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On Apollo, Hayabusa2 & Persistence

Remembering how I felt 50 years ago when Apollo 11 launched, I fully understand those whose sense of let-down at the abrupt end of the moon landings has never gone away. And yes, I was one of those who assumed we would be on Mars by 1990 or earlier, with missions to the Jovian moons gearing up about now. Events in the interim have proven these expectations unrealistic, but last night as I was reminiscing I also thought about what we had done in those 50 years.

50 years ago, for example, the idea of Europa as an ocean world was still a few years out, only entering into serious speculation after Voyager 1 showed us what Jupiter’s immense tidal forces, aided by the gravitational effects of Europa and Ganymede, could do to Io. That flyby was in March of 1979, and if Io’s volcanoes told a tale, they also implicated Europa’s abundant ice. The Galileo mission, despite its problems, then showed us a Europan surface wracked by movement, with ‘chaos’ features, raft-like ice blocks evidently once afloat, frozen into a geologically young terrain. Europa was becoming very interesting indeed.

In 1969 we knew none of this, nor did we have much of an idea what was beneath Titan’s clouds, not to mention what was being flung into space out of bright, frozen Enceladus’ south pole. We hadn’t seen Pluto and its big moon Charon, or viewed a Kuiper Belt Object up close. We were a few years away from Viking (and those landings are another special memory), Mars rovers were only a hope for the future, and no comet had ever been explored.

Exoplanets? Forget it. Who dreamed we had the ability to find them?

The list could go on, but there is no need to recount every robotic mission discovery. While astronauts remained in low Earth orbit, we did indeed perform the initial reconnaissance of the Solar System, and if a mission like Cassini or Kepler doesn’t hold you spellbound, nothing will. You can see that I’m trying to cheer myself up as I look at those unfulfilled expectations of July 16, 1969, but I do think it’s sensible to take stock and appreciate what robotic instrumentation can do amidst the revolution in digital technologies that have transformed our world.

Operations on an Asteroid

So we keep doing what we can with the resources that have been allocated, knowing how much more could be done. Today we look at an asteroid. What follows is imagery from Japan’s Hayabusa 2 mission, which touched down just a few days ago on the asteroid Ryugu, a second landing after the one performed in February. Here we’re seeing views from the spacecraft’s small monitor camera (CAM-H), which operated throughout touchdown, with a field of view looking downwards toward the sampler horn. I’ll just run these in sequence.

Image: Taken 4 seconds before touchdown with CAM-H (Credit: JAXA).

Image: The moment of touchdown captured with CAM-H(Credit:JAXA).

Image: Taken 4 seconds after touchdown with CAM-H (Credit: JAXA).

Nice work indeed, and congratulations to the team that pulled it off. Following events on Twitter at https://twitter.com/haya2e_jaxa was a great way to track the landing minute by minute. The point here is to do a sample return, and you’ll recall that previous Hayabusa2 operations have included the use of a projectile to create a crater whose exposed material could then be sampled before the craft once again ascended. Time on the surface was brief, with Hayabusa2 swiftly returning to a safe position near the asteroid. The departure for Earth is now contemplated for some time late in the year. Have a look at this mission calendar to get a sense of how much has been done, and to keep up with changes to the schedule going forward.

We also have OSIRIS-REx at asteroid Bennu, another carbon-rich asteroid from which we will be returning samples, though the Bennu material won’t be delivered until 2023. The comparison between samples of the two asteroids should be productive indeed as we add to the first Hayabusa’s asteroid particles from 25143 Itokawa and delve into the composition of C-type asteroids (Itokawa is an S-type asteroid, the second most common after C-type objects).

What We Cannot Know

This paragraph from an editorial about Hayabusa2 in The Japan Times is a reminder of how much the space exploration effort has changed since the Apollo days, especially in terms of commercial activity:

Another important shift is taking place in thinking about space exploration: The private sector is moving into the lead. In the U.S., companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are setting the pace. Japan has Ispace, which is developing robotic spacecraft technologies to discover, map and use the natural resources on the moon. More than 300 private companies collaborated to create Hayabusa2. Japan must ensure the probe returns safely, and then encourage cooperation among the public and private sectors so there are more successes in the future.

