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Thoughts on a Different Apollo

Did the Apollo missions produce enough good science to justify their cost? It’s a question Freeman Dyson has speculated on in the past, calling the missions a success because they were “conceived and honestly presented to the public as an international sporting event and not as a contribution to science.” Symbolic of this is the fact that the first item to be unpacked after each landing was the television camera that relayed mission imagery back to Earth. Apollo inevitably labored under the camera’s gaze, but no great scientific discoveries came from it, and the entertainment emphasis inevitably detracted from the missions’ scientific objectives.

Image: Buzz Aldrin leaves the lunar lander in this photo snapped by Neil Armstrong.

What might Apollo have been if it had been conceived from the start to produce good science? Imagine this: Our six Apollo landings put two astronauts each on the surface for a period of several days. At their disposal were two tons of supplies and equipment. For the entire project, Apollo gave us a total of about 50 man-days on the Moon using an aggregate 12 tons of equipment. What if Apollo had produced 40 man-days per ton of equipment instead of the 4 it actually delivered? This could have been achieved by unmanned freight carriers conducting half the landings, providing six astronauts with 60 tons of supplies and equipment, sufficient for 400 days on the Moon.

You wind up with 2400 man-days of exploration instead of the 50 we achieved with Apollo. Let me quote John Cramer on this, because I’m drawing these thoughts from a column he wrote for Analog all the way back in 1988. Dyson had been visiting the University of Washington, where Cramer was then on the physics faculty, and his last lecture there contained these thoughts. Cramer took note of the advantages a much longer stay on the Moon could have brought:

With this much time, Dyson suggested, the Apollo project might have achieved some significant science. There would have been time to explore the lunar poles , to circumnavigate the body, to set up radio-astronomy dishes on the Moon’s radio-quiet back side, to take the time to investigate and theorize and observe and test and probe. There would have been the time and opportunity to bring into play those intrinsically human skills which have lead in previous years-long voyages of discovery to new insights and understanding.

The real Apollo, of course, was carried out in a few days by test pilots operating at a dead run, with one eye on the clock and the other on the prime-time news schedule. There was simply no time for science. Dyson’s revisionist version of Apollo is another road not taken.

The Problem of Premature Choice

Apollo was a success, but on the terms the mission was built around, and it could have been done much better. The Space Shuttle, however, was something much different, an example of what Dyson refers to as the ‘Problem of Premature Choice,’ which he defines as ‘betting all your money on one horse before you have found whether she is lame.’ Translated into bureaucratic terms, this means that a project can become large enough that exploring alternative engineering methods is seen as a waste that could become embarrassing to the public officials who have supported the project all along. Thus one of several alternatives is hastily selected, the rest eliminated, and the premature selection prevents the accurate analysis of the other methods.

Dyson himself has always been an example of independent thinking, but one whose priorities in space exploration favor science, which he thinks should command center stage. As he told his University of Washington audience, the contrast between the Space Shuttle and the International Ultraviolet Explorer (IUE) is instructive. The IUE came with mirror and optics from NASA, a solar power system from ESA, and communications gear from the UK. Countless astronomers and astrophysicists have used it to study tens of thousands of stellar objects in ultraviolet and visible wavelengths, and the IUE was available when supernova SN1987A occurred, providing exceptionally useful light curves that are suddenly back in the news as we try to figure out why neutrinos observed at CERN behaved differently from those from this event.

The IUE, which had been expected to last for three years, ended up serving us for eighteen, being finally shut down in 1996, some eight years after Dyson gave his talk at the University of Washington. The IUE provided a great scientific return in a mission that remains to this day little known. Learning where the payoff is — and deciding what kind of payoff you want to achieve — is key to the process. Looking at NASA’s future as of 1988, John Cramer asked this question:

Will there be further plodding along the dismal path that has lead from the triumph of Apollo to the Challenger Disaster? Will the agency continue to place science far down in the priority queue, going always for the Premature Choice and the job security of mammoth engineering projects? Will NASA continue to withhold any investments in the future, in advanced propulsion technologies, and in new ideas? I hope not.

Choosing the Right Technology

The questions don’t seem to have changed much over the course of the last 23 years, although the scope of our ambitions has been downsized since that even earlier time (1952) when Wernher von Braun proposed a manned expedition to Mars that would have required moving 70 men and 4200 tons of equipment into orbit around the Red Planet, debarking 50 men and 150 tons of equipment to the surface in three ships, using what was essentially World War II technology.

