Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/09/11/lunar_mailbag/

Moondreams, engineers and bureaucracies

We're not going back (very) soon

By Andrew Orlowski

Posted in Bootnotes, 11th September 2009 11:39 GMT

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

Outstanding article and, sadly, all too accurate in your assessment of current conditions. We have lost our faith in ourselves and become scared children who believe we "can't" achieve a great objective anymore. Mediocrity and settling for safety is the name of the game today. Risk aversion, butt-covering, and personal advancement at any cost to anyone else, these are all hallmarks of present culture. I have already apologized to my son, telling him that the wold he inherits is poorer in wealth and, more importantly, spirit than the one I received from my parents. Our generation dreamed big dreams, just as our parents did. Our children dream of winning a video game. And it's our fault. "Don't risk that, you'll get hurt, the world is dangerous, stay inside, don't talk to strangers," etc. We've raised a generation that sees themselves as victims, not active doers. "I can't, it's too hard, why do I have to do that?" Now we expect government to take care of us cradle to grave. We used to be self-reliant and proud of it. No more. I thought I'd be able to go to the moon in my lifetime. Now I don't believe anyone will go to the moon in my lifetime. No one. We don't have the will. That's the real story, and it's a tragic one. We've thrown it all away.

Al Hernandez

An interesting and thought-provoking article. Thank you. I do think the "perceived superiority" of private enterprise in space ventures is a tad overblown. The Mercury capsule that carried Virgil Grissom into orbit has been recovered from its watery resting place of many years and is on display at Kennedy Space Center (or was, I haven't checked for its current status). Built by McDonnel Aircraft (#11 of 20 according to Wikipedia), one of the striking things about the display was the crushed up "dixie" coffee cup some asshat had tossed behind one of the spacecraft's consoles before bolting it shut.

And let's not forget that the error that blew the living shirt out of Apollo 13 was made in a factory, not in a Government-mandated meeting of pointy-haired idiots. But I agree that modern-style effing about won't get us to the moon. The will to do it rather than make TV shows about doing it just isn't in the nation any more. Speaking of Apollo 13 (as I was yesterday with colleagues), nothing illustrates the differences between today's industry and that of the sixties than the response to that disaster. That the three men aboard could rescue themselves using only what had been put into the spit-and-bailing-wire contraption they were riding in is a testament not only to their endurance but to the innovative thinking and generally high levels of education and training of the ground control crews. Truly, as is said in Hank's movie by Ed Harris, it was NASA's, and by extension, America's finest hour. How the mighty have fallen, which I think is where you came in.

Thanks again for the article.

Steve Mann.


I very much enjoyed your Moon article. I had the pleasure of talking with Dave MacDonald of Kodak many years ago (over a flight of single-malts) about his involvement with Gemini and Apollo. I couldn’t believe his description of the technology behind telemetry communications. It was astounding to realize how much was accomplished through clever integration of simple technologies.

I was right with you until your last paragraph. There you seemed to be equating concern about “carbon footprint” with an impoverishment of human achievement. Yet some of the most amazing technological innovation is happening today directly in response to our newfound awareness of our impact on our environment. Isn’t building a low-impact car like designing a LEM? You want speed, range, size, safety, low-emissions, recyclability. Achieving a maximal blend of all those goals requires innovation and rigor. The same can be said for power generation, transmission, and storage. I think your comments about “what went right” are very apropos. Unavoidably politics must enter into setting the goal, as it did for Apollo, but the trick is then to get out of the way. One hopes that in the execution of green initiatives bureaucracy is not allowed to stifle innovation.


As an engineer, I cannot but agree with your sentiments, Andrew.

Give the clever guys something to do and enough resources to do it, and keep away the politicians, "meetings", and committees, and it'll all get done.


I thoroughly enjoyed your writing in “The Register, To the Moon - with extreme engineering”. It almost brought a tear to my eye. I read while remembering being five years old watching Apollo on our black and white TV. Andrew, NASA is why I got into I.T. in the first place. The last paragraph really hit home, I too wonder if we as a people could pull off another Apollo today. Thank you! Robert Schultz Orlando, FL USA.

Thanks for the mail!

Finally, in case you're curious, the quiz contestant pictured on Page 1 of this article answered the question "What orbits the earth?" incorrectly. ®