Moondreams, engineers and bureaucracies

We're not going back (very) soon

Andrew's Mailbag With world+dog celebrating the Apollo program this summer, we thought we'd try something different. So a few weeks ago, I looked at the Lunar Orbiter, a fascinating tale of technology improvisation that brought in some cracking mail.

Here are some thoughts on technology, optimism and bureaucracies. Before we get going, I want to share a a grab from the French version of the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? TV quiz, from not so long ago. The contestant is "asking the audience" what goes round the Earth.

"Q.What revolves around the Earth?"

Great article Andrew

However, you wrote:

"With our impoverished idea of human achievement, pessimism about our scientific and technological capabilities, and little faith in human organisation, it is hard to imagine Apollo happening today at all."

As well as that, a big difference between then and now is that finance took a back seat. Wasn't the Apollo directive something along the lines of, "waste anything except time"? Today, airy-fairy stuff about achievement, exploration and advancing the frontiers of human knowledge would be shouted down in favour of drivel about maximising ROI, market share, health and safety, risk assessment and the need for politicians to justify to the gutter press why they'd spent the money. There would be a fear of taking risks - unless we're talking about a small number of irresponsible greedy divots in the banking business, financiers tend (quite rightly) to be cautious types. And so it will continue until the accountants are secondary to the decision-making process. Beancounting and vision are mutually exclusive.




Brilliant article – What a contrast with regard to “how they did it” back then, and how similar projects are micromanaged to death in the present day.

Gary Jorgensen Component and Test Engineer

Hello Andrew

I clicked into this piece from Google News for its historical background and was happily surprised to find mention of my friend Erasmus Kloman on page 3 - he now lives in a retirement community here in Chestertown, Maryland, and continues to write and paint with enthusiasm. I became acquainted with him when he needed computer help as he was writing a reminiscence of his activities in Europe late in World War Two. I've sent him a link to this article and will be sure he gets a look at it.

I have always remembered that when Neil Armstrong put his feet on the moon I was walking through the Port Authority bus terminal in New York City with my then current girlfriend, and we stopped to watch TV for a few miuites in one of the store windows. Years later I found the front page of the next day's New York Times in the top drawer of a bureau I had bought at a yard sale: "MEN WALK ON MOON / ASTRONAUTS LAND ON A PLAIN AFTER STEERING PAST CRATER." It is now brown, folded, wrinkled, and torn, but still always a thrill to look at.

Best wishes,

Chuck Engstrom

Here's a thought. Would we have got to the moon if we had chips?

Andrew, I am firmly convinced that we would not have made it to the moon in less than a decade if the microprocessor had been invented in the late '50s or early '60s. One engineer could understand all of the software in the entire Saturn 5 stack from the engine controllers to the guidance and flight controllers in the Apollo and LM. They used a lot of brute force elegance on those designs and cranked them out quickly.

Layers of software would have vastly complicated the endeavor and delayed it.

My father was the project manager for the Gemini Mission Simulator at McDonnell in St. Louis, MO. I grew up with the space program and practically learned to read looking at Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine. Those were exciting days. The sad thing about the space program is that there was no political interest in it except as a massive pork barrel project riding on top of a war by other means against the Soviets. The space program has lingered for the last several decades because the politicians don't have the guts to kill it off. Meanwhile they have burdened it with a risk averse peacetime bureaucracy. All they want to do is keep doing the same thing over and over. Meanwhile, despite what I said about microprocessors above, technology has advanced to the point where most space exploration should be performed remotely by much less expensive, automated probes. However, the reality is that NASA starves those projects while piling more and more of its limited resources into doing the same thing over again.

I agree that the economy benefited tremendously from the generation of innovators that the program trained. They were the greatest and most valuable spinoff of the space program. Unfortunately, they have all been pushed aside by the finance weasels and age.

Best regards, David Bristow

This was a concise specification: "Get a man on the moon by 1970", and an undoubtedly spectacular technical success in achieving it. But which problem did getting a few men on the Moon for periods of a few days solve ? Making the US appear more powerful than the Soviets after the Soviets had a man in space before the US ? But I don't want to deny the value of GPS and satellite telecommunications and broadcasting. Sometimes the spinoffs are more important than the initial impetus that made these possible.

"The nature of science funding today, which has become politicised, also deters imagination and risk-taking."

Was science funding ever not politicised ? It just so happened that the cold-war politics of the 1960ies were conducive to the funding of manned space exploration, while I agree that the politics of today are less so.

I'm not opposed per se to visionary technological programs. My engineering (now as an academic) career was founded on industrial experience when I was involved in digitising the telecommunications core network which made the Internet possible. This was also a great (and continuing) project, and of equivalent technological status to space exploration in my view, perhaps more hidden from the mind of the public through the latter's incomprehension of it. But if the thing we call information can be revolutionised then so can other things. And if, like me, you don't like the way current politics monopolises influence into too few hands, then you might want to take a more serious look at the information system which we all call money, perhaps starting with what Hayek thought about it (in his paper, "The Denationalisation of Money"), and then considering what community currency pioneers are doing about it.

Just imagine, that if we could reduce the executive branch of government to little more than a few tax auditors by electing for ourselves how we wanted our taxes spent, it's just possible there might be enough space nuts like you to vote funding to restart manned space exploration. Personally I doubt this, but we're probably only going to find this and similar questions out if we give taxpayers the final and direct say in the matter.

Best regards,

Richard Kay

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