Image: A Chesley Bonestell illustration from a 1952 issue of Collier’s showing his take on the von Braun Mars expedition.

A premature choice would have been dangerous here as well. Among the things Apollo did right was to work with adequate communications channels. Where von Braun chose a 1 kHz bandwidth for the link between the Mars expedition and Earth (essentially allowing the two to communicate via Morse code), Apollo was designed for spectacle and television, and used a communications bandwidth thousands of times broader. Dyson is all about getting the mix right, the right technology (competitively chosen) coupled to serious scientific purpose to achieve a lasting result.

John Cramer’s long-running Alternate View column in Analog can be accessed online. Talking to Cramer at the 100 Year Starship Symposium, I mentioned how useful I had found it over the years, and he told me that the site housing his column had been one of the first to appear on the Internet in Washington, preceding even the Microsoft website. Talk about getting ahead of the curve! Readers will enjoy Dr. Cramer’s take on everything from quantum mechanics to virtual reality over decades of speculation and analysis, a true resource for the interstellar minded. It’s also a source, as this 1988 column showed, of insightful commentary on getting our priorities right.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Alex Tolley October 12, 2011, 9:41

    Von Braun’s approach was the epitome of premature choice. If you read the “Mars Projekt” and the novelized version, it is clear he would have liked to build winged landers based on only theoretical considerations of a Martian atmosphere. That would have sent a lot of men (and in those days it would have been just men) to their deaths, unless they had the means to test the atmosphere density from orbit and abort.

    Dyson has also pointed out that the space shuttle could have made an excellent reusable cargo carrier if all the human life support was removed. Perhaps the Boeing X-37B variants might fulfill the role of cheap[er] cargo carrying and man carrying orbiter.

    Whether in the science dimension, or others, it is clear that machine technologies are rapidly outpacing human ones in spaceflight, making human presence in space ever more difficult to support. The first space stations were conceived of having primarily the same role as unmanned satellites. The hugely successful robotic space missions have usurped human exploration of the target bodies.

    Unless we can stimulate human spaceflight technologies to allow human involvement at low cost, the balance in favor of machines will continue. That has implications not just for planetary exploration, but for the whole star flight paradigm.

  • Martin J Sallberg October 12, 2011, 13:43

    The whole concept of sending a single temporary expedition just to return is flawed. I recommend the building of self-sufficient habitats and spaceship construction stations in space. That would eliminate the expensiveness of future expeditions, since things can be made in space and indeed spacecraft powered by the abundant fuel supply in space can cheaply lift people from Earth. Then the economy of spaceflight would be made a non-issue forever.

  • Marc G Millis October 12, 2011, 14:29

    The point here is that we CAN learn from history. Let’s not make this mistake again. While I cannot affect contemporary near-Earth space activities, I can make sure that Tau Zero will apply history’s lessons. Tau Zero will make sure that we understand the problems, options, and opportunities before down-selecting to “the” approach. Or even more likely, more than one version of star flight will eventually be attempted.

    Just my take on it.

  • JohnHunt October 12, 2011, 14:52

    I think that we get more bang for our buck for both science and HSF when they are done separately, and contrariwise both suffer when we combine them. Take a Mars mission for example. Steve Sqyres has pointed out that a person on the surface of Mars could do in a week what Spirit or Opportunity have done in years. But, he fails to mention two rather important things. For the same cost of a manned mission, you could send about 300 such rovers to 300 different locations. A single human mission couldn’t reach anywhere near that many locations.

    Secondly, and in my opinion much more important, is that while astronauts are traipsing about collecting rocks, they are not constructing habitats, producing water and oxygen, growing food, establishing basic manufacturing processes and otherwise establishing a sustainable presence. Science deals with the novel and not the repetitive return to the same location allowing for permanence. I think that the Apollo missions illustrate the consequence well.

    I really like the strictly robotic planetary science we have achieved and want to see it continue. But for HSF, we need to put science aside (except for value-added opportunities) and prioritize the building of a permanent presence starting with the Moon.

    > the premature selection prevents the accurate analysis of the other methods.

    I hope that our interstellar community has not done the same thing with the Icarus Project. There remains other forms of propulsion, especially beamed propulsion which deserves significant expert work. I understand that a main purpose of the Icarus Project is to assemble a top-notch interstellar team with some success under it’s belt. I think that it is doing this quite nicely. But, IMO, the success of our whole community will depend upon what comes next. After completing the Icarus study, will the assembled team be able to back away enough from fusion and science-only in order to objectively evaluate all of the other options? If so, then our community will rightly deserve to be the preeminent go-to organization for all things interstellar.

