On July 20, 1969, I was at a science camp in Butcher Bend, WV. I watched Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the moon on a 19″ black-and-white TV. Later, I stepped outside and looked up at the moon and marveled that we were there. It was a miracle of science, engineering, and — never forget — government finance.
Could we do it today?
No. We, the United States, literally have no rockets that are capable of getting people into low-earth orbit (LEO), never mind the moon. We pay the Russians for our rides to the International Space Station (ISS).
Sure, there’s a plan to return to Luna by 2024. In it, we use NASA’s deep space capsule, Orion. It will fly on top of the Space Launch System (SLS). This rocket will be more powerful than the Apollo-era Saturn V. Orion won’t fly directly to the moon. Instead, it will dock with a lunar space station, Gateway. Then the crew will fly a lunar lander down to the moon’s surface.
There’s only one little problem. Orion, SLS, Gateway: None of them exist. At best, they’re computer models.
Vice President Mike Pence proclaimed: “If NASA is not currently capable of landing American astronauts on the moon in five years, we need to change the organization, not the mission.”
Nope. Sorry. Wrong answer. You can’t BS your way into space.
For decades, NASA’s real problem has been that it’s under-funded. When I worked on Space Shuttle missions in the ’80s at Goddard Space Flight Center, we were still relying on 1950s-era technology. Why? Because we didn’t have the cash to finish the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TRDS) network. Started in 1983, TRDS wasn’t completed until 1995.
Today, with $22.6 billion — 0.4% of the $4.7 trillion FY 2020 federal budget — NASA still doesn’t have anywhere close to enough money to put two astronauts on the moon’s south pole. Of course, NASA may not even get that much money.
Nor will firing experienced NASA staff help any. Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s respected director of human spaceflight, was demoted when he wanted more testing for the SLS before it flew for the first time.
In 1962, President John F. Kennedy proclaimed, “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, and the others, too.”
But, JFK backed his stirring words with funding and the best of the best of science and engineering. Today, petty men are ordering impossible missions using, what Star Trek’s Commander Spock might call, “stone knives and bearskins.”
So, are we doomed to not return to the moon? There is a way.
It’s not the government. It’s private enterprise. The real space flight advances of the last decade have come from Elon Musk’s SpaceX and, to a lesser extent Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, Other, much smaller companies, such as Astrobotic, already have plans to make deliveries to the moon.
If we are to return to the moon in my lifetime, it will be because of private companies and visionaries like Musk. NASA has its marching orders, but it doesn’t have the funding.
Back on that night in rural West Virginia, I’d thought about Robert A. Heinlein’s stories of D.D.Harriman. In the novella The Man who Sold the Moon, Harriman, a take-no-prisoners businessman, does whatever he must to fund the first moon landing. When I think about Musk today, I see that fictional entrepreneur in real life.
Recently, in a Time Magazine interview, Musk said, ” It may literally be easier to just land Starship on the moon than try to convince NASA that we can.” His timeframe? “With an uncrewed vehicle I believe we could land on the moon in two years. So then maybe within a year or two of that we could be sending crew. I would say four years at the outside.”
Musk has a lot of other things on his plate — like Tesla — but if we are to make it back to the moon, I’d bet on private adventurers. I hope they make it. It’s profoundly sad to grow old and see us unable to match what we did 50 years ago, never mind bettering it.