Apollo’s Legacy is Hurting NASA

This post was written by Will Horton, Flight’s Washington, D.C. intern

Today, you will undoubtedly hear multiple times, is the fortieth anniversary of when man walked on a celestial body other than our own–the Moon.

It was a grand feat, but one question still looms in the minds of some of the foremost individuals involved in spaceflight: What, exactly, did Apollo achieve?

Last Thursday NASA gathered a panel of speakers to consider just that. (Flight International posed the same question in its comment accompanying the 14 July issue.) Their assessment of the Apollo programme’s legacy reached two provoking conclusions.

First, Apollo’s main legacy is that it could not be replicated today. Second, Apollo is actually hurting the space agency as it prepares for Constellation, its next manned space programme.

(Those conclusions were ironically reached on the very same stage George W. Bush in 2004 announced his intentions to send astronauts back to the Moon and eventually Mars.)


(Photo by Will Horton)

Speaking at the event, at NASA’s Washington, D.C. headquarters were, from left to right:

  • Moderator, Steven J. Dick, NASA Chief Historian

  • John Logsdon, Charles A. Lindbergh Chair in Aerospace History, Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, Washington

  • Roger Launius, Senior Curator in Space History, National Air and Space Museum

  • Michael Neufeld, Chair of the Division of Space History, National Air and Space Museum, author of Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War

  • Cristina Guidi, Deputy Director, Constellation Systems Division, Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, NASA Headquarters

  • Craig Nelson, author of Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon

Debunking Legacy Myths

When the Eagle landed, the conventional wisdom going was that the United States had beaten the USSR.

But it was not until the end of the Cold War the West realized the USSR was not even close to reaching the moon. When Apollo 11 landed, Craig Nelson said, America was the only entrant in the space race–a race motivated not by science but by politics.

“It was not done for science. It was done to beat the Soviets. But we kept going back until the money ran out to conduct science experiments,” Michael Neufled said.

And those science experiments did garner a huge amount of information about the Moon and on other topics, but it was always clear that “science rode piggyback on the program to go to the Moon,” Roger Launius said. There were more science-focused missions planned towards the end of the programme, but they were later axed under budget constraints.

Apollo Impossible for NASA Today?

The panel’s consensus of Apollo’s main legacy is not at all inspiring or poetic: NASA today could not accomplish the Apollo programme because of bureaucracy. It would be required to take enormous risks, which it would not do today since NASA has become too risk-averse, John Logsdon argued.

The risk-aversion may be partially blamed on the public taking it as a given every mission will be successful.

“We’re trying to educate the public,” Constellation programme manager Cristina Guidi said, “that there will be failures and we will learn from those failures. But there will be failures.”

Apollo Hurting NASA Today

The Apollo programme, without any doubt, inspired generations.



It started with Apollo 8, whose iconic Christmas photograph of a fragile Earth floating in space brought reconciliation to America in 1968. The Vietnam War had escalated, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, and there were the riots at the democratic national convention. The photograph would go on to help inspire the Earth Day movement.

And then the holy grail: Neil Armstrong setting his foot down on the Moon.

Suddenly the public found NASA with comprehensible goals it could follow. What is there not to understand about putting humans on another celestial body?

Nature recently conducted a survey asking 800 authors who had published in the journal in the past three years if Apollo inspired them. Half said yes. But were they, and the general public, inspired under false pretences that spaceflight is meant to achieve high-profile results like landing on the Moon instead of more earnest scientific expeditions?

Now NASA faces a conundrum. It has committed to Constellation but cannot gain public support for it.

“We don’t have clear rationale for the public,” Roger Launius said.

While the public found a goal in Apollo–beat the Soviets–it established the precedent there must always be a single overarching goal to justify a programme. That view is incompatible with the complexities and multi-mission requirements of spaceflight that is focused on scientific gains, not political motives.

