Apollo 11 and the lost space age

Buzz Aldrin on the moon.
Image credit: NASA via Wikipedia

I was very young when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon in 1969, so I have no memory of the landing, and only limited memory of the Apollo program in general.  I think I remember seeing some of Apollo 17 on TV in 1972, the final flight to the moon.  (At the time, my six year old self wondered why a huge rocket left and only a tiny capsule came back.)

For three years, we had men walking on another world.  Shortly after that, we had a space station in orbit (Skylab), and the space shuttle was rumored to be around the corner.  There was a sense that we were on the verge of a new age.  The movie 2001: A Space Odyssey conveyed a future of rotating space stations in orbit with hotels and restaurants and large scale bases on the moon, with regularly scheduled flights between it all.  In the early 1970s, this vision of the future seemed inevitable.

History has obviously not been kind to that vision.  Skylab had a lot of problems, it was several years before the space shuttle was operational, and it was never the economical vehicle, with flights every two weeks, that it was sold to be.  Indeed, the space shuttle is now generally regarded in the space industry as having been a gigantic waste of time and money.

In the early 1970s, the sentiment was that we’d be on Mars by the mid to late 1980s.  Over the years, Mars has steadily been moved back.  In the 1990s, I remember reading that it would be in this decade.  Today we talk about Mars in the 2030s.  It always seems to be 20 years in the future.

From the late 70s until the early 2000s, I had the most common attitude of space enthusiasts, that NASA after Apollo was hopelessly incompetent and simply lacked vision.  As time went on, I came to recognize that their budget, adjusted for inflation, was nothing like it had been in the Apollo years.  I then became frustrated that space was not a priority of the government.

In retrospect, despite being an incredible technological, organizational, and heroic achievement, it’s now clear to me that the Apollo program was also a gigantic cold war public relations project.  We went to the moon to get there before the Russians, primarily because we were upset that they’d gotten to space first.  Everything was orchestrated to put a man on the moon with an American flag behind him.  Apollo 11 was the culmination of that effort that had lasted throughout the 1960s.

This is exemplified by the fact that we went to the moon, but did so with very little thought to building any kind of infrastructure to stay there.  Apollo accomplished its main goal, a demonstration of American technological supremacy, the superiority of capitalism over communism.  From that perspective, once the goal was accomplished, the collapse of funding in the 1970s seems inevitable.

I’ve often wondered what would be needed to spark the space age vision of 2001.  We see some of the answer in the movie itself, which presents companies like Pan Am, Hilton, Howard Johnson, and the original AT&T, titans of the 1960s, operating businesses in space.  The implication is that space is not only economical, but profitable.

However, space remains far from economical.  Getting material into Earth orbit is appallingly expensive.  Relatively new companies like SpaceX are attempting to reduce the costs, but even with those reductions, they remain staggering.  And there’s no foreseeable solution in sight to reduce them by the orders of magnitude necessary for hotels and restaurants in space, at least for the middle class.

What space lacks is a strong economic incentive for governments and industry to make the huge investments necessary to operate in it.  There’s often a lot of talk about the spirit of exploration and comparison with the “Age of Discovery” (more like the age of conquest for non-Europeans).  But what’s often missing from those comparisons is what actually motivated rulers like Henry the Navigator and Isabella of Castile to fund exploration missions: economics, namely the promise of finding a route around the Ottoman Empire to the spice islands and other riches in Asia.

Men risked their lives and governments funded them because of the substantial economic benefits, the riches, that could be attained.  Yes, finding the fabled Prester John’s kingdom, spreading Christianity, and general exploration were also goals, but it’s doubtful anyone would have funded the missions on just those objectives.

Space exploration needs its own version of the spice trade.  Many see possibilities in asteroid mining, but it remains a speculative proposition, and the cost to get out there and know whether it would be profitable is a major obstacle.  Whatever the economic impetus might turn out to be, until it’s found, the large scale space age often envisioned in science fiction will continue to be only an aspiration.

