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Why NASA Is Stagnant
If we could put a man on the Moon, why can’t we put a man on the Moon?

(NASA)

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Robert Zubrin

“We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win . . . This is in some measure an act of faith and vision, for we do not know what benefits await us . . . But space is there and we are going to climb it.”

                                                            — John F. Kennedy, Rice University, September 1962

Today is the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. As the nation celebrates that great achievement, there is also reason for solemn reflection. For while NASA was able to put men on the Moon within eight years of the Apollo program’s start, the space agency has been unable to go further in the four and a half decades since. In fact, it is no longer capable of going to the Moon and, as these lines are written, is totally adrift, with no real plan for going anywhere.

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If we are to remedy the space agency’s current impotence, we need to look at its history.

Over the course of its life, NASA has employed two distinct modes of operation. The first prevailed during the period from 1961 to 1973, and may therefore be called the Apollo Mode. The second, prevailing since 1974, may usefully be called the Random Mode.

In the Apollo Mode, business is conducted as follows. First, a destination for human space flight is chosen. Then a plan is developed to achieve the objective. Following this, technologies and designs are developed to implement the plan. These designs are then built, after which the mission is flown.

The Random Mode operates entirely differently. In this mode, technologies and hardware elements are developed in accord with the wishes of various technical communities. These projects are then justified by arguments that they might prove useful at some time in the future when grand flight projects are once again initiated.

Contrasting these two approaches, we see that the Apollo Mode is destination-driven, while the Random Mode pretends to be technology-driven but is actually constituency-driven. In the Apollo Mode, technology development is done for mission-directed reasons. In the Random Mode, projects are undertaken on behalf of various internal and external technical-community pressure groups and then defended using rationales (not reasons). In the Apollo Mode, the space agency’s efforts are focused and directed. In the Random Mode, NASA’s efforts are scatterbrained and entropic.

Imagine two couples, each planning to build their own house. The first couple decides what kind of house they want, hires an architect to design it in detail, then acquires the appropriate materials to build it. That is the Apollo Mode. The second couple canvasses their neighbors each month for different spare house-parts they would like to sell, and buys them all, hoping to eventually accumulate enough stuff to build a house. When their relatives inquire as to why they are accumulating so much junk, they hire an architect to compose a house design that employs all the miscellaneous items they have purchased. The house is never built, but an adequate excuse is generated to justify each purchase, thereby avoiding embarrassment. That is the Random Mode.

It is sometimes claimed that the reason for NASA’s Apollo-era success is that the agency was much better funded at that time. That is simply untrue. The agency did receive a larger share of the GDP then than it does now, but that is because 1960s America was much poorer. The actual inflation-adjusted space-agency funding was virtually the same then as now. In today’s dollars, NASA’s average budget from 1961 to 1973 was about $20 billion per year. This is only 18 percent more than NASA’s current budget. To assess the comparative productivity of the Apollo Mode and the Random Mode, it is therefore useful to compare NASA’s accomplishments between 1961 and 1973 and between 2000 and 2014, as the space agency’s total expenditures over these two periods were equal.

Between 1961 and 1973, NASA flew the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, Ranger, Surveyor, and Mariner missions, and did all the development for the Pioneer, Viking, and Voyager missions as well. In addition, the space agency developed hydrogen–oxygen rocket engines, multi-staged heavy-lift launch vehicles, nuclear rocket engines, space nuclear reactors, radioisotope power generators, spacesuits, in-space life-support systems, orbital rendezvous techniques, soft-landing rocket technologies, interplanetary navigation technology, deep-space data-transmission techniques, reentry technology, and more. In addition, the Cape Canaveral launch complex, the Deep Space Network, the Johnson Space Center, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and other valuable institutional infrastructure were all created in more or less their current form.