  • Stewart October 12, 2011, 15:06

    I don’t really think the scope of our ambitions have been downsized…

  • coolstar October 12, 2011, 16:50

    I’ll argue that the Apollo missions DID carry out some quite significant science, even though that was obviously not the primary goal. The several hundred kilos of samples returned, the in-place geology, the seismometers left, the retro-reflectors set up all make up a good part of that science. Given the technology of the day, the science envisioned by Dyson and Cramer was impossible. It’s a straw man based on what we could perhaps do NOW (or even 20 years ago) with 10 times the mass on the moon. It ignores the the fact that we could NOT have even landed 10 times the mass back in the late 60’s and early 70’s without increasing the cost of the program pretty much proportionately. Remember, lots and lots of new technologies would have had to have been developed to support much longer missions on the surface.
    With those longer missions would have come almost certain losses, probably including astronaut fatalities. In retrospect, I happen to think that even the shortened Apollo moon program is just almost unbelievably remarkable for its successes. Dyson is indeed brilliant and a terrific writer (he reads his public talks but you don’t care since he is such a good writer) but hardly infallible, as his recent, frankly embarrassing, forays into climate science have shown.
    A small note on the IUE: it was still returning very good science when NASA shut it down to save pennies on the dollar.

  • jkittle October 12, 2011, 16:59

    I think we are learning as a species, even if some individuals and agencies have a problem applying the lessons. These are tough decisions at best and just a slight change of course and Apollo 11 would have crashed, changing the future we have now.
    We need to support science first and now that means robots which lead manned exploration. I even believe machines can deliver or even create resources on the planet surface in advance of human explorers.
    Speaking of relevant science, Panstarrs is starting to report some results and so far they are on track, identifying new objects and tracking older ones. In emails it seems they have a little over a year to go and we will have a great catalog of objects in the solar system and nearby , with objects of magnitude of 22/23 or brighter accounted for. We will no longer have to speculate about outer solar system gas giants or earth sized planets on the outer edge of the Kuiper belt. We are also waiting for data and from WISE ( and its confirmation form ground ‘scopes) and soon Gaia will be flying for ESA, tracking nearby dwarf stars. Not all important observations come from fly by’s. WE NEED A MAP TO GET THERE!

  • A. A. Jackson October 12, 2011, 17:46

    “Alex Tolley October 12, 2011 at 9:41

    Von Braun’s approach was the epitome of premature choice. If you read the “Mars Projekt” and the novelized version, it is clear he would have liked to build winged landers based on only theoretical considerations of a Martian atmosphere. That would have sent a lot of men (and in those days it would have been just men) to their deaths, unless they had the means to test the atmosphere density from orbit and abort.”

    First one should remember that the novel von Braun wrote in 1948, with the help of some his old Peenemünde friends was to be a fictional tale to gouge the public into an enthusiasm for spaceflight.

    This book probably ought to be subtitled THE MOST IMPORTANT SCIENTIFIC APPENDIX EVER PUBLISHED!

    It is not the worst SF I have ever read, but its true I doubt if even in 1950 anyone would have published this in the US. Strange since von Braun had copies of John Campbell’s Astounding smuggled to him during WWII. He should have known better that Campbell’s writers were also using real science and writing better stories . All the American publishers he sent the novel to rejected it. When von Braun submitted it to a German publisher the novel was rejected, but the publisher/editor, thought the Appendix was dynamite!
    That is how Das Marsprojekt, The Mars Project, the Colliers Series, the Disney Series and Exploration of Mars came to be. Possibly , the Colliers Series provided the lasting kick that got the Apollo program invented, tho the money was enabled by the Cold War.
    Actually the novel was not published until 2005, it reads like a kind of clunky Popular Mechanics science fiction.
    It was the appendix that was rewritten as a monograph and published by the
    University of Illinois Press in 1953, it is still in print.
    von Braun and his Peenemünde buddies designed everything down to the bolt head.
    He did it boldly, but it was just a paper project, he used what he could find out about the Martian atmosphere in 1948! That’s not premature he knew he would have to adapt to later findings. He did , the whole project was reworked and published as The Exploration of Mars with Willy Ley, with all those gorgeous Bonestells paintings, a space artist who has never been trumped.
    von Braun then got busy with other things, such as Apollo.
    You can read the article I wrote about the Colliers series in 2002 here:

  • Astronist October 12, 2011, 18:29

    No great discoveries came from Apollo? I thought that Apollo data on the exact composition of lunar rocks was essential for the revelation that the giant impact hypothesis was the first physically plausible account of the Moon’s origin: am I wrong?