It might be that technological advances, such as more efficient propulsion methods, will eventually make things cheap enough to at least put crewed scientific stations on Mars and other locations around the solar system, although if artificial intelligence continues to advance, the benefits of risking humans in these locations might remain a dubious proposition.

While humans, except for those three brief years, have generally remained in low Earth orbit, robots have explored the solar system,  and there are now multiple craft on their way into interstellar space.  Space belongs first and foremost to the robots.  It seems clear they will always be the pioneers.  (Which isn’t decadence on our part.  15th century explorers, rather than risk their lives, would have sent robots in their place if they’d had them.)  The only real question is to what degree humans will follow in their wake.

What do you think?  Are there economic incentives other than mining?  Or some other motivation that might drive humans out into the solar system?

42 thoughts on “Apollo 11 and the lost space age

  1. The only thing I can think of is when we have pretty much destroyed this planet and it’s resources, an effort might be made to find a new home. But really that’s a pipe dream because any place that might do is too far away and only a certain very small number would go and the rest would be left behind to perish.
    I personally think space exploration is a wonderful idea, but it’s for the knowledge gained and perspective that might get us out of the dark age mentality we are so besotted with currently.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I agree. Trying to solve our environmental issues by colonizing space is fantasy. It’s not just the Earth itself that supports us, but the entire biosphere. We are fish in the ocean of that biosphere, to the point that we have to take pieces of it with us when we go outside of it. We may eventually find other biospheres out there, but they won’t support us, because we didn’t evolve in them. For better or worse, Earth is where biological humans have to make their stand.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Religion, more or less. I include political and social movements of sufficient fervor as “religious” in this context. That’s what’s most likely to drive people into space. Perhaps if habitable planets are discovered, some religion that deeply believes in “be fruitful and multiply” will go. Actually, replace “are discovered” with “are thought to be discoverable”; discovery might happen en route.


    1. Your comment reminded me of the Mormons in The Expanse who chartered the building of a generation ship. It might be that the only way to motivate something like that is religion.

      I started to point out that in the age of discovery, while religion hitched a ride, it wasn’t the motivator of those first expeditions. But the first expeditions in space will be by robots. So religious, or religious like fervor might be what gets the first people moving.

      Or maybe if the James Webb telescope finds a habitable looking planet around a nearby star, it will spur more development in propulsion technologies and other related fields. I don’t know. It would still involve people shelling out a lot of money for something they’d never see the eventual benefit of, a proposition I’m not sure has much historical precedent.


      1. It’s still too expensive to try that now, but if the cost comes down for living in space we could see organized groups with a decent chunk of money (like the Separatists back in the 17th century and certain religious sects now) take a go at it.

        I actually think of it as one of the two main things that might lead to space colonies (the other being that they grow out of long-term scientific bases off world if people decide to live there permanently rather than rotating back every few years).


        1. I agree on the expense. The cost need to come down, by orders of magnitude.

          It’s worth noting that colonies haven’t sprung up around Antarctic research stations. There was once talk of domed cities, but it never seemed to come to fruition. Although getting to and from Antarctica is much quicker than getting to and from Mars, or other locations in the solar system, so that might eventually be a factor.


  3. It may be rare, but aren’t some ventures for non-mercenary reasons? This may be my middle-school understanding of history showing itself, but wasn’t the motivation for the Crusades primarily religious rather than economic? There may have been a strong element of land-grabbing in there, and perhaps a desire to push the Moors off the front porch of Europe, but I wouldn’t put that in the same category as a pure desire for economic expansion and exploitation of found wealth.


    1. Certainly. But the number of historical wars started for religious reasons is reputedly about 7%. This is a controversial number, but I think everyone would agree that religion had a lot to do with the crusades (at least some of them), although land grabbing probably had a lot to do with why European rulers answered the pope’s call.


      1. Interesting number, 7% – do you remember where you read that estimate, or who made it? I admire the gumption of anyone who dares to extract quantitative data from history, even if I’d be likely to quibble or gripe about the methodology.


  4. I was in high school in 1969 and remember it well. There was a long delay waiting for Buzz to actually exit the lander, and my parents let me stay up late to see it (I was way into SF and space by then).

