Here’s something I posted as a comment on Phil Plait’s blog. Seemed like it oughta be a post of its own; now if I could just get Phil’s readership.
The concept here is a very common longing for the good ol’ days of NASA, when failure was not an option, and we could get to the moon instead of just going round and round in Low Earth Orbit. I hear this a lot.
I have worked on both manned missions and unmanned science missions. I was old enough to watch and understand as Neil Armstrong stepped off the LM pad, and I find that moment to be the high point of humanity.
So, can we do that again? No. Not now anyway. And it’s not about vision, it’s not about taking chances, it’s not about boldness.
It’s about money.
The Apollo program, at its peak, took 4% of GDP. Think about that. 1 out of every 25 dollars spent in the US was spent on getting people to the moon, at least for a couple years. The current US GDP is 14 trillion dollars, so a similar level of effort would be $500 billion per year. That’s more than 25 times NASA’s current budget.
Getting people (safely) into space and back is bloody expensive. Take Apollo 13. Yes, it was great dedication and knowledge and cleverness that got them back alive and safe. But it was also the existence of high-fidelity simulators, a massive infrastructure, and a huge team of ground personnel that made it possible to bring the astronauts back. That kind of backup costs a lot of money. And most of it is salaries, which means it costs the same in real terms now as it did in 1965.
I won’t argue that today’s NASA isn’t overly risk-averse, and yes, the effect of this risk aversion has been to add layers of review and bureaucracy rather than to really work at improving reliability. But to actually return to the glory days of Apollo would require not just the mental commitment but the financial commitment of the Apollo days.
The shuttle was over-hyped, but was it actually badly designed? Well, if it really were so far from optimal, there would be a better solution by now. Many very large companies with vast resources have been building rockets for decades, with lots of non-NASA customers, and while there have been minor improvements, things really haven’t changed much. Getting into space is just hard, and expensive. Doing it with the reliability we expect if there are people on board is that much more costly. It’s easy to long for the good ol’ days of Apollo, but until we are ready put our moneys where our mouths is, it ain’t gonna happen.