Every so often, we hear or read someone who asks, “If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we do X?” But it’s not so clear that we could still do it if we wanted to:
The Apollo and Gemini programs aren’t truly lost. There are still one or two Saturn V rockets lying around, and there are plenty of parts from the spacecraft capsules still available. But just because modern scientists have the parts doesn’t mean they have the knowledge to understand how or why they worked the way they did. In fact, very few schematics or records from the original programs are still around. This lack of record keeping is a byproduct of the frenetic pace at which the American space program progressed. Because NASA was in a space race with the USSR, the planning, design, and building process of the Apollo and Gemini programs was always rushed. Not only that, but in most cases private contractors were brought in to work on every individual part of the spacecraft. Once the programs ended, these engineers–along with all their records–moved on. None of this would be a problem, but now that NASA is planning a return trip to the moon, a lot of the information about how the engineers of the 1960s made the voyages work is invaluable. Amazingly, the records remain so disorganized and incomplete that NASA has resorted to reverse engineering existing spacecraft parts that they have lying around in junkyards as a way of understanding just how the Gemini and Apollo programs managed to work so well.
Last I heard, we’re not planning on returning to the moon, but this is institutional memory we shouldn’t lose. The Agonist puts this in perspective:
A generation later and we have lost the knowledge of how to build the rockets to get to the moon. In another generation, will it look more and more like a miracle? or worse, a fraud?
America is now converting asphalt roads back into rubble. We are marching backwards. We no longer will have a method to get man even to low earth orbit. The Russians really did win the space race. They still can launch rockets because they did not throw all that knowledge away to chase the boondoggle that the Shuttle became, mainly because we refused to fund the program at the level needed.
And we gave up on large launch vehicles after Apollo, 35 years ago.. So we will have to reinvent the wheel if we want to get away from the Earth. I just do not see Americans wanting to pay that any more.
It costs tax money to go to the stars but too many people just do not want to pay. That is why Russia, China, and Europe can get to Low Earth Orbit and we can not. It is why I expect them to get to Mars before America, unless we get our hope back.