As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the remarkable achievement of putting Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon (while Michael Collins nervously circled above) and bringing them safely home, (see our slideshow) there will no doubt be a chorus of articles saying "we need an Apollo project to deal with climate change." or "if we can put a man on the moon, why can't we solve our energy problems?"
And it was a marvelous accomplishment. But as a model of design and engineering, it was a one hit wonder, an extravagant waste of materials, and not a model for anything we should be doing today.
In 1961 when NASA was trying to figure out how to get to the moon, the two main approaches were Direct Flight, where a giant rocket would go straight to the moon and back, and Earth Orbit Rendezvous, where a moon rocket would be assembled in earth orbit and then would go straight to the moon and back. But to carry enough fuel to land on the moon and take off for the return required a big spacecraft.
An engineer named John Houbolt had another idea: Lunar Orbit Rendezvous.
"Only the small, lightweight LEM, not the entire spacecraft, would have to land on the Moon; this perhaps was LOR's major advantage. Because the lander would be discarded after use and would not return to Earth, NASA could customize the LEM’s design for maneuvering flight in the lunar environment and for landing softly on the Moon."
Werner Von Braun favoured Earth Orbit Rendezvous, Not only because he thought it was safer, but because it essentially laid the ground-work for the idea of a space station where vehicles can be assembled for any kind of mission, rather than a single function. He was thinking about Mars and beyond.
In the end, John Kennedy tipped the scales, when he promised a man on the moon before the end of the decade. LOR might have been be sketchy and dangerous, but it used the least amount of hardware and needed the smallest rocket, and could be launched from the Saturn 5 that was already under development.
But first you threw away your Saturn 5. Then, when at the moon, you throw away your descent stage on the lunar module. Then you throw away your lunar module ascent stage. Then you throw away your service module. The whole exercise is based on designing objects to serve a single function and then throwing them away, and bringing back the smallest component, the command module.
When Apollo ran its course, there was not much to show for it; no shipyard in earth orbit, no moon base, no infrastructure for carrying on. Just Tang, a pile of rocks and great photographs. They didn't even send up a scientist until Harrison Schmitt, the last man on the moon in Apollo 17.
Dan Greenberg writes in the Chronicle
Do we need a grand mobilization of physicists, chemists, engineers, and other hardware experts to solve the energy [and climate] crisis? We surely need a lot of them to work on it.
But perhaps more important would be the potential contributions from the behavioral and social sciences. Better solar panels, improved insulation, and more miles per gallon are attainable if we want them; the lab wizards can be counted on to provide them.
The real problem is that the energy crisis is mainly in our heads — in our habits and comfort preferences.
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