  • NS October 12, 2011, 22:04

    A quibble with the alternative Apollo proposal (astronauts and unmanned freight landings): Was the ability to land at a precise location good enough to accomplish that? IIRC the Apollo 11 lander touched down several miles from its intended location. Updating information in the landers’ computers immediately before the descent to the surface improved the accuracy of subsequent landings, but I don’t know how precise they ultimately were. Any number of astronauts might have ended up too far from the freight landing sites to utilize them. Or am I misunderstanding the idea?

  • david lewis October 12, 2011, 22:26

    Instead of talking about a measly 12 tons or 50 tons of supplies use a nuclear cannon to put a couple hundred thousand tons of supplies on the moon. Enough food, water, and air to last a LONG time. The crash site of the projectile from the cannon could have served as a main base with astronauts being able to spend as much time as they desired (or until the low gravity took its toll) exploring around the area. As supplies were emptied from the projectile it could have eventually also served as a shelter.

    I wonder if the aim could be good enough to place supplies on Mars.

  • Alex Tolley October 13, 2011, 1:07

    @ A A Jackson. Very interesting background on the “Mars Projekt”. The link doesn’t seem to contain the article you mentioned. Can you check it, I would really like to read it.

  • Alex Tolley October 13, 2011, 1:12

    In a rapidly changing state of science and technology, almost any choice is going to look sub optimal with 20-20 hindsight. In another context, the Human Genome Project started with an expensive slow method, but was completed with much better and cheaper technology. There is the path dependency question of whether the newer technology would even have been developed without the HGP in place. At some point, someone has to grasp the technology of the time and run with it.

  • JohnHunt October 13, 2011, 1:28

    jkittle > I even believe machines can deliver or even create resources on the planet surface in advance of human explorers.

    I would agree. I could imagine a rather inexpensive approach to land teleoperated robotic equipment at a lunar pole, to begin exploiting lunar ice initially in a small way to produce life-support quantities of water. That process would also provide other volatiles and the O2 and irrigation needed for a greenhouse.

    Teleoperated equipment could establish a very basic excavated habitat which could be supported (as in cave supports) and then lined with an airproof liner and an airlock. The landers used for the equipment and cargo would be the same landers to deliver astronauts in order to help man-rate the landers through experience. Using Falcon Heavy (costs defrayed by commercial usage) and establishing a “Lunar COTS” program, I believe that the preparations for a manned return to the Moon could be achieved for a few billion.

    With ISRU life-support being produced and an underground habitat available, astronauts could stay for rather extended periods of time thereby reducing the number of manned flights needed and yet the base’s population could continually grow to sizes where a colony begins to look realistic. Using solar concentrators (using thin Mylar film or even ISRU aluminum) metals and glass could be produced. Small machining equipment could be used to produce ever larger equipment to scale up the lunar ice extraction and processing and metal operations with the goal of commercial-level production of water ice for delivery to depots at LEO and L-points.

    With a single delivery, enough high-tech but low mass devices (e.g. computer chips, radio equipment, small cameras, and thin film solar panels) the base could be supplied with parts needed for years of operations thereby ever increasing the base’s ability to operate without external support. Deliver seeds, spores, and frozen sperm, eggs, microbes, and DNA, and large quantities of microfiche, then the base could begin to serve as a repository for biosphere and civilization back-up should something terrible happen on Earth.

    My argument is, “First things first”. Let’s first secure an off-Earth colony. That would be the prudent thing to do. Then we’ll have plenty of time to do all of the science and development we’d like.

  • Stan October 13, 2011, 1:45

    I’ve always assumed robotic cargo missions were a more modern possibility than the Appollo era. I must be wrong.

  • djlactin October 13, 2011, 1:57

    Hear hear! My thought exactly! (Although the discovery was serendipitous… But many discoveries in science are.)

  • Martin J Sallberg October 13, 2011, 3:19

    The “self-sufficient bases first” would actually be good for science, since with such bases around scientific projects would never have to worry about funds again. The economy of abundance in space would be the equivalent of unlimited research budget. Then all scientific investigations casn go on unhindered, what a progress!

  • JohnHunt October 13, 2011, 4:43

    As we have discussed before, finding a practical way to speed the development of in-space infrastructure will bring us closer to the day when we will see the first true interstellar mission launched. This is true regardless of whether the form of propulsion is either fusion or beamed. Frequent flights within cis-lunar space and a Lunar Ice To LEO (LITL) system will help us master transportation throughout the solar system. And the Moon’s vacuum, solar energy, and metals are just what we need for beamed propulsion.

