The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

STP Mars illustration
A concept for an interplanetary transit vehicle from the 1969 Space Task Group report. People today regret that report wasn’t implemented, but should they? (credit: NASA)

The myth of “what might have been” in space

Bookmark and Share

After Apollo 17, back in 1972, the space program was scaled back. We had three flights on Skylab, one flight on Apollo-Soyuz, and then a six-year hiatus before the thirty-year era of the Space Shuttle began.

“We are way behind, and finally, after 43 years, we are beginning to catch up,” is what many in the space community say today.

Apollo landed humans on the Moon in 1969, and completed its last lunar mission in 1972. In the 43 years since, we in the space community have bemoaned the fact that the United States reached the Moon only to abandon it. Many of us, myself included, felt that this was one of the most foolish moves the US government ever made.

We had two major proposals after Apollo, each similar to the other in a way. They were the Apollo Applications Program and the report of the Space Task Group in 1969, made after the first Apollo landing. President Richard Nixon wasn’t interested in either one, but he did later accept the proposal for the Space Shuttle that flew from 1981 to 2011.

Because what followed wasn’t that ambitious, many have lamented the fact that we had big plans after Apollo, but we threw them away in favor of a shuttle that only orbited the Earth. “We are way behind, and finally, after 43 years, we are beginning to catch up,” is what many in the space community say today. If only Nixon had been more ambitious about space and had not cut back on it in the early 1970s!

If we had stayed the course after Apollo, with a follow-up program like the proposed Apollo Applications Program or the Space Task Group that included a fully reusable two-stage space shuttle, a space station that can house up to 50 people, a transportation system of Moon-bound ships, and a base on the Moon for 6 to 12 astronauts, we would be far out in space by now. We would have build a Moon base in the 1970s, expanding into a city; landed on Mars in the late 1970s or early ’80s; and would we now would have space cities, industries, and ships traveling from planet to planet from Earth to way beyond Mars.

But would we really? Would we have really had the civilization that you only read about in science fiction novels, right now? The answer is no, we wouldn’t, and for a reason that can be stated in one word: money.

First of all, I use to believe all this myself, until, at a space conference, I talked to someone about this at a banquet. A month later, I talked to Rick Tumlinson of the Space Frontier Foundation. After what I’ve heard from both, and what I’ve seen go on with the shuttle and the ISS all these years, I got to thinking that they may be right.

If the Space Task Group or the Apollo Applications Program had proceeded as planned, there is a chance that, regardless of what might have been chosen, the program would have failed, big time, for two reasons. First, the public was losing interest by the final flight of Apollo 17. Second, the cost of these projects would have been exponential, and Congress, the White House, and the public would not have supported this.

Let’s start with the proposed shuttle. Originally, the shuttle would have been twice as large than the one that materialized. Limited funding led to the shuttle we ended up flying, but even that failed to achieve the flight rates and costs goals of that orbiter.

As for the Moon base, if we ever made it that far, money would have been pouring down a black hole… Would Congress have put up with it? Would the public have put up with it?

The proposed space/way station, being far bigger than the ISS, would have supported 50 people, and cost far more money. Remember how the ISS was to originally cost $8 billion, and ended up costing on the order of $100 billion? Shifting designs, and the inclusion of more countries, like Russia, in the program caused its schedule to slip and its cost to rise.

With the proposed way station, the problems manufacturing, launching, and assembling it would have been equal to that of the ISS, and possibly worse (and don’t forget the lunar space station and the two Moon-bound ships, or more.)

As for the Moon base, if we ever made it that far, money would have been pouring down a black hole, with costs increasing for transport ships and base components, all likely made by different companies, and everybody wanting a big piece of the pie. If completed, how many astronauts would have inhabited it, and what kind of work would they have performed? If it was to hold, say six to twelve people, would the government have supported it indefinitely? If so, money from the federal budget would have keep going into this venture, and the costs would have increased year by year. Congress would then have started to cut back on it, and there would have been some serious debates about the base versus other badly needed federal programs (make up your own mind on what these programs are).

Would Congress have put up with it? Would the public have put up with it? I don’t think so.

Most likely, no matter what mega-project that the government chose, it would have been cancelled long before completion, either by Congress or some president after Nixon. If we made it to building a space station, I don’t think we would have had a lunar base. Even if we had a small lunar base, as described in the Apollo Applications Program, it would not have lasted.

Don’t forget launch costs, especially that of the Saturn V. The Saturn V, though the greatest heavy-lift launch vehicle flown so far, was very expensive. The cost of a Saturn V, including launch, was in 2012 dollars about $1.17 billion. How much money would the government have had to spend should any ambitious project after Apollo been undertaken?

Costs do matter, and neither the government nor the American people would have tolerated it for long. Cutbacks would definitely have been made, and private industry would not have stepped in back in the 1970s. So, we would have ended up somewhere near we are now. In other words, it would not have made any difference.

One footnote: no other government would have long supported an ambitious project like this, either; not alone, and not at this level of expense.

Project Apollo was a result of geopolitics. President John F. Kennedy wanted to both beat the Russians and cover up his blunder at the Bay of Pigs, and show how strong he was, so he decides on challenging American ingenuity by “sending a man to the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” by the end of the decade.

The time for the space entrepreneur has arrived, and it is time for all governments to lead, follow, or get out of the way.

It took a lot of motivation to achieve that goal, and a lot of money. We did, but it took us $20 billion in 1960s dollars, or more than $150 billion in today’s money. We achieved the goal, but we had no ambitions about the next step. The Moon landings were the end all, and a dead end at that. It was one of humanity’s greatest achievements nonetheless.

The entire space program, from Apollo to the shuttle, was run by the government, and it was financed by the taxpayer. Today’s budget deficits and national debt challenge that approach.

In this day and age, costs do have to be taken into consideration. The government cannot, and should not, forever support a space program like we had with Apollo. For better or worse, the Apollo and shuttle days are gone, forever.

But that is not a bad thing. We now have private enterprise taking over. There is now big money in space, in the form of minerals, energy, and microgravity-made products, to name just a few.

Today, with the shuttle out of the way, private launch companies are moving into the fold, with much lower launch costs. That allows other interests, such as energy, asteroid mining, and space tourism, to take advantage of this new opportunity. The time for the space entrepreneur has arrived, and it is time for all governments to lead, follow, or get out of the way.