financial sector. Why in the world would anyone want to be an engineer when you can make way more money with a similar skill set in the world of high finance?_

    I agree, I think that is the core of the problem. Further, it is more likely that the government bails out a financial company.

    The evolution towards a big financial sector that drains the resources from the real economy, as it happened in Britain – with severe consequences right now – is worrying.

    Mark (#3)

    I can’t remember now, but I think the Apollo payload boosted towards the Moon by a Saturn was 30 tons, and I estimated the new needs to 50 tons. Two launches have to be carried out for a single flight.

    In the end, a lot more wants to be done on the Moon. The crew will be doubled, the time spent there multiplied, and although the launchers are today far more efficient, that “far” might be just 25% in payload and cost.

    As A.L. points out, during the 20 years after WWII, the American aerospace sector was boiling in new ideas. The engineers that helped to won the war recieved the new concepts developed by the Germans and a full credit line from a government that did not want to be caught again in disavantage. Many companies competed against each other trying to find non-obvious solutions for entire new ways of flying. Developments that seemed to constitute a panacea were outdated in months, and if something failed, the administration could simply swith to the next programm carried out by another company.

    I think that spirit is what it wants to be restored, at least for Low Earth Orbit. Soon, LEO will be as crowded as Times Square. I disagree with Mr. Kaplan: the next battleground will be space.

    The duty of the government in that schedule is to push technology to its limits in order to keep US advantage, and one way of doing that is going back to the Moon.

  13. There is a domestic engineer shortage in America [#9]

    This is true, and it’s going to influence all aspects of America’s welfare over the coming decades. Furthermore, our domestic birthrate is no higher than replacement; population growth, which we need, comes from immigration (legal and illegal).

    The bottom line is that we need to encourage immigration.

    We need to encourage immigration by the brightest and best educated. Tom Friedman argues (rightly IMHO) that every advanced degree awarded in the US to a non-citizen should come with a green card stapled to it. We attract the best and the brightest from around the world, give them a first-rate education, and then send them home. This is smart?

    We need to encourage immigration by anyone who has the guts to uproot from their home environment, and work their tails off for a generation to make a good life for their (probably ungrateful ;-) children and grandchildren.

    Our current immigration laws are designed to protect the entitlements of current citizens, not to make America a better place in the long run. Change the laws to create genuine opportunity: a tough but fair gradient for people willing to work. And make it easy for people to give up and go home if they want. The ones who stay will be the Americans we want.

    We’ll have more of the kind of people who want to get to the Moon, to see what opportunities are there and beyond, and we’ll have the scientists and engineers to make it possible.

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