Apollo 11
July 20 marks the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and the first steps of mankind on another world. Here’s a look back at images from the Apollo 11 mission, from the archives of NASA. Pictured, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin on the moon.
The crew that would make history (from left): Mission commander Neil A. Armstrong, command module pilot Michael Collins, and lunar module pilot Edwin Aldrin.
Neil Armstrong was part of the “New Nine,” the second set of astronauts recruited by NASA after those who flew on the Mercury missions. A test pilot and Naval aviator during the Korean War, Armstrong first flew in space on Gemini 8, where he completed the first docking of two manned spacecraft.
Michael Collins was a member of the third group of NASA astronauts. A former Air Force test pilot, Collins flew on Gemini 10, performing two spacecraft rendezvous and conducting two spacewalks.
Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin flew more than 60 combat missions with the Air Force during the Korean War, and was recruited in the third group of NASA astronauts. Aldrin flew on Gemini 12, where he conducted a spacewalk and may have taken the first-ever space “selfie.”
DAY OF FLIGHT: The Apollo 11 rocket assembly is wheeled away from NASA’s massive Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Canaveral.
The Apollo 11 crew enjoys the traditional steak and eggs breakfast with Donald “Deke” Slayton (in orange shirt), NASA’s director of flight operations. Sidelined from flight earlier in the program, Slayton later flew on the Apollo-Soyuz mission.
The crew waves to the media after suiting up and headed towards launchpad 39A. The silver boxes they carry help keep them cool under layers of flight suits and their outer spacesuit.
July 16: Apollo 11 streaks into the sky, with a condensation layer mid-way down the rocket assembly, a result of its extreme speed.
Among the crowd at Kennedy Space Center was former President Lyndon Johnson, an early advocate of the space program who helped secure NASA facilities in his home state of Texas, and Vice President Spiro Agnew.
Flames from the giant Saturn V booster spread out as Apollo 11 flies through thinner air at higher altitude. This image was taken from an Air Force EC-135 aircraft.
From left: Astronauts Charles Duke, James Lovell, and Fred Haise at Mission Control. Duke would fly as lunar module pilot on Apollo 16. Lovell flew on Apollo 8, the first manned mission into lunar orbit, and was commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13. Combined with his two flights during the Gemini program, he is by some measures history’s most-travelled man. Haise also flew on Apollo 13.
FLY ME TO THE MOON: The Big Blue Marble as seen from Apollo 11 shortly after performing the Trans-Lunar Injection burn that would take them out of Earth orbit and towards the moon. It marked only the third time, after missions Apollo 8 and Apollo 10, that a manned spacecraft left Earth orbit.
The lunar module Eagle sits inside the S-IVB stage after separation of the command module Columbia. Pilot Michael Collins has turned Columbia around and is preparing to dock with Eagle and extricate it from the booster.
July 18: Aldrin out of his spacesuit performing systems check in the lunar module.
Command module pilot Michael Collins in Columbia.
The view back towards Earth past the lunar module Eagle during the flight to the moon.
Earth rises over the lunar horizon.
The rocky surface of the far side of the moon in the area west of Daedalus Crater. To keep communications links back to Earth, all of the Apollo landings occurred on the “light” side facing Earth.
July 20: The spider-like lunar module Eagle and descent stage, with Armstrong and Aldrin inside, photographed by Collins during a visual inspection prior to descent. The rods projecting beneath the landing pads are surface-contact probes that alerted Aldrin to shut off the descent engine just feet from the surface.
The reflective silver visage of Columbia, with command module pilot Michael Collins inside, is seen from the lunar module after separation prior to landing.
The view from the lunar module outside Armstrong’s window, with craters Messier and Messier A visible, as Eagle descends toward the landing site in the Sea of Tranquility.
ON THE SURFACE: A frame of video from the live broadcast of Armstrong’s descent to the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, the first man on walk on the surface of another world. His epochal words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
A detail of the first photo taken by Armstrong on the surface, past one of the landing legs to the lunar horizon.
Aldrin descends the ladder from Eagle to the lunar surface — the last step was a long hop to the landing pad.
The surface of another world. Upon seeing the Moon’s stark surface up close, Aldrin observed: “Beautiful view. Magnificent desolation.”
Aldrin’s shadow is seen in this image of the vista at the Sea of Tranquility. (The crosshairs are etched onto a pane of glass between the lens and the film of the Hasselblad camera, and are used to help measure distance.)
Close-up of a bootprint made by Aldrin.
Armstrong’s famous photo of Aldrin on the surface, one of the most reproduced images of the entire Apollo program.
A closer look at Aldrin’s helmet visor reveals a reflection of Armstrong as he takes the picture, the lunar lander, and the tiny blue speck of Earth just visible at the top.
A remote camera image of Armstrong and Aldrin setting up the American flag.
Aldrin salutes the American flag set up near the lunar lander.
A closer look at Aldrin in a frame of film taken close to the salute reveals he is leaning forward into his spacesuit helmet and turning to look at Armstrong. Movement in the suits was cumbersome and difficult.
Aldrin unpacks scientific equipment from the rear of the descent stage. Other scientific packages can be seen on the surface to the right of the lander.
Aldrin carries scientific packages to a site further away from the lander.
Aldrin assembles the Passive Seismic Experiment Package, which measures moonquakes.
Armstrong took this image of the lander, with flag visible just to the right. This image was taken later in the day, revealing a web of tracks left by Armstrong and Aldrin in the lunar dust.
The distant Earth seen beyond the lunar module Eagle.
Armstrong back in the lunar module after the historic moonwalk, which lasted two-and-a-half hours. Armstrong and Aldrin spent a total of 21 hours and 36 minutes on the lunar surface.
Aldrin inside Eagle after the moonwalk. The two rested for seven hours before firing up the ascent stage to return to orbit.
WATCHING HISTORY: The Apollo 11 mission was a worldwide media event, with the landing and first walk on the surface watched by an estimated 530 million viewers around the world.
Watching the Apollo 11 mission in Paris, France.
A family in Tokyo, Japan, watches as President Richard Nixon speaks with the Apollo astronauts.
COMING HOME: The Eagle lunar module — briefly “upside down” relative to Columbia as it approaches for a rendezvous — carries Armstrong and Aldrin back from the surface as the Earth rises in the distance. All of humanity save one soul, Michael Collins in the command module, is contained within this image.
The Moon looms large as Columbia returns home.
The blue skies of Earth beckon upon Columbia’s return.
A helicopter from USS Hornet brings Navy divers to Columbia after splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on July 24. After traveling over half a million miles to and from the Moon, the command module landed just a dozen miles from Hornet.
The crew at Mission Control celebrates the safe return of the Apollo 11 crew, fulfilling President John Kennedy’s challenge.
President Nixon chats with the Apollo 11 crew aboard Hornet. The three astronauts were still confined to the Mobile Quarantine Facility to guard against any pathogens they may have brought back from the moon.
New Yorkers line 42nd Street as the crew of Apollo 11 are treated to a ticker-tape parade on August 13, 1969.
A commemorative plaque on the ladder of the descent module, which still sits on the lunar surface. The inscription reads: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
Updated: Jul. 19, 2014

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