OPINION: 50 years after Apollo 8 NASA is grounded
On Dec. 25, 1968 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders circled the Moon in their Apollo 8 capsule. This was a dark period in U.S. history and, as one person stated via a telegraph, Apollo 8 had “saved 1968.” It was a time when anything seemed possible. It now serves as a reminder of a bygone age.
Between 1968 and 1972 NASA demonstrated that it was able to send men some 239,000 miles away from Earth. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Apollo 8’s historic flight. What has befallen the agency since those heady days, is a far cry from man’s incredible first journey to the Moon.
Apollo 8 was a crewed shakedown cruise in the lead up to astronauts first stepping foot on the Moon.
Seven months after Apollo 8’s epic blessing from lunar orbit – Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon on Apollo 11. It must have been an amazing time to be alive. It would also be a brief one.
In 1972, the last mission that saw people step foot on the lunar surface, Apollo 17, ended the first tentative steps out into the solar system. NASA has since become stuck in low-Earth orbit. What followed the Apollo Program – has been much less than inspiring. As such, the public has lost interest and the agency has continued to fall back to Earth.
Of Apollo 8 then-NASA Administrator, Thomas O. Paine said that it was “…the beginning of a movement that will never stop.” Sadly, as of Dec. 25, 2018 his prediction has been stalled.
In February of 2003, the crew of STS-107; Rick Husband, William C. McCool, David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Michael P. Anderson, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon perished in the skies above Texas. Their orbiter, Columbia, had been critically damaged on ascent 16 days earlier and that damage resulted in the spacecraft disintegrating in the extreme temperatures generated during reentry.
The accident sent NASA on a trajectory that it has never fully recovered from. The time between 2004 and today can easily be considered the lowest period for NASA in terms of human space flight since Apollo.
NASA went from soaring past its rivals, to negotiating a détente with them – to being dependent on them. Review the sad story of Luna 15, the international inspiration of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project and who NASA has had to rely on for access to the International Space Station. It doesn’t take a trampoline to reach the conclusion that NASA has been on a slow, downward trajectory.
NASA’s abilities are dictated by the political winds. Sadly, as we become an ever-more polarized nation the ups and downs the space program encounters will likely become more severe.
As we remember their accomplishments we also watch as the astronauts who flew these missions fade away with the trail they blazed growing colder every day. NASA itself has been on a slow decline for decades. The promises of “the best is yet to come!” rings hollower with every passing year.
The agency has been neutered and rendered irrelevant. Private companies have replaced NASA in terms of inspiration. With every check NASA hands over to Russia, the public is slowly learning that the “best” probably isn’t coming.
To be sure, companies have always provided the hardware the U.S. Space Agency has used. In the years after Apollo those products became less, almost knockoffs of what came before. A similar pattern occurred in the shuttle era.
NASA used to own the spacecraft, now they lease the services these vehicles provide in terms of orbital operations.
In the past 12 months or so we have seen the passing of Apollo 12’s Dick Gordon and Alan Bean, Apollo 16’s John Young and Apollo 17’s Eugene Cernan. Given that Young and Cernan were also members of the crew of Apollo 10 – the loss of these bold explorers becomes even more profound.
Between 1961 and 1969 NASA went from sending men on suborbital hops to having them walking on the Moon. During that time not one, but four man-rated spacecraft were produced and flown (the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft as well as Apollo’s Lunar Module). While those within the agency might push back stating they are working on developing a long-term infrastructure to support exploration – the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo Programs didn’t materialize out of thin air. They also required a similar system to be in place. NASA had an infrastructure in place, it was torn down, then we had another put into place – it was torn down too.
Putting a positive spin on things or musing how these facts somehow “rewrite history” – can’t erase cold hard numbers. Glossy illustrations and glitzy CGI can’t reach escape velocity.
We don’t want to continuously look back to be inspired, we want to look forward toward tomorrow. Thank you Apollo 8 for saving 1968. Shame on us for resting on our laurels for 46 years (since Apollo 17).
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.