The moon landing was our species’ greatest achievement. But it was more than 50 years ago. To honour its legacy, we must reach for the stars again.
It’s been 50 years since the moon landing. Or 49 years, 362 days to be precise. And we should be. If we know one thing about rocket scientists, it’s that they appreciate precision. Apollo 11, its crew, and their thousands of support staff deserve the praise and pageantry and confetti that’s bound to be heaped upon them this week.
I’d like to my own appreciation with this article. And I’m going to start somewhere a little unusual; with the money.
Adjusted for inflation, the Apollo programme cost the United States a combined $153 billion dollars. For scale, that’s roughly ten times the cost of the Eurotunnel. At its height, almost 5% of government spending was funnelled into NASA, and to the singular purpose of putting a man on the moon.
It was worth every penny, though. As our cousins across the pond say, ‘and then some!’ Numerous studies have found that every dollar spent on Apollo generated an additional $14 in US economic growth. A fourteen-fold return, in other words. And that’s just from spin-off technologies; the innovations and hardware developed by NASA that made it into private-sector products. It doesn’t factor in the massive boost America’s collective self-esteem and precociousness (a domestic benefit, if nothing else), nor does it account for the moon landing’s greatest payoff: Inspiration.
The Power of Inspiration
Generations of engineers and scientists entered their professions because they were inspired by the moon landing. They went onto build companies, develop new technologies, and enter research positions to push the boundaries of our scientific understanding. If you want a flavour of this, simply wander around the silicon roundabout, or the campus of some elite university or tech giant, and count how many NASA jumpers and t-shirts you see.
I can trace my own love of technology back to an early fascination with Apollo 11, then to visits to Cape Canaveral’s mausoleum of retired rockets, numerous rewatchings of Apollo 13 and my first spoonfuls of astronaut ice cream. From there it follows the well-trodden path of Star Trek, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and a childhood subscription to The New Scientist. None of this made me an engineer of a computer programmer, I should add. I expressed my longtime love for space exploration, and admiration for NASA’s work, in writing. However small my contribution to the world of science technology has been, the credit for it belongs to that audacious mission – cunning, brave, ridiculous – to take humanity’s first steps on extraterrestrial soil.
50 years on, it remains our species’ greatest achievement. I know many of my colleagues here at GrantTree, a consultancy dedicated to supporting innovation, will agree. It deserves this title for several reasons, each of which is a kind of self-contained melodrama about humanity conquering the improbable.
First, is the sheer scale of the achievement. When Kennedy promised America would land a man on the moon by the end of the 60s the country had just managed to put the first American, Alan Shepard, into space. Not in orbit. Just in space. Up, along a bit, then down. The whole flight lasted just 15 minutes. It took NASA only eight years to climb from that toe-in-the-water moment all the way up to Neil Armstrong’s ‘One Small Step’. For comparison: SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket has been flying for nine years. It has yet to carry a single person on board.
No analogy exists to convey the true scale of this feat. Though I think it’s fitting so many of our expressions for doing something difficult reference the moon. The best I could come up with is ‘it’s like going from amatuer soapboxing to competitive F1 team before Lewis Hamilton retires.’ It’s very poor. It references not one but two obscure pursuits. The technical distance between them – on which the analogy hinges – is completely lost to all but the most intense and eclectic members of sporting nerdom.
Awful analogies aside, Kennedy’s nine-year time-squeeze forced NASA to do a lot of incredibly difficult and complicated things at great speed. Spacesuits, rockets, lunar landers, and even things like water purification systems and cordless drills all had to be made from scratch. But the engineers working on these projects faced a pressure more extreme than time. They knew that a single malfunction, or failure in design, could cost their colleagues their lives. In the freezing, airless maw of space, there is almost no margin for error.
Another remarkable layer to the Apollo programme is that it took place years before the invention of the microprocessor. Serious computer power was decades away, meaning computer modelling, simulations, sophisticated autopilots and computer-aided design were completely out of the question. The Apollo Guidance Computer – the fastest aboard the rocket – had a processing speed of 0.043 MHz; one-thousandth the power of the original Game Boy.
Complex calculations – often involving literal rocket science – had to be done with pencil, paper and a curious but ingenious contraption called the slide rule. Training involved using clumsy scale models, or taking whatever you were testing out for a real-world spin. The latter option obviously incurred risk. The great Neil Armstrong was nearly killed while training on the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle, a jerry-rigged precursor to the lunar lander.
It’s a miracle that Apollo never saw an astronaut lost in space. But that’s not to say the programme was without tragedy. The crew of AS-204, later renamed Apollo 1, perished before liftoff when sparks from an electrical system ignited the command module’s high-oxygen atmosphere, and they were unable to escape. It was scheduled to be the first crewed testing of Apollo’s vehicles and equipment in space. Instead, the disaster led to the introduction of various safety features which, thankfully, were never needed again.
Apollo 1 happened less than two and a half years before the moon landing. The courage the Apollo astronauts needed to carry on with their perilous, hastily-prepared missions, the fate of their comrades and close friends fresh in their memories, is yet another astonishing element of this achievement.