    And then, yeah, it all just kinda faded away. (I really wanted to visit that Moon Hilton.)

    “We went to the moon to get there before the Russians, primarily because we were upset that they’d gotten to space first.”

    That was pretty clear as far back as JFK’s famous speech. It was a literal space race. It’s hard to overestimate how shocking Sputnik was to the USA.

    “However, space remains far from economical.”

    It’s not clear to me that commercialization is even possible. Some environments are just too harsh and difficult. There’s no five-star hotel on Everest, nor any underwater, etc. Just imagine the potential liabilities from a careless worker…

    “Are there economic incentives other than mining?”

    I doubt there is anything that would justify the enormous costs. It may well be a niche forever.

    I think a truth us fans need to face is that most people don’t much care and many would rather see the money spent on Earth projects (climate change, for example; some scientists are floating the idea that all scientists should devote their energy to solving it, that it’s a real “all hands on deck” situation).

    I do wish we’d forget about Mars. I just don’t see the value there. Dead, dry, toxic, down in another gravity well. What’s the point? The robots can do any science just fine.

    (Sometimes I wonder if SF going mainstream was a mistake.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “There’s no five-star hotel on Everest, nor any underwater, etc.”

      Excellent point. Those would be cool places to have a hotel in though, with appropriate transportation to and from.

      But one of the points I usually make when people start talking about colonizing Mars, is that we should first colonize Antarctica, the sea floor, or underground. Certainly those places would be difficult to live in, but they’re all paradise compared to Mars.

      “I think a truth us fans need to face is that most people don’t much care ”

      I do think a lot of people care, surveys seem to show it, but they just don’t care all that much. They’re certainly not willing to give up other things to make it a priority, and anything short of that probably means progress will continue to be glacial.

      “Dead, dry, toxic” seems to describe most of the solar system (except possibly the underground oceans of some moons). It’s worth noting that a lot of our dreams of space travel developed in a period when we thought Mars was dry but breathable, Venus hid dense jungles under its clouds, and life might be all over the solar system.


      1. “Certainly those places would be difficult to live in, but they’re all paradise compared to Mars.”

        Exactly. Antarctica is another good one. Surely there are people who would love a chance to vacation there. Or an underwater hotel seems like a natural (maybe Hilton could convert one of those old Bond villain lairs).

        I do think liability issues might be a factor. Let a bunch of your guests freeze to death or drown (or asphyxiate in space), and it could destroy your business.

        OTOH, modern culture is more and more about experiencing something. We’re shifting away from possessions as the indicator of success and wealth. Now it’s what kind of exclusive things can you experience (that Fyre festival being an example of a massive fail)

        Just yesterday I saw about how you can rent a night in the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile through Airbnb. Why would anyone do such a thing? One word: Experience! It’s all about selfies and bragging rights. (You know, I’m sure, people have died trying to take the ultimate selfie.)

        So maybe the desire for personal experience will drive hotels on the moon or in orbit. I think we’re getting close to being able to experience a space flight.

        “‘Dead, dry, toxic’ seems to describe most of the solar system (except possibly the underground oceans of some moons).”

        Or Titan! I’d love to see a robot on Titan. (If it malfunctioned such that it birthed an independent robot civilization ignorant of Earth, a couple James Hogan SF novels would come to life. 😀 )

        I just don’t find Mars interesting or strategic. As you say, at least some of the attraction comes from SF. But we won’t find any princesses there.

        I’d much rather we take a closer look at Venus. Robot balloon, maybe? Or even Mercury — a robot lander there might be interesting.


        1. There are definitely people who love to rack up experiences, often so they can post about it on Facebook. But it doesn’t seem like most would have the millions (at least) necessary to have the space ones.

          I could see Titan, although the phrase “toxic and frozen” (at least for us) comes to mind. But I understand the combination of low gravity and thick atmosphere should give you to ability to flap large wings and fly. I wonder though if you could see where you were going.


