And the short answer is, no, we could not still put a man on the moon

apollo by NASA Goddard Photo and Video
Could We Still Put a Man on the Moon?
[Via Mike the Mad Biologist]

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.

11 thoughts on “And the short answer is, no, we could not still put a man on the moon

  1. As long as we don’t consider ourselves exceptional, we won’t have any hope of doing anything stupendous like reaching for the stars. Just grub in the dust.

  2. That’s not really accurate at all. It’s not that we couldn’t recreate the old tech that got us to the moon; it’s that we don’t have to willingness to take the risk of using that tech to do so.

    The entire moon mission and its antecedents were cobbled together efforts that entailed a level of risk that we no longer have to will to endure, largely because we see no need to do so.

    If we’re to restart a real manned space program it’ll take either a huge investment of capital in order to do it “right” or a massive reduction in our nation risk aversion due to some pressing need.

    1. I think we can both agree that a US manned program beyond Low Earth Orbit has already suffered from an improperly financed and managed process. By making some poor decisions and not properly funding NASA, we now have ourselves in a spot where several other countries have the capability that we do not for getting to Low Earth Orbit, much less beyond it.

      And there is nothing in the current national consciousness that will allow the huge capital investment needed to really do it right. We are not so averse to risk as averse to paying for anything by increasing taxes. So I do not see where the large amount of capital with come for an experimental program past Low Earth Orbit.

  3. Nuklear weapons is launched on them big missiles. The US sure knows how to make those kinda rockets.

    1. Almost anybody could build those types of rockets because they are very simple and do not really leave Earth’s orbit. They usually follow a simple ballistic path with little need for course correction

  4. This is a great perspective. I’ve been studying Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo for the better part of my life and I rarely stop to think about what it means that the Saturn V is gone.

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