The explosive growth of computer and network resources in the past 50 years occurred in ways unforeseen by science fiction authors, who proved to be more prescient when it came to space exploration being influenced by private individuals and corporations. So as I ponder this point, I have to wonder what developments unknown to us now will shape the future of human and robotic spaceflight in the next 50 years. Miniaturized payloads and artificial intelligence are clearly in the mix, but is it possible to predict any more accurately now than it was then?

I remain an optimist. We keep slogging ahead despite frustrations with the overall pace, celebrating the missions that fly and planning their successors. Nothing affirms a life as much as persistent effort toward a seemingly impossible goal. “Knowing is not enough; we must apply,” said Goethe. “Willing is not enough; we must do.” 50 years after Apollo, keep working.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Alex Tolley July 16, 2019, 11:57

    I too am disappointed that human space exploration seems to have stalled. How many “Visions for Space Exploration” reports have come an gone, unfulfilled, some filling my home library.

    But let us put into context what the early space visionaries had in technology. German V1 and V2 rocketry showed how poor guidance systems were. Similarly, Japanese suicide planes needed human pilots to steer them. TV cameras and screens had just been invented less than a decade ago. Communication was primarily by radio, and naval ships were still using lights and flags. Computers were huge devices, and slide rules were the most common form of making quick “computations”. “Computers” were still mostly people. In this context, it made sense that SF authors would use the models they had: crewed planes, submarines, and ships as their model for how we would explore space. Apollo’s onboard computer guidance system was cutting edge, and even then most control was still from Mission Control. Humans haven’t become smaller, and safety precautions have increased. Any spaceflight mission is rehearsed for months before the astronaut reaches orbit. Even during Apollo, the lunar EVAs were tightly scheduled. Just remind ourselves of the consternation when the drill couldn’t be quickly extracted from the regolith on Apollo 15.

    Meanwhile, technology was racing ahead in electronics and computers (hardware and software). The capabilities were increasing by leaps and bounds. Even if we wanted a human crew at Pluto, the travel time would be unacceptable, even if we could be sure of the crew’s safety.
    Guidance of space vehicles is now extraordinarily accurate, as we have seen. Imaging has improved with digital cameras capable of hundreds of megapixels per image. (Imagine redoing the moon landings with today’s digital cameras). With the rapid advances in AI, the need for a human brain on site is diminishing. While I do not expect AI to reach human levels of cognition, I do expect AI controlled robots to do an increasingly wide range of tasks that once required human expertise and training. The Curiosity rover on Mars is already using AI to navigate to targets after determining which look interesting. This capability will only get better.

    Which leaves us with the only outstanding problem. Propulsion techniques have not improved much. Rocket engines have reached a mature stage and can even be 3-D printed. Electric propulsion has got better, but is still incapable of rapidly moving large masses to places in the solar system. Which means that human spacecraft are still very slow. The newer techniques for rapid propulsion require small payloads and this means a further advantage for miniaturized probes, especially if they can tolerate high g forces.

    Human exploration may be as stillborn as flying cars. Always impressive when each decade you see the latest designs, but they never seem to dominate the skies as once thought. (We’ll see how the latest incarnation of passenger carrying drones fares.) Historically, if you wanted to get a object to move some distance through the air, you could shoot an arrow or later a cannonball. Humans did not achieve the same capability until the 20th century. It took specialized vehicles in the middle of the century to exceed the capabilities of powerful artillery. We still seem to be in a pre-20th century period regarding human spaceflight capabilities compared to sending space probes. Current physics suggests that we may be forced to stay in that position. Current cognitive sciences are still out on whether human cognition will remain superior to any machine cognition or not. If machines can achieve human level cognition, then I suspect that human exploration of space will never match the dreams of SF writers, however much we desire it.

    • Robin Datta July 17, 2019, 1:54
    • ljk July 17, 2019, 9:19

      Robots are for exploring space, humans are for colonizing it. There will of course be some overlap as human settlers will need the help of machines, but to me that will always be the major dividing line when it comes to who and what will be expanding from Earth into the wider Milky Way galaxy.

      There is of course the possibility of a merger between machines and humans, or some form of biotechnology to allow humans to literally live in all sorts of environments off Earth.

