The American Scholar: Our Fate Is in the Stars

Cover StorySummer 2019

Our Fate Is in the Stars

Today’s space program still does amazing things, but nothing like Apollo. It’s time to begin again.

By George Musser | June 3, 2019

The Apollo moonwalkers marveled at the golden glow of the lunar mountains, at the green rocks, white crystals, orange soil, brown patina—a palette of colors so surprising that the astronauts kept lifting their sun visors to make sure it was real. From lunar orbit, the landscape basked in the soft bluish glow of earthlight. Dust and airlessness played tricks on the eye. Bright halos ringed the astronauts’ shadows, distant hills seemed right at hand, the horizon was shrunken. Gene Cernan of Apollo 17 said, “You just stand out there and say, I don’t believe what I’m looking at! 

Almost as unfathomable was the scale of the backroom effort. In documentaries such as Moonwalk One and the recently released Apollo 11, camera footage carries you past row upon row of engineers sitting at launch-control consoles wearing ties and chain-smoking. Some 400,000 people worked on the Apollo program. Corporate giants from General Motors to Playtex, motivated less by profit than by pride, asked to join in. What is striking about President Kennedy’s lunar mission speeches is how unhyped they were. Rather than offer easy choices, he played up the difficulty and the expense—not unlike how Winston Churchill had rallied his nation.

The guidance computer alone was a major industrial project. Its program memory was a kind of handwoven fabric or chain mail, made of thousands of metal beads that textile workers strung onto wires. The mission’s absolute insistence on miniaturization and reliability drove computer technology in a way that the desultory demands of earthbound users never had. It set into motion the exponential increase in computing power known as Moore’s law. As journalist Charles Fishman recounts in his new book, One Giant Leap, today’s laptops and phones are descendants of Apollo.

In space, no one can hear your echo chamber. Those who worked on Apollo were not immune to human foibles, such as being a little too fond of their own reasoning, but the mission came first. Fishman recalls disputes over the mission plan. Engineers in Huntsville wanted to fly directly from Earth orbit to the lunar surface. Engineers in Houston wanted to use lunar orbit as a way station. The meetings got heated. NASA commissioned two studies, with the twist that each team had to flesh out the other’s plan. Making the engineers step into each other’s shoes unstuck the debate, and Huntsville came around to Houston’s approach. That one decision ended up saving billions of dollars.

But as much as the Apollo program inspires, it also taunts. The unity of purpose, the technological virtuosity, and the exploratory achievements seem beyond us today—not just in space, but in every domain. I almost wish we didn’t remember Apollo, because the remembrances fill a void. The space program still does amazing things, but nothing like Apollo. The world has made itself a safer and healthier place, but some problems demand direction from the top, and we don’t get much of that.

You don’t have to be a space lover to think so. Apollo had detractors, especially on the political left, who complained that the money should have been spent on fighting poverty. But there never was a straight choice between the two. We could do both—in fact, we did. As Fishman points out, while the U.S. government was funding moon rockets, it was also thinking big in social policy: the Voting Rights Act, the Clean Air Act, Medicare and Medicaid. When it withdrew from space, it pulled back from such initiatives, too. Public investments of all sorts tend to sink or swim together.

Had NASA kept pace, Elon Musk and others wouldn’t be planning missions to Mars. They’d have moved there already.

Space enthusiasts still debate how the space program lost its way, but what is undeniably sad is the waste. The country had made a huge investment in developing the Saturn V rocket, the most powerful ever. Yet even before the rocket lifted off for the moon, budget cuts forced NASA to shut the production line, and when the Nixon administration ended Apollo altogether, two fully functional Saturn Vs were left to rot. (You can still see one of them at the NASA visitors center in Houston.) Imagine, as NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin did in 2007, that the country had stuck with the Apollo-Saturn system rather than abandon it for the space shuttle. Even NASA’s straitened budgets would have been enough to keep flying twice a year to the moon and four times a year to Earth orbit. At the time, the shuttle may have seemed a better deal, with its promise of weekly departures and lower costs. But as wonderful a flying machine as it was, it was deeply compromised and never delivered on either promise.

Where NASA and its political overlords went wrong, by this argument, was in making the switch from hare to tortoise. The urgency of racing the Soviet Union, after the national humiliation of Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, jump-started Apollo. But NASA was unable to capitalize on those special circumstances, and every president reboots its plans. Had it kept up a slow but steady pace, building on its existing infrastructure, decade after decade, it wouldn’t be struggling to re-create that ability today. Elon Musk and other would-be colonizers of Mars wouldn’t be planning to go to Mars. They would have moved there already.

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George Musser is a contributing editor at Scientific American and the author of two books on fundamental physics, Spooky Action at a Distance and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to String Theory.

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