Of course it’s the 40th anniversary of the first American moon landing on Monday (unless you’re a conspiracy theorist), and there is an interesting discussion at Charlie Stross’ blog. He argues that the reason that it didn’t develop into a full space colonisation programme (as imagined in the film 2001) was because the technology was at the edge of its capability just getting the lunar module on and off the moon. In the comments there’s an interesting analogy with the race to the South Pole seventy years previously – that these events are more about national identity than technology or innovation.
In his post, Stross (who writes science fiction for a living) described the landing as a ‘stunt’ – among lots of (disputed) technical analysis about the power-to-weight ratios of rocket launches.
Wernher von Braun and his colleagues didn’t see it as a stunt, of course. They saw it as a stepping-stone, a valuable intermediate step in establishing a metaphorical beachhead in space. … Unfortunately, the real goal of the rocketry pioneers called for something a bit bigger than an ICBM. … Think about it. The real mission wasn’t to go to the moon; it was to bring two astronauts and 100Kg of moon rocks back from the lunar surface and into lunar orbit (to rendezvous with the CSM stack for the journey home) — and it took a 3000 ton behemoth to accomplish this. Launching a bigger, more useful LEM (one that could carry 3 or 4 astronauts to the lunar surface, along with a decent-sized rover and supplies for a couple of weeks) would have added tonnes to the LEM payload … and hundreds, if not thousands of tons to the launch stack.
I’ve posted before on the way this particular bit of futures turned away from popular expectations of space colonisation, and one of the comments  to Stross’ post points out the length of time between Amundsen and Scott reaching the South Pole and the establishment of the research stations there.
Once the flags of Britain, Norway, etc. had been planted at the south pole, national prestige was satisfied. Afterwards, nobody bothered much with Antarctica for about another half century, until the first international geophysical year (1959?). Since then, the continent has been studded with permanently manned scientific bases and weather stations. But nobody has bothered to try to colonize Antarctica on a large scale. … If history is any guide, about a half century after the Apollo program (within the next ten to twenty years) look for permanently manned stations in orbit, on the moon and maybe on Mars.
In my earlier post, I suggested that the end of the space adventure was down to cost – the resources went into the arms race instead – and also because of a shift in the public mood from expansionist optimism to more protective pessimism. Looking at the picture of the flag on the moon, I also wonder if the notion that a shared national endeavour was possible, or desirable, had crumbled (“We choose to go to the moon in this decade” said Kennedy, in his famous speech, “… because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills”). Flags were burning in protest against the Vietnam war, and a month after the moon landing Hendrix assailed the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock. Gil Scott-Heron’s song “Whitey’s on the moon” came out the following year:
I can’t pay no doctor bill.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)
Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still.
(while Whitey’s on the moon).
Is it too late to re-energise the idea of manned space exploration? It might be. Even if the money was there, or the political will, the engineers with the skills and knowledge to design, build and launch rockets can no longer be taken for granted. Charlie Stross again:
We used to have them, but some time in the past 40 years they all retired. We’ve got the institutions and the data and the better technology, but we don’t have the experience those early pioneers had. And I’m betting that the process of rebuilding all that institutional competence is going to run over budget.