Spaceflight Insider

OPINION: 50 years after Apollo 8 NASA is grounded

Apollo 8 illustration by Nathan Koga SpaceFlight Insider

It has been a half century since the historic Apollo 8 mission and NASA since fallen to Earth with no ability to launch anyone, anywhere. Image Credit: Nathan Koga / SpaceFlight Insider

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.

Apollo space suit gloves image credit Simon Kregar Jr.

Artist’s depiction of Apollo-era gloves holding the Earth. Image Credit: Simon Kregar Jr.

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 crew of Apollo 8 (from left-to-right): Jim Lovell, Bill Anders and Frank Borman. Photo Credit: NASA

The crew of Apollo 8 (from left-to-right): Jim Lovell, Bill Anders and Frank Borman. Photo Credit: NASA

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,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

Reader Comments

Considering it is a government run organization existing at the pleasure of 50 states and 800 lawmakers it has done better than one could predict. Its biggest deicit is its inability to change direction when needed. It plows through obsticles rather than changing direction or gears. SLS is a prime example as was the shuttle program. Bloated wasteful Bureaucratic political whales too expensive to fail.Nasa could own 10 Falcon Heavy as a fleet and fly 100 missions for the price of one year of the design work in SLS. And another fleet of 10 FH and another 100 missions for each launch they eventually make. Nasa knows this SLS is a wasteful mistake but they blunder onwards. If they can’t be changed they will have to be starved out of existance at some point. Lika a brain dead child we must eventually take the sad step of pulling their plug.

Thanks for blaming the worker bees instead of leaders at the National Level- where is John Kennedy when you you need the vision?

Dec. 25, 2018

Mr. Ebbens,
Per the seventh paragraph: 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. Per the ninth paragraph: The agency has been neutered and rendered irrelevant. Your suggestion we attacked the “worker bees” is false. Please review our commenting rules – lying isn’t permitted. Further unacceptable behavior will see you permanently banned from posting comments.
Jason Rhian – Editor, SpaceFlight Insider

NASA’s biggest and most expensive problem is the SLS, which Congress has dictated as being “too large to fail.” The utterly stupid LOP-G is simply a stepchild of the SLS, since it’s one of the few possible immediate uses for that system. So–as a result–we go nowhere. NASA is increasingly irrelevant. Even SpaceX has not asked for any NASA participation in their own “Starship” project, other than some technical tidbits.

Even though it’s a well-known fact in the space community, it needs to be stressed again – NASA owes its existence to the aftermath of the Second World War, and particularly to the arms race between the two super powers. It came into existence because a set of very specific factors had to come together at the right time. NASA’s continued existence, to me, is nothing short of a miracle.

So let’s be grateful that they still are unbeaten in non-human spaceflight. Atleast I am.

I hope that for FY 2021-2022, NASA issues an RFP to companies interested into developing a heavy-lifting first-stage reusable rocket with a single reusable stage spaceship that can: (a) land and ascend from the moon and (b) return to Earth. Delivery should be on 2025, testing and certification on 2026 and 2027, and Moon mission on 2028-2029. The RFP would indicate that NASA would cover up to 50% of the development costs.

This is a story of human spaceflight efforts. We should not neglect the NASA planetary program. With missions like Cassini, the rovers, Juno, New Horizons, we need to sing their praises! Bravo, NASA!

“Seven months after Apollo 8’s epic blessing – Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon.”

An excellent summation, virtually unimaginable in today’s NASA. Really, try to imagine this about NASA today – in late December we orbit the moon and the following July we land there.

You’re right it’s a story about Apollo 8 and where NASA is in terms of human spaceflight. What does that have to do with unmanned missions?

James Lunar Miner

Thanks to various Presidents, NASA, Congress, and our international space partners we have a large and very useful base camp in a nifty LEO orbit that is highly accessible from national and international launch complexes all around the world, and that International Space Station could be modified to store argon and similar propellants for resupplying reusable super propellant efficient electric propulsion system powered spaceships that are essential for cost effectively developing the Moon, Cislunar Space, resource rich asteroids, and Mars.