Astonishing, but not surprising. The members of the Mercury and Apollo astronaut corps were handpicked for their supernatural steeliness. Their calm under pressure. They were all decorated soldiers; fighter pilots with ice in their veins. They had what novelist Tom Wolfe called ‘The Right Stuff’, the extraordinary, otherworldly collection of mental and physical attributes – lean, centred, iron-willed – that equipped them perfectly for the perils and pressures of early spaceflight. Did the tragedy of Apollo 1 unsettle them? Not an iota. When a fellow astronaut asked Armstrong if he had indeed almost died in a training exercise, his reply was a nonchalant and stone-cold: ‘Yeah’. Then he got back to his work.
So there you have it. A rapidly-designed rocket, with all the computing power of a Christmas card, catapulted a trio of unnaturally nerveless navy pilots through half a million miles of deathly space. They landed in a vehicle that had never been tested, cut footprints in the soil of another world, and splash-landed three days later the Pacific Ocean, all to complete a seemingly impossible mission set by an overeager President just eight years prior.
The fact that NASA this pulled it off shouldn’t cloud this obvious fact: they had absolutely no right to. And yet they did.
A Worthy Legacy?
This all brings us to a rather maudlin question. The moon landing’s legacy is beyond question. But is its legacy worthy of its accomplishment?
As inspirational as the moon landing was, we should ask why is humanity’s greatest achievement over 50 years old? Why haven’t we surpassed it? Why didn’t we go on to establish a permanent lunar base or carry on to Mars?
The textbook reason is geopolitical: The moon landing ended the space race.
The USSR knew it couldn’t beat America’s achievement, so it curtailed its own plans for lunar missions. Without competition from Russia, and with the public’s interest in space exploration dwindling, Nixon’s administration cut NASA’s budget. Apollos 18, 19 and 20 were cancelled, their funding and equipment were repurposed for Skylab; the United States’ first permanent home in space. Apollo 17 would be the last crewed mission to the moon. America’s exploration of deep space stalled.
That’s the textbook reason. But it’s only the beginning of ‘the truth’. Space exploration was at its most ambitious when America and the USSR were in competition. The Space Race was a proxy for the conceptual war between two nations competing for international dominance, and two political ideologies showcasing promises of power and prosperity. It was a war waged with propaganda and military posturing and ticker tape. In this paradigm, landing on the moon was the ultimate victory. So what was the point in carrying on fighting?
In its facilities in Houston and Florida, NASA had one of the greatest concentrations of money and intellectual capital the world has seen. It used them to reach the moon. The modern-day equivalent is in Silicon Valley, where some of the world’s best engineers and mathematical minds are working for the likes of Google and Facebook, applying their expertise to well-funded programmes using cutting-edge technology.
What are they up to? Are they working on humanity’s next great breakthrough? Are they developing a cure for cancer or perfecting carbon capture?
A few of them might be, like the scientists at X, Google’s secretive, and self-proclaimed “moonshot factory” established to tackle “some of the world’s hardest problems.” But of these well-paid, well-educated people, most of them aren’t doing anything so meaningful. They’re helping big tech firms do what all companies want to do: Win customers, sell them products, make money. In a world where attention equals profit, our best and brightest are not looking outward beyond the stars, but inwards, to the lucrative but uninspiring nuances of human behaviour.
What do we have thanks to Silicon Valley’s amassment of cash and brainpower? A concrete plan to terraform Mars? No. We have increasingly invasive ads and a slightly better UX for YouTube.
It’s not just Silicon Valley. Wall Street is another great squanderer of human ingenuity. The big investment banks are well known for hoovering up prodigious STEM graduates and putting them to work picking stocks or writing the algorithms that control their trading. These are perfectly legitimate and well-remunerated pursuits. But they pale in comparison to the opportunities and achievements the human race is giving up for profit.
It seems we have two interests: victory, and profit. Without an enemy to be victorious over, our attention returns to making money.
NASA is still trundling along, with help from private companies like SpaceX and Amazon’s Blue Origin, to whom it’s contracting its more mundane responsibilities, in order to free up resources for bigger-picture missions. Returns to the moon have been promised. As has a crewed mission to Mars in the 2030s. Will that happen? It’s impossible to say. NASA is but a leaf buffeted by the fickle winds of Washington politics. Who knows what Trump will guarantee, or what his successor will commit to, budget-wise. It won’t be the incredible investment Kennedy and Johnson secured in the 60s, that’s for sure.
The Next Great Thing
The burden of space exploration doesn’t sit solely on America’s shoulders. Russia’s programme is still rolling, as is the European Space Agency. China and India are making great strides. The best-case scenario for the future of exploration is global cooperation; a mission combining the funding and skill of all willing countries to reach Mars and beyond. Alas, as countries become more suspicious of one another, I fear these loftier prospects are becoming more and more unrealistic.
Still, if the moon landing tells us anything about ourselves, it’s that human potential might well be limitless. If we put aside our squabbles, grow beyond our petty prejudices, maybe we will all live to see humanity do the next great thing. And we can watch, entranced, open-mouthed, as our species once again exceeds its reach.
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