    With SpaceX’s prices and the potential for ISRU, I believe that we are actually about to enter the most expansive phase of the space age. Von Braun’s vision for 70 men to Mars probably was never realistic. But I fully understand the sentiment that the scope of our ambitions is being downsized given the Age of Austerity that we seem to be entering. But SpaceX’s costs are projected to be so low that I think that we’ll be able to do more with less. And if that more means going beyond resourceless LEO to a lunar pole and starting to exploit lunar ice and regolith in a bootstrapping approach, then I think that we’ll be on the path to conquering the solar system and the stars.

    Ad astra mox

  • A. A. Jackson October 13, 2011, 4:50

    “No great discoveries came from Apollo? I thought that Apollo data on the exact composition of lunar rocks was essential for the revelation that the giant impact hypothesis was the first physically plausible account of the Moon’s origin: am I wrong?”

    No you are right, this aspect of the chemistry of the Moon was maybe the greatest discovery by Apollo science.
    That was not all, see:


    Yes I know the Cold War space race stuff, and more science could have been derived but one must remember the political agendas that have colored Apollo, Shuttle and ISS…. I have not idea how one controls those.

    Freeman Dyson will forever remain one of my greatest heroes , he has brought forth astoundingly clever ideas about all areas of science, especially about space exploration. However he has shown some odd curmudgeonly orneriness at times, some things he has said about climate change come to mind. As a scientist it’s imperative to be skeptical but one must not have a blind spot for empirical facts.

  • A. A. Jackson October 13, 2011, 8:34

    “@ A A Jackson. Very interesting background on the “Mars Projekt”. The link doesn’t seem to contain the article you mentioned. Can you check it, I would really like to read it.”

    Hokey Smokes , I grabbed the wrong URL from our web site!
    I will try to fix that.
    Paul has the PDF, do you have some where to post it?
    I will try to fix the url.

  • Paul Gilster October 13, 2011, 9:00

    Not to worry, Al. I’ve got the PDF here, but I also found the correct link at AIAA:


    Terrific article — really brings back memories!

  • Michael Holt October 13, 2011, 9:08

    Let’s not damn von Braun’s Mars scheme. He was working from the information available to him at the time.

    I’ve always felt the quick-trip approach Apollo took was the right one. It demonstrated that it could be done. At the same time, I felt (and feel) that Apollo was a good starting point. Sadly, it was never followed up. By 1975 there should have been a permanent presence on the Moon — and Apollo as we know it placed in museums as space travel went to the next level.

    Entertainment? That’s essential if a government is going to fund it all. The voters require entertainment that makes them feel good about those for whom they vote.

  • ljk October 13, 2011, 9:15

    Coolstar said:

    “A small note on the IUE: it was still returning very good science when NASA shut it down to save pennies on the dollar.”

    Relating directly to Apollo, NASA also shut down all the still-functioning ALSEPs in 1977 to save a few dollars. These were the instruments the astronauts placed on the lunar surface to detect quakes both from internal geology and cosmic impacts. If NASA had let these devices run their course, we might have had twenty years or more of such data to learn about the Moon’s interior and see how often impacts occur and by what size bodies.

    The Reagan Administration also wanted to shut off the twin Voyager probes in 1981 to save money. This would be laughable if it wasn’t such a stupid and damaging idea. Had they been allowed to do so, we would still be getting all our knowledge about Uranus and Neptune from several billion miles away.

    Growing up in the Gemini-Apollo Era, we were told that the initial lunar expeditions would be followed by a permanent manned lunar base. We would also have a giant space station in Earth orbit supplying the needs of explorers coming to and fro throughout the Sol system (remember the Hilton hotel sign in the wheeled space station from 2001: A Space Odyssey?). I even expected to see the first manned missions to Mars in the 1980s. It was a logical progression, but politics, politicians, and the whims of the masses made sure to derail those plans to the present day. Yes, I know we have a space station (and soon to be two), but it has yet to fulfill the original designs for such a setup and will probably end up in the Pacific Ocean before ever achieving much more than what it is doing now.

    To me Apollo was nothing less than a miracle that happened because everything was in place at the right time. Between its conception and implementation (less than one decade), the world had changed enough that the non-space public saw fit to shut Apollo down before it could become even more than its initial promise. Knowing human nature, we were probably lucky to even have Apollo, because if just a few things had changed, we would end up with a lot of Earth orbiting satellites and a few deep space probes.

