7.1 If we could go to the Moon with 1960s technology, why haven’t we ever gone back?

IN A NUTSHELL: Because it’s very difficult, very expensive and very dangerous, and there’s no longer a political imperative that justifies risking lives and devoting massive resources to the challenge as it did in the 1960s. The Cold War is over; the Soviet Union, once the rival to beat in the space race, no longer exists. There’s no non-political reason to go back with crewed missions; robots can do the job far more cheaply and safely. That doesn’t mean that we can’t, couldn’t or didn’t. Also, 1960s technology wasn’t that primitive: it even included things we don’t have today, such as supersonic airliners.

THE DETAILS: Some conspiracy theorists suggest, with this question, that we don’t goto the Moon because if we did it would become evident that we never went. Others claim that even today it would be technically impossible and therefore it was equally impossible in the 1960s. But there are also honest doubters who simply ask themselves why we don’t repeat the fantastic voyage with today’s far more modern technology.

The answer is disarmingly simple: putting astronauts on the Moon is very difficult, hugely expensive (at least for NASA’s rather measly current budget) and extremely dangerous, and today there’s no political motivation for spending massive amounts of public money and for risking human lives in the world’s spotlight in this way. The disasters of Apollo 1, Soyuz 1 and 11, and of Shuttles Challenger and Columbia have shown all too clearly that the loss of a spacecraft crew is seen as a national tragedy and can be justified only if the stakes are tremendously high.

At the time of the Apollo flights, it was a national imperative to beat the Soviet regime and to rebuild the political and technological prestige of the United States. There’s no such imperative today; there’s no totalitarian enemy superpower to beat. In the 1960s, politicians funded the Moon landings with approximately 170 billion dollars (in current terms) and the lives of the astronauts were considered expendable for the sake of the nation. Thus many technical compromises were made which increased the chances of failure.

For example, Apollo 12 was launched during a storm and was struck twice by lightning, almost killing the crew (Figure 7.1-1). Taking such a risk today would be unthinkable: even uncrewed spacecraft are not launched if there’s even a chance of bad weather.

Figure 7.1-1. Lightning strikes the Apollo 12 launch pad at liftoff. NASA photo S69-60068.

The lunar module had a single descent engine and a single engine for return from the Moon; likewise, the command and service module had to rely on a single engine. If any of these failed, the astronauts would die.

Crucial and delicate rendezvous maneuvers had to be performed in orbit around the Moon, instead of close to Earth, to reduce the launch weight of the spacecraft. But in this way, if the lunar module failed to meet the command module after landing on the Moon, no rescue was possible.

Every mission had its share of malfunctions and near failures. Apollo 13 even suffered a crippling oxygen tank explosion that forced to abort its lunar landing. If the explosion had occurred during return from the Moon instead of on the way out, when onboard reserves were still high and the lunar module was still available as a lifeboat, the outcome would have been fatal.

Today, NASA’s budget is almost halved compared to the Apollo era: in 2010 dollars, the total sum of NASA budgets in the period from 1963 to 1969 was 209.2 billion; from 2003 to 2009 it was 113.1 billion. Moreover, the safety requirements are far more stringent and the loss of a crew is politically far less acceptable. This causes cost increases and slows the development of spacecraft qualified to carry a crew.

The race to beat the Soviets in space ended half a century ago, so space missions are carried out for science rather than for national pride, taking lower risks and using uncrewed spacecraft, which have achieved amazing scientific successes throughout the Solar System; crewed spaceflights have been confined to Earth orbit, for example to assemble and visit the International Space Station.

Right now there is no political, technical or scientific reason that justifies the cost and risk of a crewed return to the Moon. Moreover, for the United States it would be a repeat.

It may seem absurd and implausible that in the 1960s we could do something that we can’t do today, but there are other cases of journeys to remote places that were made once and not repeated for decades.

  • Mankind first reached the South Pole in December 1911, with Roald Amundsen’s team, followed a few weeks later by Robert Scott’s men (who died on the return trip). After that, nobody set foot on the South Pole for all of 45 years, until US Rear Admiral George J. Dufek and his multinational crew landed there with an aircraft in October 1956.
  • The Marianas Trench, the deepest point of all of the world’s oceans, almost 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) below the surface, was reached for the first time in 1960 by Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard on board the bathyscaphe Trieste. Fifty-two years passed before anyone returned: director James Cameron went there solo in 2012 with the Deepsea Challenger.
  • On 16 August 1960, US military pilot Joseph Kittinger became the first human being to jump with a parachute from the stratosphere, approximately 31.3 km (19.47 miles) above the Earth, as part of the Excelsior military project; his record remained unbeaten for 52 years, until Austrian Felix Baumgartner jumped from 39 km (24.2 miles) on 16 October 2012.

The apparent contradiction of past technology being superior to today’s is explained by similar cases in other fields.

  • In the 1970s we had supersonic airliners: the Anglo-French Concorde, shown in Figure 7.1-2, and the Russian Tupolev Tu-144. Today, for a wide range of reasons, we don’t.
  • Until July 2011, there was a spacecraft capable of taking seven astronauts and twenty tons of payload into Earth orbit and landing on a runway like a glider: the Space Shuttle (Russia had Buran, a very similar spacecraft, but it flew only once, uncrewed and without a payload, before the project was canceled). Not anymore: the Shuttle fleet has been retired after thirty years of service, and its current replacements are Soyuz capsules that land under a parachute and carry a maximum of three people, like Apollo did. The recent Orion and Crew Dragon spacecraft use the same configuration, albeit with larger crews.

Figure 7.1-2. The first flight of the Anglo-French supersonic airliner Concorde on 2 March 1969. Credit: André Cros.

The reasons for these technological retreats are the same as for Apollo: excessively fragile technologies, no longer sustainable costs and no longer acceptable risk levels.

Anyone who argues that technology in the 1960s wasn’t advanced enough to go to the Moon probably isn’t very familiar with the period. For example, Figure 7.1-3 isn’t a still from a science fiction movie: it’s a photograph of a real US strategic bomber prototype, the XB-70, capable of flying at three times the speed of sound while riding its own shockwave, focused under its wings, to generate lift. It was already flying five years before the first Moon landing.

Figure 7.1-3. The first XB-70 Valkyrie. This plane was flying in 1964. Source: Ron Eisele.

Another fine example: the SR-71 strategic reconnaissance aircraft, capable of flying at over 3,500 km/h (2,174 mph; its actual top speed is still classified) at an altitude of 26,000 meters (85,000 feet). This plane, like the XB-70, flew in 1964.

Figure 7.1-4. An SR-71 seen from below. Source: Swedish Air Force/The Drive.

It’s also worth mentioning the X-15, a rocket-propelled aircraft that was carried by a modified B-52 bomber and was capable of reaching speeds of 7,200 km/h (4,400 mph) and altitudes of 108 kilometers (354,000 feet) and therefore flew beyond the atmosphere: its pilots therefore became astronauts. It debuted in 1959, ten years before the first Moon landing, and its pilots later included a young Neil Armstrong (he was 30 at the time). It took 44 years before anything like the X-15 reappeared: in 2004 the privately-funded spaceplane SpaceShip One reached 100 kilometers (32,800 feet), but did not attain the top speed reached by the X-15, which is still today the fastest ever crewed spaceplane.

Figure 7.1-5. An X-15 shortly after being released from the aircraft that carried it up to its initial altitude.

Figure 7.1-6. Neil Armstrong poses with an X-15 in 1960 after a test flight. Source: NASA.