In hindsight, knowing the Soviets were never close to reaching the moon, Apollo’s more scientific missions would be scrapped, and Apollo would give the public the wrong perception about the agency, should NASA have never conducted the Apollo programme?

Your comments are always welcome.

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5 Responses to Apollo’s Legacy is Hurting NASA

  1. Kris Ringwood 22 July, 2009 at 6:56 pm #

    I’ve been a manned Spaceflight enthusiast since before Sputnik during a time when there was an industry capable of achieving it. But I’ve come more and more to the conclusion that the hostility of the Space environment – like that under the sea on Earth – is such that temporary forays are all that is really achievable until we create a sustainable infrastructure to take with us.

    In the meantime – and since 1962 – we have achieved magnificent feats in non-manned spaceflight endeavours with our exploratory and observational probes. The few failures have been expensive, but far from fatal.

    It opitomises the current “humans out-of-the loop” approach to technology with only rare and special situations justifying a manned presence. Hubble of course springs to mind. I doubt whether many Astronauts saw – or see – themselves as Top-of-the-line Space Mechanics, but fundamentally that is the only role for Humans thus far as automation gains stride after stride in capability.

    I was particularly struck by the the 1988 Buran/Energia mission, which,due to man-rating delays, accomplished a STS-1 like flight very successfully,completely unmanned. Current ISS re-supply is regularly accomplished the same way.

    Although they failed – and then gave up – to achieve a lunar flight for their Astronauts, the Russian unmanned planetary flights to the moon, the Lunakhod rovers, the Venera landing probes on Venus etc have proven that a manned presence is less and less justified in space.

    Its very noticeable that scientific people involved in manned space efforts continually stress the problems of heavy radiation, inability to cope with zero- or very low – gravity for prolongued periods as an excuse to delay actually going beyond LEO. The ISS has spent years re-confirming what was already learned in Salyut, Skylab and MIR space stations previously.

    Exploration is an insufficient incentive for man-in-space IMO. We need more Uranium finds on the moon and confirmation of vast quantities of Helium 3 etc etc with the prospect of vast quantities of money to be made in order to get back to the moon and on to the other planets.

    Or, in the Americans’ case the Chinese, or someone else landing on the moon and beginning processes described above, and the Americans will be back on the moon in no time in a state of total panic! Remember Sputnik – and 9/11!

  2. Stephen Dutton 23 July, 2009 at 7:43 am #

    The Shuttle was the right step forward but they didn’t make a Shuttle Mk2 and fix the problems of the Mk1, so it was a gradual downward slide into oblivion, there is no point going back to the Moon or to Mars until they fix the smallest step from the Terra Firma to space, sending new rockets to do the job is like building a Boeing 747 to fly from Sydney to London and then scrapping it and then building another one to come back home..until NASA fix this basic problem space will be expensive and unusable, somehow i think a guy in the desert called Burt Rutan will fix the problem and spend billions less.

  3. Barbara Cockburn 23 July, 2009 at 8:42 pm #

    Stephen, how should NASA better ‘market’ its missions?

    Kris, thanks for your thorough reply. The topic of incentives did come up during the meeting, but it was agreed there would likely be no second ‘space race’ (and not with China).

    Thanks for reading,

  4. Kris Ringwood 28 July, 2009 at 4:24 am #

    Not a “Space Race” in the Apollo-Saturn/SoyuzLOK-N1 sense, but certainly a ramp-up in the priority of getting back to the moon in order to claim a “fair” share of resources. The Chinese launcher development plan is granted a very slow one – and let’s face it their Taikonauts are level-pegging with the SSR Vostok cosmonaut flights, Soyuz clone notwithstanding. But, the original Soyuz was built for cis-lunar flights…and could certainly handle the duration and re-entry requirements for a circumlunar mission.

  5. frank helms 29 July, 2009 at 9:15 pm #

    Late 1950s – Vandenberg AFB was a fabulous era of my life.

    frank j. helms

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