    The most recent plan for a manned lunar base didn’t even get past the prototype stage this time, let alone send a few missions to the Moon. I am not holding my breath about NASA’s latest plans to send humans to the planetoids, because this too could all change in a moment if the economy does not improve and if the next US President decides to can all of Obama’s plans for our space program, which as history has shown is entirely possible, even probable. This is a shame, too, because securing planetoids with all their easy access to resources is a smart idea if we want to colonize the Sol system. Or build an interstellar ark and need a ready-made infrastructure.

    Hey, if we can have a whole Symposium on Worldships, I can hope for an interstellar ark made out of planetoids.

  • Denver October 13, 2011, 9:33

    “no great scientific discoveries came from it”

    Apollo discovered completely unexpected ages for the surface of the Moon. No rocks were older than 4.1Gy. The Moon had been completely resurfaced 500My after it was formed. This discovery, unlikely to have been made by remote sensing, or ROV, later allowed science to more accurately date Martian (and Mercurian) surface features. The Late Heavy Bombardment would still be unknown, and our theories about planetary formation even more incomplete, without those lunar visits (thanks, and a tip of the hat to Harrison Schmitt).

  • Alex Tolley October 13, 2011, 9:56

    I believe A C Clarke noted that the race to the South Pole was a “flags and footprints” expedition, and that it took 50 years to return and set up permanent bases. He also hoped the same would happen with the moon, and it does seem that we are now contemplating more permanent exploration with that same timeline.

  • ljk October 13, 2011, 11:12

    Almost up until the time of Apollo, many geologists thought the lunar craters were either the calderas of volcanoes or the impact marks made by debris thrown out from those volcanoes when erupting.

  • Greg October 13, 2011, 13:43

    From a scientific stand-point it doesn’t make sense to send a human into space, when it’s cheaper and safer for a robot to do the work. We need to focus more on development of space based resources than exploration if we are ever to begin colonization of the solar system. I imagine it would not take much to create a working semi-autonomous titanium metal processing plant that could grow in it’s capabilities, on the moon which could then be used to build modules for spacecraft, space based colonies and planetary based colonies at a relatively cheaper cost than sending it from Earth.

  • coolstar October 13, 2011, 15:32

    Thanks ljk for the info on the ALSEPs. I had completely forgotten about that. Decisions like that make me more fearful for Kepler than I’d like to be.

  • David Portree October 13, 2011, 18:30

    Dyson was making a mistake common to both scientists and engineers: the belief that the things they want to do are justified because they want to do them. The fact is, big science and engineering projects must compromise with the political, social, and economic reality that spawns them. Apollo was almost certainly the best we could achieve back in 1969, and not only for engineering or science reasons.

    That said, Apollo and its precursors returned terrific science. One need only compare our understanding of the moon in 1955 with our understanding of the moon in 1975 to see that.

    Apollo pushed the limits of what was possible technically, politically, economically, and scientifically on the moon in 1969. We saw rapid expansion of its capabilities over the course of the six successful landing missions. Had it continued, I’m sure we would have seen new capabilities.

    One intriguing notion I would have liked to have seen as a dual-mode rover. This would have landed unmanned several hundred kilometers from a planned manned landing site, then wended its way to that site, gathering samples the all along the way. The astronauts would have retrieved the samples, then reconfigured the rover so that they could drive it. Before leaving the moon, they would reconfigure it for automated operations.

    We might well have seen new catastrophes, too. Apollo pushed the envelope far enough that every flight was in reality a dangerous test flight. Apollo 13 wasn’t the only close call. There were many. It was never routine. That humans could do the science they did while being aware of the many dangers they faced is a testament to the bravery and skill of those who explored the moon.

    Finally, there’s much talk here about space settlement. We have a lot of exploring to do before we’re ready for that. There’s also talk of building whole spacecraft on the moon. This fails to recognize the great complexity of spacecraft. The infrastructure needed to build a spacecraft spans beyond the boundaries of any given nation. To reproduce that on the moon, say, would be an enormous task. We would need to begin by prospecting for the chemical elements that go into spacecraft. We do not know that these exist on the moon., which means, of course, that we must do more exploration to find out.

  • Eniac October 13, 2011, 22:56


    I imagine it would not take much to create a working semi-autonomous titanium metal processing plant that could grow in it’s capabilities, on the moon which could then be used to build modules for spacecraft, space based colonies and planetary based colonies at a relatively cheaper cost than sending it from Earth.