      1. The closest I got to Woodstock was the movie. I was in high school in 1969 and only then catching up to the hippie movement. I didn’t really go counter-culture until college. (A common story, mine. 🙂 )

        I was just replying to Mike about our increasingly experience-based culture, but Woodstock shows we’re into experiences.

        I’ve been thinking about this in terms of consciousness theories. Was there a Woodstock on Zombie world? Could there be an experienced-based culture there? Can you buy aspirin there?


  5. I think there is at least one other economic motivation, and that’s energy. Think of all that sun light just flying off into space. But then, that might just be for a different kind of mining: see Bitcoin.

    I think people will definitely start heading off the planet as soon as the robots make it safe and comfortable, but that will happen after the robots have gone out, mined, and learned how to build stuff out there instead of building it here and sending it out there.

    In the meantime we definitively need to manage our climate here at home, but we should be able to do that. I think people will head out to space not so much because they have to, but because they can.



    1. I think you might be right about energy. The whole point about a Dyson sphere isn’t that a species sets out to build one, but that it gradually builds a cloud or swarm of collection devices that eventually claim all the star’s visible light.

      That energy collection can be done by robots, but all that energy might make space travel trivial, at least within the solar system. I’m not convinced biological humans will go to the stars.


  6. I mostly agree with this, although I’m not quite as convinced with the Cold War story. That is why Kennedy promised and started the Moonshot, but if he had lived and served two terms it’s quite possible we would not have landed on the Moon in 1969. He was always privately reluctant about it and the costs, and didn’t really care about space exploration.

    But that’s where LBJ comes in, and from what I’ve read, he wasn’t just supporting Apollo because of the Cold War factor – he was a true believer in the program in particular and space exploration in general, and vigorously promoted bills to maintain and increase its funding, while spreading out the work to strategic states and areas to anchor it politically in Congress.

    What space lacks is a strong economic incentive for governments and industry to make the huge investments necessary to operate in it.

    We are seeing a big commercial push into small satellite launchers, like Rocket Lab and Firefly Aerospace. But even the folks in those companies seem rather reserved when discussion of the space commerce sector comes up, and think there will be a lot of culling of startups.

    For big rockets, that’s definitely true – they have been and still are primarily a government launch market, and there hasn’t been much pressure there to reduce costs or increase the overall launch rate of rockets. We can see that with how SpaceX is pushing hard into StarLink, effectively trying to create their own market for launches since expected demand for the Falcon Heavy and Starship Super Heavy would otherwise be somewhat limited.


    1. From what I’ve read about LBJ, he was a true believer because of the cold war factors, although I’m sure having the Space Center (now the LBJ Space Center) in Houston didn’t hurt.

      Super heavy launch capabilities seems like a must for deep space missions. It’s depressing that we’re trying to get back to where we were with the Saturn V.


    1. I like it too, although I wish there was a way to slow them down at the destination.

      An alternative design using the topology of the Centaur system might be able to slow them down, albeit at the cost of a longer voyage. https://www.space.com/35669-breakthrough-starshot-proxima-centauri-physics-interstellar-hawking.html

      Although as I understand it, the default Breakthrough design would require decades for the probes to transmit their data back, so the difference in travel time might not be that much of an issue.


  7. Why must we do this? We’re bored here, we’ll be bored in space. Why not limit our corruption to one place? Are we so great and important? And who will our victims be along the way? Manifest destiny is a pretense for killing.


    1. An argument could be made that it’s about ensuring our long term survival. I do think there’s something to that, but many of the people making it assume that means we continue just as we are now. But leaving the oceans involved animals changing in major ways. I think leaving Earth will involve us changing in major ways. Humanity might be survived by its AI progeny.


  8. At this point, I’d say asteroid mining is the strongest incentive. Maybe new technology or new scientific discoveries would change my answer. For example if we figure out nuclear fusion, helium-3 mining on the Moon might make sense. But right now, we definitely know what kind of resources asteroids offer and what we’d want to do with those resources if we could get them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Were you the one who told me that Robert Zubrin has a analysis of asteroid mining in one of his books? I see he has a new one out, ‘The Case for Space’, with a chapter on it.