“Cruz introduced in July the Space Frontier Act, with Nelson as a co-sponsor, that among its commercial space regulatory provisions would also extend authorization of ISS operations through 2030.”

From: ‘Nelson continues effort to extend space station’
By Jeff Foust — December 11, 2018

NASA’s leadership is now proposing the Gateway which will be the world’s first crewed reusable solar electric propulsion spaceship with an performance of around 3,000 Isp which is far more propellant efficient than the grossly inefficient chemical propellant rocket engines with absurdly low and costly performance in the range of 250 to 460 Isp that have powered all previous crewed spaceships.

NASA wisely wants critically needed, highly cost efficient, reusable, and 3,000 to 14,000+ Isp electric propulsion powered spaceships and yet lots of supposed space folks are endlessly whining and throwing mud at NASA because it is not overly buying into various low performance, environmentally damaging, and super costly chemical powered spaceships.

Maybe we really need to “look forward toward tomorrow”.

James Lunar Miner

Apollo 8 and its chemical rocket engines were great.

But today, electric space propulsion systems are what we need to cost effectively develop the Moon and Cislunar Space:

“Ion thrusters are being designed for a wide variety of missions—from keeping communications satellites in the proper position (station-keeping) to propelling spacecraft throughout our solar system. These thrusters have high specific impulses—ratio of thrust to the rate of propellant consumption, so they require significantly less propellant for a given mission than would be needed with chemical propulsion. Ion propulsion is even considered to be mission enabling for some cases where sufficient chemical propellant cannot be carried on the spacecraft to accomplish the desired mission.”

“As the commercial applications for electric propulsion grow because of its ability to extend the operational life of satellites and to reduce launch and operation costs, NASA is involved in work on two different ion thrusters: the NASA Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) and the Annular Engine. NEXT, a high-power ion propulsion system designed to reduce mission cost and trip time, operates at 3 times the power level of NSTAR and was tested continuously for 51,000 hours (equivalent to almost 6 years of operation) in ground tests without failure, to demonstrate that the thruster could operate for the required duration of a range of missions.”

From: “NASA – Ion Propulsion”
Last Updated: August 7, 2017

Chemical rocket engines can and should continue to get cargo into LEO or from the Moon into a low Lunar orbit. However, if we are serious and truly believe we have “waited long enough”, then efficient and cost effective electric space propulsion systems can and should largely replace costly and inefficient chemical rocket engines for most of our other space transportation needs.

James Lunar Miner

NASA and the Apollo spaceflights of 1960s and 1970s were impressive, but NASA and the Gateway spaceship of the 2020s will lead us into a broad and much needed revolution in reusable super high 3,000 to 14,000+ Isp performance electric space propulsion system powered spacecraft that will enable cost effective and sustainable spaceflights to the Moon and many other useful destinations across our Solar System.

“NASA’s Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) project is developing critical technologies to enable government and commercial customers to extend the length and capabilities of ambitious new exploration and science missions. Advanced propulsion technologies such as SEP deliver the right mix of cost savings, safety and superior propulsive power to support a variety of next-generation journeys to destinations in deep space.”

And, “The Solar Electric Propulsion project will demonstrate key technologies necessary for robotic and human exploration-class solar electric transportation systems as well as highly efficient orbit transfer capabilities for commercial space operations and science missions. The first element of NASA’s Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway will demonstrate the use of advanced, high-power SEP to maintain the gateway’s position and move it through orbits.”

From: “Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP)”

James Lunar Miner

NASA is quietly leading a revolution in cost effective space transportation during our Cold War II.

If we Americans are too “polarized”, lacking in vision, and enthralled by the cult of ‘Mars colonies soon’ with highly CO2 polluting and inefficient methane powered rockets and thus unable or unwilling to exploit the many opportunities offered by highly propellant efficient electric space propulsion systems, several other countries are also fully capable of leading that space transportation revolution and reaping the many benefits of that revolution.

“Psyche is a planned orbiter mission that will explore the origin of planetary cores by studying the metallic asteroid 16 Psyche.”

And, “The SPT-140 (SPT stands for Stationary Plasma Thruster) is a production line commercial propulsion system[3] that was invented in Russia by OKB Fakel and developed by NASA’s Glenn Research Center, Space Systems Loral, and Pratt & Whitney since the late 1980s.[26][27] The SPT-140 thruster was first tested in US as a 3.5 kW unit in 2002 as part of the Air Force Integrated High Payoff Rocket Propulsion Technology program.[25][3] Using solar electric thrusters will allow the spacecraft to arrive at 16 Psyche (at 3.3 astronomical units) much faster while consuming only 10% of the propellant it would need using conventional chemical propulsion.”

From: “Psyche (spacecraft)” Wikipedia

“revolution in cost effective space transportation”.

I’m not seeing this as SLS is vastly more expensive and unproductive as contrasted with Falcon Heavy.

James Lunar Miner

If given the full support of informed Americans, NASA will lead America and the rest of the Home Planet in doing cost effective missions with propellant efficient solar and nuclear electric space propulsion system powered spacecraft and in using nuclear thermal rocket powered Landers across our Solar System.

NASA and American businesses will not be able to redefine “what humanity” is “capable of” or help us retain a leadership position in finding and using Lunar and asteroid resources during our Cold War II if we mainly rely on costly and grossly propellant inefficient chemical rocket powered spacecraft.

Some smart folks clearly understand what is needed:

“In a report published in the front page of the People’s Daily, a newspaper tightly controlled by the Communist Party, the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology specified that nuclear-powered spacecraft would allow for larger payloads and enable China to commercially explore and exploit the natural resources available in space by 2040. Prof. Wang Chunghui, Associate Professor of Aerospace Propulsion at the School of Astronautics at Beihang University, stated, ‘The nuclear vessels are built to colonize the solar system and beyond.’”

From: “The Moon’s far side and China’s space strategy”
By Namrata Goswami December 17, 2018

Do we Americans want to help NASA and our many businesses in winning our Cold War II by implementing “the best is yet to come” in efficiently finding and using space resources or do we simply want to fail by continuing to talk lots of propellant inefficient ‘chemical rockets to Mars colonies’ nonsense?

James Lunar Miner

The SLS should be used to lift reusable 90 to 130 metric ton solar electric propulsion powered space tugs (and other solar electric propulsion powered spacecraft) into LEO that will have 10 times (or more) the propellant efficiency of the fossil fueled Falcon Heavy’s and BFR/Starship’s respective upper stages.

The advanced versions of the SLS could have very large hydrolox powered boosters and be built as a super heavy zero CO2 emissions launcher eventually capable of putting 150 to 260+ metric ton solar electric propulsion spacecraft into orbit.

The Falcon Heavy is probably a technologically obsolete launcher that is supposedly to be replaced as soon as possible by the huge and fully reusable fossil fueled BFR/Starship that will probably do about twice as much direct damage to the Ozone Layer and contribute about twice as much CO2 to the stratosphere as would a similar but non-reusable launcher.

Unfortunately, fully reusable fossil fueled launchers are payload inefficient (and have about 50% of the payload of a similar but non-reusable launcher) and thus tend to be fossil fuel hogs.

Do we want to haul mainly useful cargo into LEO and to the Moon, asteroids, and Mars or do we instead foolishly want to mainly haul the massive amounts of low energy fossil fuel propellants that are needed for grossly propellant inefficient fossil fueled rocket propulsion systems?

Which choice will be far more efficient, cost effective, environmentally sustainable, and popular with business, political, environmental, and space leaders around the world?


“Energized by the electric power from on-board solar arrays, the electrically propelled system will use 10 times less propellant than a comparable, conventional chemical propulsion system, such as those used to power the space shuttles to orbit.”

And, “Solar electric propulsion allows deep-space missions to carry more cargo and use smaller launch vehicles while reducing mission costs.”

From: “Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP)”

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