    I think this is a great approach, but it may take a lot more than you imagine.

    Add up the mass of all the mining equipment, smelting furnaces and metal forming machinery that would be needed. Then reflect on the energy it would require. If it were possible at all, it would require a thorough redesign of many of our industrial processes, with miniaturization, automation and use of solar energy as major driving principles. Way bigger in scope than Apollo, would be my guess, by one or two orders of magnitude, at least.

    Best to try this at home, first, where it would be a lot easier to develop and still very useful. To produce (nearly) free energy and raw materials in desert areas, for example.

  • David Portree October 14, 2011, 9:05

    Here’s a link to an article I wrote on a 1989 study that aimed to jump-start lunar settlement and development. The authors place the “magnitude” of their plan at four times that of the Apollo Program.


    One thing it doesn’t touch upon is biomedical research to answer the question of whether humans can live and breed and grow to adulthood under conditions of lunar gravity. It’s entirely possible that these issues will constitute a barrier much greater than any technological challenge.



  • ljk October 14, 2011, 9:22

    Good point, David: Will generations of humans who grow up on other worlds in the Sol system ever be able to visit or live on Earth, assuming they even want to? Will we be creating a new species, Homo galactus?

    Now imagine if we genetically engineer humans to live in all sorts of extraterrestrial environments, including space itself.

  • Astronist October 14, 2011, 17:16

    @ A. A. Jackson: thanks for the confirmation of my view that Apollo achieved good science.

    @ NS: re precision landing: the second landing, Apollo 12, landed precisely on target, as planned, within easy walking distance (200 metres) of a defunct Surveyor robot.


  • Greg October 17, 2011, 15:56


    You said;
    “Add up the mass of all the mining equipment, smelting furnaces and metal forming machinery that would be needed. Then reflect on the energy it would require.”

    I have, but I believe your going from an aspect of a mining operation that, one is dependent on fossil fuels for most of it’s energy usage. I am thinking solar concentrators or Fresnel lens for heating. Also I’m thinking small with the ability to grow as the mining complex goes from a few ton’s to hundreds – thousands of tons over the years and months. They’ve only determined recently that the moon contains Ilmenite, which contains 10% of titanium as compared to 1% titanium in Earth rocks. So there’s quiet a bit more available. The Ilmenite also has oxygen and iron both very desirable elements for building structures in a vacuum environment.
    True it’s most likely will take a high initial cost to setup a mining and smelting unit but I don’t think it will be as much as you think, estimating from $5 to $10 billion for transport, but the ROI would only take a few years if the demand for people to colonize is there. And that’s the key! are there people who are willing to take the risk and hardship to form a colony? never knowing if they will succeed for years, risking not only their lives but their families lives as well.

  • Justin October 17, 2011, 21:58

    Let me preface my criticism by saying I thoroughly enjoy the blog.

    I disagree with the gist of this article, and the the thought that there could have been a greater scientific payoff if only we had given our all to science. In a perfect world pure science would be well-funded, and the general public would be inspired by shear curiosity, and desperately want to know what the light curves from the IUE look like. But this is not a perfect world, and people are inspired by grand gestures and what they perceive to be bold accomplishments.

    The Apollo landings, and conscious, concerted efforts to court public opinion paid off beyond NASA’s, or the science communities, wildest dreams. I would argue that the general public has tolerated NASA’s budget for the last 40 years because of Apollo (and the massive lobbying by the contractors of course).

    The bottom line is we as all love science, and we all want it to continue, but we are not representative of the general public, or even the public policy decision makers who weigh every budget allocation against a gazillion competing interests. Anyone who has looked closely at Apollo, the Space Shuttle, the ISS etc realizes they are an immense boondoggle, but the alternative, no science/space funding, is far worse.

    To achieve our goals we have to motive the rest of the human race. We aren’t dealing with scientific perfection here, ultimately we are making legislative sausage and by that standard the Apollo program for all its waste is easily the best investment the we have ever made.

  • Eniac October 18, 2011, 1:34

    I am thinking iron and aluminum as more easily smelted, purified and formed than titanium, and both are contained in lunar regolith in substantial amounts. Aluminum makes excellent reflectors for solar furnaces, much lighter and less fragile than lenses, which would have to be made from glass (silicon dioxide, also very available). Aluminum is also an excellent conductor which can substitute for copper, which is not available. Iron makes pretty good steel if silicon is added instead of carbon, and iron will be needed for its magnetic properties, to make the electric motors on which everything will be running. Now, since we already need these two for their unique properties, anyway, titanium would be more of a luxury and not worth the extra effort needed to produce it.