      I think for a mining company, the calculation is going to be the costs involved compared to the costs of getting it from terrestrial sources. Of course, if it’s not available on Earth, or like helium it’s rare here, and it’s vital for something, it might come down to what the demand is for that something.


      1. Maybe harder for people to work in, but I’m not aware of any influence gravity has over fission or fusion. It’s generally considered to weak by far to be a factor at the atomic scale. (That weakness underlies one of physics current conundrums. Use a small magnet to pick up a paperclip. The gravity of an entire planet can’t compete.)


  9. Right now it looks like the second country to put humans on the Moon is going to be China. They have already done what no other space agency has ever tried, putting a communications relay in halo orbit around L2 to communicate with the dark side. That is one political reason for NASA’s announcement aiming to land the first woman on the Moon in a few years, as part of the Artemis program.

    From just space exploration point of view, Moon is interesting because it is basically a giant space rock collection. Other than being fragmented on impact, there is no material process that would degrade these rock samples, other than heating and cooling from the sunlight where applicable. There could be samples from all parts of the solar system just waiting to be found, and more keep hitting the surface all the time. There could even be pieces of rock from outside the solar system, if we just knew what such a thing would look like.

    From resource point of view, the most useful thing on the Moon is water ice, which is known to exist in some form. Sunlight is also an important resource, and in regions near the poles could be collected continuously, by raising solar arrays high up. Luckily, water ice is also though to be nearest to the surface in those regions. Such desired locations could themselves become contested resources, once identified.

    Other than H and O from water ice, what would be nice to have is lots of C and N, at least from our terrestrial chemistry and biomass point of view. He3 is sometimes mentioned as a resource, but might not ever happen: fusion is possible without it, and is probably easier without it. Fusion with He3 is just cleaner on paper than purely heavy water -based reactions, so it gets mentioned because fusion has been marketed as “clean” energy.


    1. That’s interesting about China. I knew they were making progress in that direction, but it didn’t occur to me that they were what was behind all the renewed interest in the moon.

      I think the debates about whether we should go to the moon again shows the pathetic state of investment in space. The moon is a sensible destination, particularly as a testing ground for techniques on Mars, but unlike Mars is much closer. An Apollo 13 event on the way to Mars would have left the astronauts in desperate straits for months or years rather than a few days.

      The only reason we debate about the moon is concern that it will eat up the very limited budget. But with so limited a budget, sending people into deep space for years without intermediate missions seems particularly risky.


    1. Somewhere I’ve got a book on the Apollo technology. One of the things this reminds me of is when the stages separate, there is a problem because the next stage is in zero gravity, which causes pressure issues with the fuel and oxidizer. This was solved by putting charges at the bottom of the stage, which go off after the separation to jolt the whole vehicle forward and drive the fuel “down” toward the engine, whereupon that engine can then ignite. Astronauts usually wondered if something had gone horribly wrong with all the noise and jolting.

      The number of details involved in all of the Apollo designs are astounding!


      1. Something to consider about the Saturn V, with all those parts, they did way better than the infamous 99.999% non-failure rate. Those rockets performed nearly perfectly.


        1. It did have issues on a few occasions throughout the program, but the only one on a crewed mission was early in Apollo 13, and in and of itself wasn’t critical.
          Interestingly, it wasn’t used for Apollo 7 (the Saturn IB was instead), which means the first crewed flight to use it was Apollo 8, the first mission to orbit the moon. NASA had to be nervous with a crew for that first translunar injection.

          Liked by 1 person

  10. What will send humanity back into space?
    1. Competition – and the fear of other nations beating them to it; or
    2. Collaboration and sharing the effort, experience and cost between nations; and/or
    3. A greater involvement for private enterprise.


    1. Thanks for your thoughts!

      I guess the question is, what will motivate that competition, collaboration, or greater involvement of private enterprise if there isn’t a powerful economic incentive? I could see national prestige leading to some movement, but it seems like it would be of the type that goes somewhere, plants a flag, and leaves.


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