      • Alex Tolley July 17, 2019, 21:03

        I suspect that the assumption that humans will colonize is part of the assumption of human superiority and, dare I say it, a strain of “manifest destiny”. Humans may well colonize space, I hope they do, but I see robots being the obvious colonizers. Unburdened of the need to take along their biospheres to survive, and able to replicate and evolve, machines seem like the natural heirs to space. We are on the cusp of being able to have robots replicate themselves, even if initially they must be supplied with microchips. Evolution is possible too, although I think it will be mostly directed rather than random. Smart robots will ensure humans stay on Earth, while they explore and build their civilization. Humans will follow, but they will remain niche occupiers, confined to mini biospheres and possibly to the solar system. But this is all a long way off.

        • ljk July 18, 2019, 9:37

          I do not disagree with your assessment. If humans do ever expand into the galaxy directly, they will very likely not be like current humanity. The exception might be those who partake in multigenerational starship missions in the next few centuries.

        • Robert July 18, 2019, 11:57

          Robots/AI and telepresence can certainly do the building of space colonies, bases or settlements. We could develop the technology building hundreds of habitable villages around the world for the poorest communities first out of local available resources. Then apply the technology to build higher end communities for profit and use that money to build structures in space or on the moon and Mars for human habitat. It could start a sort of trickle-up space based economy.

          • Alex Tolley July 18, 2019, 15:37

            Robots/AI and telepresence can certainly do the building of space colonies, bases or settlements.

            I’m surprised we haven’t already done some experiments here. Even the robot on the ISS is controlled by the astronauts (AFAIK) rather than from Earth. For near Earth, and even cis-lunar space, telepresence to control machines should be an obvious way to get started, bypassing the need to develop strong enough AI for fully autonomous robots to do all the tasks needed. We already have surgical robots tht can be controlled from a distance, so it seems quite straightforward to apply these types of machines to do mining and construction work, with humans comfortably controlling them from Earth. That should be a lot cheaper than training and supporting astronauts to do the work, in situ. The robots don’t even need to come home, and their safety is not exactly paramount.

            • Robert July 19, 2019, 12:33

              I’m sure you remember the 1980 NASA summer study ‘Advanced Automation for Space Missions’. Yes, nothing happened.

              At the 25th anniversary of the moon landing, my local chapter of the National Space Society set up a demo of a robotic bulldozer on a mock surface of the Moon controlled through a monitor with a built in delay to model the signal transit time. It looked and felt like one was controlling something on the Moon.

              • ljk August 9, 2019, 9:14

                The Soviets did that with two Lunokhod rovers in the early 1970s:


                A rather successful program that did not get the attention it deserved in the West, in part because Apollo was still going on and NASA did not want the public and politicians to think that exploring the Moon could have been done better with machines.

    • Robert July 17, 2019, 12:52

      Today’s corporate visionaries have a much better shot at doing great and permanent things in space development than earlier visionaries who had to rely on government financing and political whims. They have the will and the means.

      There are ways of bootstrapping a space economy once the launch hurdle is overcome, perhaps enough to make up for high launch costs. Better technology will always help but a space based economy could have been developed in the late 70’s with O’Neill colonies and solar power satellites if only the will has been there.

      What motivates such an effort? I can think of three things, survival, profit and possibly ideology. Unless human survival is at stake, governments won’t undertake a massive space colonization program. It’s possible some religious cult or alternative ideological group might undertake such a program to build their own independent society. But the current crop of visionaries do seem to have a clear profit motive.

      • Alex Tolley July 17, 2019, 20:51

        All NewSpace companies are struggling to find markets beyond comsats and Earth observation satellites. Maybe if the cost of reaching orbit becomes as low as an intercontinental airline ticket, then this will change, but so far, despite all the claims of reusability, ticket prices remain high. The profit motive will drive down prices and probably improve the transport technology, but whether it will make business sense for tourism and other private sector business any time in the foreseeable future, I don’t know.

        The O’Neill business model didn’t work then, and even much cheaper solar cells still don’t make solar power satellites economic, let alone support the construction of O’Neill habitats.

        If there is a viable business case for new space activities, sadly, nobody seems to have found it yet.

  • Robin Datta July 16, 2019, 14:30

    “Knowing is not enough; we must apply,” Valid indeed at our level of knowledge. And any one shard of material or data gathered in the effort might reset the Fermi paradox – truly cataclysmic to world-views.

    Artificial intelligence with robotics may enable the first chink in the barrier to deep space exploration. Continued efforts resulting in minimal von Neumann machines with the capability (whether intended or not) for evolution could (post-biologically) lead to Matrioshka brains whose knowledge may obviate or greatly minimize the need for implementation: with such knowledge, planting a seed at the right place and time may exclude the need to plant a forest a millennium later.

  • John walker July 16, 2019, 15:14

    For those interested, synched audio stream of entire Apollo 11 mission now running on YouTube channels of Channel 4 and VideoFromSpace (Space.com).

    Oops. Paul, just this post. Forgot to say which mission.

  • Charley July 16, 2019, 18:58

    There’s awfully good reason to believe that human exploration of outer space is going to be a pretty big dead-end. As an example, they are now finding mold and fungus on the ISS, which is so mutated that it can withstand a dose of radiation 600 times what is required to kill a human being. Likewise, bacteria and viruses mutate in outer space in such a way as to make them more lethal. These are going to be unavoidably our travel companions in any outer space exploration and they are going to become a seemingly almost insurmountable barrier for us just by themselves. We’re seeing these organisms even on earth as being almost completely unconquerable. We haven’t even begun to understand how they will affect us in space given the peculiar ecological niche that exist inside closed environments, military submarines notwithstanding. In those environments, military submarines may have to do extensive cleanup in between missions that we never hear about. That will not be an option for long-duration space missions.

    Machines do not have these biological handicaps and in the future with much advanced programming they may be capable of self analysis and self-healing in the event of a mechanical failure. If they do travel between the stars, they are almost certainly going to have to operate totally autonomously, since there will be no communication with earth of any meaningful level.

    • Ivan Vuletich July 17, 2019, 4:55

      I suspect that as technology becomes more complex, it will begin to resemble biological systems, handicaps and all.

      As the feature sizes of electronics become smaller they become more susceptible to radiation. A lot of major software systems already have bits of code whose effects are unknown. Couple that with computer viruses and other security exploits and you have a situation that looks more like a jungle than the perfectly reliable machines of SF.

  • David July 16, 2019, 19:50

    Never forget the spinoffs like the microprocessor.
    Also the 1870 to 1970 century was unprecedented in human economic growth history. Check out Rise and fall of American growth.We are bound to have a hangover. Growth slowed and discontent increased but we did not go back to the middle ages.

    Also by not rushing humans to Mars we avoided contamination by us. Also we have learned there are very serious health risks to long term space travel. Meanwhile those microprocessors allow the kind of technology that really gets us somewhere the stars….Our priority should be Breakthrough Starshot not one time events.

    Add all that we have learned or not learned about cosmology and its been a great 50 years.
    Now lets get to Alpha Cenauri within the next 50.

  • Thomas Hair July 16, 2019, 22:04

    Way to go JAXA! I hope the way we go forward in the future is to follow a model of competitive cooperation like we (kinda sorta) see in the ISS. Sovereign nations working together for the common good. We can cry in our Wheaties here on Earth about our differences, but when we slip those surly bonds it has to be for all of humanity. Apologies in advance for my syrupy soliloquy.

  • Alex T. July 17, 2019, 3:27

    Robotic space probes are good helpers, they help us to collect significant scientific data, this data is very important for the future homo sapience space expansion .
    I am sure that homo sapience do not have other choice than future Solar System colonization and after that stage interstellar expansion too.
    Opposite homo sapience have to extinct , exactly like dinosaurs…
    So robotic probes are important step in our evolution, but nonsense without following human space exploration.

  • Laura July 17, 2019, 5:20

    Those of us who remember Apollo have been lucky enough to see the entire solar system unfold before us since then. From the fuzzy images of the planets that fascinated me when I was growing up, one by one those planets, moons, and a few more rings than we expected, resolved into stunning close-up images. We visit asteroids and comets and bring back samples, and drive robot vehicles on Mars. And now we look seriously at missions to the nearby stars. Amazing.

  • ljk July 17, 2019, 9:12

    Your Smart Toaster Can’t Hold a Candle to the Apollo Computer

    Despite what everyone says about the power of modern devices, they’re nowhere near as capable as the landmark early NASA system.

    Alexis C. Madrigal

    July 16, 2019


  • ljk July 17, 2019, 9:16

    Restorers Try to Get Lunar Module Guidance Computer Up and Running

    In 1976 in a warehouse in Texas, Jimmie Loocke bought two tons of scrapped NASA equipment. Years later he realized it included a computer from an Apollo lunar module, like the one used to guide the lander to the surface of the moon during Apollo 11. Fifty years after that mission, computer restoration experts in Silicon Valley are trying to get his computer working again.


  • ljk July 17, 2019, 9:25
  • Michael MICHAUD July 17, 2019, 10:39

    One of my most positive memories about serving as Science and Technology Counselor at the American Embassy in Tokyo was my admiration for Japan’s efforts in space exploration. Though the Japanese space program was much smaller than NASA, they scored a series of successes by being clever, selective, and frugal. Their successes continue.

    • Paul Gilster July 17, 2019, 12:50

      I agree completely, Michael. JAXA continues to impress me with shrewd, innovative designs and challenging missions. It’s a pleasure to see their successes mount.

  • ljk July 17, 2019, 12:29

    The mission of Hayabusa 1 to the planetoid 25143 Itokawa is a prime example of this. How many times did they encounter problems and technical failures that could have doomed the entire mission, yet they still managed to reach the space rock, take valuable images and data, and bring home surface samples!


    • Paul Gilster July 17, 2019, 12:49

      Exactly so. Hayabusa’s first mission was an extraordinary rescue that did, in the end, return sample materials.

  • Gary Wilson July 17, 2019, 15:12

    I still think there is a role for humans to play in space exploration. It is expensive but we must learn to live off-world to expand and increase our chances of survival. Mars is the obvious destination and always has been, but orbital colonies around Earth and Mars will also be required (and eventually many other places in the solar system). Pressure on the Earth’s ecosystems must be reduced by reduction in the human population and changes in lifestyle away from consumerism. Unfettered capitolism isn’t going to work, in fact it will continue to bring disaster. The Green Economy must be made to work. The human dream of exploration and discovery won’t go away as long as we are still human.

    • Alex Tolley July 18, 2019, 15:27

      Pressure on the Earth’s ecosystems must be reduced by reduction in the human population

      That can only be significantly achieved by reducing the birth rate faster than reducing the mortality rate. Emigration to space colonies will not work even if the costs were low and people wanted to migrate in their millions per year.

  • Brad in Dallas July 17, 2019, 16:43

    I too was disappointed that Apollo didn’t result in an unbroken string of taxpayer-supported missions. But what I took from that, ultimately, was that it takes more than just physics to launch space missions–it also takes economics. The fastest way to make man spacefaring is not to count on taxpayers forever, but to remove barriers to economic incentives. Reduce launch costs by producing on orbit as much of what will be needed as possible. Water and gasses would be simplest. Search for products Earth dwellers need that orbital humans can make and sell. The Jamestown colony in Virginia was an expensive failure, maintained only for national pride, until they learned to export tobacco and indigo. The lesson seems obvious to me.

  • ljk July 18, 2019, 10:45

    “Before This Decade is Out….”

    Personal Reflections on the Apollo Program

    Edited by

    Glen E. Swanson

    The NASA History Series

    National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    NASA History Office

    Office of Policy and Plans

    Washington, D.C., 1999


  • Bob Sunman August 5, 2019, 5:29

    my only thought is that if ‘dark matter’ exists, annihilating it would produce a void which must be filled instantaneously, so if this was used on a vessel, it would move to fill the void.

    • ljk August 9, 2019, 9:16

      Correct me if I am wrong, but by that logic marine vessels should remove a large amount of the water in front of them to be pulled forward by falling. It would work, but how effective would it be? And would it make a ship go any faster?

  • ljk August 28, 2019, 12:08

    The curious case of the transgressing tardigrades (part 1)

    An Israeli spacecraft that crash-landed on the Moon in April carried a hidden payload: microscopic organisms called tardigrades, whose presence on the spacecraft wasn’t revealed until earlier this month. A group of space law experts examines the legal ramifications of this undisclosed payload.

    Monday, August 26, 2019