    As we have both said, entirely new techniques will have to be developed, suitable for miniaturization and utilizing solar energy instead of coal. Between a piece of rock and a steel bolt there are hundreds, if not thousands of processes. Each individually would be a major project to redesign around the new requirements. Combined, they constitute a project of gigantic scope. Doable, I think, but only if first developed without the considerable handicap of launching everything to the moon. There are plenty of rocks here on Earth that we can bite our teeth out on, so to speak.

  • Greg October 18, 2011, 10:01

    Eniac, I agree other materials will be helpful but I disagree with your assertion about Titanium, it is a light strong metal, much stronger than steel per pound. It’s much harder to refine and produce titanium metal on earth because it needs either a non-reducing atmosphere (argon) or a vacuum to be smelted in. The moons natural vacuum would be beneficial for this, lessening the energy requirements and making it cheaper to make over all. True, there can will be some development, but nothing that can be done within a few years. The technology is pretty much there, one just has to put it all together.

  • Eniac October 18, 2011, 11:59

    Greg, you are right, titanium is a wonderful metal, and vacuum does make its winning somewhat easier. I still maintain it would be only the third metal to add to the repertoire, after iron and aluminum, since it lacks the critical attributes of ferromagnetism and high conductivity. This would only be done if there is a critical role that neither of the other two can fulfill. Under the condition of self-sufficiency, it is nearly always better to substitute a proposed new material with one already required, than to add an entire new production pathway.

    True, there can will be some development, but nothing that can be done within a few years. The technology is pretty much there, one just has to put it all together.

    I nominate this as the understatement of the century… :-)

    Think about all the things that need to be done to a rock before it can become a bolt, and all the equipment and consumables necessary for the task, and then how those will be made, etc., etc. until you can close the cycle. It becomes quite mind-boggling, and is certainly not a matter of a few years even in an Earth based workshop. Much less so if every experiment and prototype has to be launched to the moon, first.

  • Greg October 18, 2011, 17:21

    “Think about all the things that need to be done to a rock before it can become a bolt, and all the equipment and consumables necessary for the task, and then how those will be made, etc., etc. until you can close the cycle. It becomes quite mind-boggling,”

    I have and it is, but there is technology now that can do what I’m saying. For smelting you need to crush the rock and then melt it and separate out the materials, light materials and gases on top the densest materials on the bottom. If you want to create nano-particulates from the titanium you get a Titanium powder which can be then used in a 3D laser printer where the laser sintering the metal powder together is one methodology, and consider that solar pumped lasers have come along way it would be another tool in our developmental tool case. I realize my background in VLSI chip design and construction doesn’t give way to true understanding of metal fabrication but I have smelted titanium in my garage lab using fluorite to protect the titanium from the oxygen, I could easily make some crude titanium tools from this process as the fluorite does give you much room on handling the metal. Of course this done from TiO which has been refined, but I don’t see the process as being that far off. Also titanium would be a good material for the body of a capsule or space colony over iron, aluminum or steel due to the light weight and strength, it will reduce launch cost.
    Anyway thanks for the interesting debate!

  • Eniac October 19, 2011, 6:25

    Same here. I think this needs to be done, simply because the time is right and the potential benefits immense, both on Earth and in space. But it takes a huge concerted effort, and I do not see one developing at this time.

  • ljk January 18, 2012, 0:35

    David S. F. Portree’s new Alternate History of the Space Age:


  • ljk July 29, 2012, 14:30

    Flags Still Standing at Several Apollo Landing Sites on the Moon

    by Nancy Atkinson on July 27, 2012

    Mark Robinson, Principal Investigator of the Lunar Reconnaisance Orbiter Camera (LROC) says the most often-asked questions he gets about the images LRO has taken of the Moon are about pictures of the Apollo landing sites and what is visible. Especially, Robinson said, people want to know if the flags are still standing.

    Previously, Robinson has said that while the flag poles are likely still standing, he didn’t think the flags themselves survived the harsh radiation of the lunar surface environment. But new images and video show that at some of the landing sites – Apollo 12, Apollo 16, and Apollo 17 – the flags must still be intact, because they are creating shadows on the surface.

    “Personally I was a bit surprised that the flags survived the harsh ultraviolet light and temperatures of the lunar surface, but they did,” Robinson wrote on the LROC website. “What they look like is another question (badly faded?).”

    Full article here: