Washington D.C.: The passage of half a century has blurred many of the reasons that the US was able to accomplish what seemed like science fiction: the July 20, 1969, landing of Apollo 11 on the moon.
The Apollo program’s stunning technical success depended on a government leadership culture, an industrial organisation, a tolerance for risk and a political environment that do not exist today — even as Nasa insists it will land humans on the moon in five years. Could it be duplicated?
“Lots of luck with that,” said Jay Honeycutt, an Apollo-era engineer in flight operations who later became chief of the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. “We could if they let us.” Honeycutt was among more than a dozen Apollo-era leaders and contemporary space experts who agreed, in interviews, that changes in American society have made the idea of landing humans on the moon far more challenging now than it was 50 years ago.
“Technically it would be easier today, because we have more tools,” said Gerry Griffin, an Apollo-era flight director who later became chief of the Johnson Space Centre in Texas. “Politically and financially it would be a different question. I am not sure we could ever get that reestablished.”
“It is easier to build a spacecraft than to build a team,” said Eugene Kranz, mission director of Apollo 11. “You have enough knowledge in the industry, but you need top-level leadership that is capable of knocking heads to get people to work as a team.”
These legends of the Apollo era say the most important ingredient of the moon landing was not the technology, though it was one of the greatest bursts of engineering in human history, but the management, national commitment and personal motivation of the participants. “I fear that we no longer have the ability to do what we did in the 1960s,” wrote Don Eyles, a mathematics graduate who in his 20s helped produce the navigation software for the lunar module. Until then, “nobody knew much about programming a spacecraft guidance computer,” so the job went to someone just out of college, one player in a project that employed 400,000 Americans. “We haven’t had the conviction since then,” he said in an interview. The success of Apollo 11 depended on a lot of things that seem unlikely or intolerable today.
1. It was an era of unquestioning trust of young engineers, trial-and-error design, blank checks to big aerospace corporations and gruff management practices. When mistakes were made, scapegoats were found. These were years of 60-to-80-hour work weeks. Engineers were run ragged. There were ulcers, heart attacks, heavy drinking, chain smoking, abandoned families, divorces and the ever-looming threat that the Soviet Union would steal the prize. And one other layer of complexity: valuable contributions from a staff of German rocket scientists who had worked for Adolf Hitler before their capture by the US. Army in World War II. Much of this management culture would be politically incorrect in 2019, a fact that Kranz readily acknowledged. “This would be a problem today,” he said.
2. The country’s social needs were set aside to provide Nasa funding that at its peak reached an inflation-adjusted $47 billion or more in a single year. Nasa consumed 4.5 per cent of the federal budget, compared with about 0.5 per cent today, meaning that if it were to have the same share now its budget would not be the current $21.5 billion, but nearly $200 billion.
3. But the motivation then was the Cold War. The Soviet Union had humiliated the United States by launching the first satellite in 1957 and then the first human into orbit in 1961. To a world split between West and East, the Soviet breakthroughs argued that communism could outperform capitalism. In a landmark 1962 speech at Rice University, President Kennedy said, “No nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space.” The speech is widely regarded as the most moving and powerful explanation for space exploration, delivered in a style that only Kennedy could accomplish, detailed but sweeping, cautious but aggressive. It would cost every man, woman and child 40 cents that year, Kennedy said, and the cost would rise to 50 cents ($4.27 in today’s dollars) the next year.
4. The space race gave a political justification for the project, but most likely played little role in its success. “People say the reason Apollo was successful is that we were trying to beat the Russians,” Honeycutt said. “That may have been true in Washington, but I can tell you in the Mission Control Centre and the other centers, beating the Russians was not in anybody’s mind.” What did make the space program succeed, in part, was that it took place at an extraordinary moment in American history when youth were playing a bigger and more influential role than ever before, exemplified by a young president, a youth culture that demanded change and an army of young engineers who wanted to remake the world. “We had flight controllers who were straight out of college,” Griffin said. “We had all these young guys who were raring to go. The leadership pushed decisions down in the organisation, they didn’t elevate them. They trusted people below them. The idea was, let’s not worry about who gets credit; let’s not second-guess everybody. We knew the topics better than they did. That’s not what we have now. I could feel it in Nasa before I left.”
5. Another change in Nasa since then has been its higher safety margins _ in other words, its aversion to risk. “People get more and more into risk-avoidance,” said Honeycutt. “You don’t want to be unsafe, but there is only one way to be completely safe and that is not to launch. As you move up the chain, acceptance of risk gets tighter and tighter.” With today’s thinking, Honeycutt said, the lunar program would have been cancelled after the near disaster of Apollo 13, when an explosion damaged the spacecraft part way to the moon. It was the quick thinking of the Nasa flight staff under the direction of Kranz that ensured the crew’s safe return.