The Apollo moon landings that began in 1969 were spectacular, an unparalleled demonstration of engineering and scientific prowess, not to mention political skill.

But what did we get from Apollo? Critics — then and now — see the moon landings as a space travel cul de sac, a one-off achievement that didn’t open the solar system to human exploration.

But Apollo did teach us how to fly in space, how to develop the technology to do that and also how to manage a sprawling, complicated, risky project across many years.

As a new space age dawns, amid a fresh race to the moon, it’s worth understanding what NASA and Apollo got right the first time. The technology, the computing power, the material science is all dramatically advanced from 50 years ago, but the laws of physics haven’t changed. Apollo succeeded, and in succeeding it got a lot of things right. It’s worth tapping that experience this time, to speed the return to ambitious space exploration, and also to avoid making mistakes we don’t need to make a second time.

Here are five insights from Apollo for the new space age:

Lesson 1: “Innovation on demand” works but is unpredictable.

Going to the moon in the 1960s required solving 10,000 problems, but NASA’s engineers didn’t know what the second 5,000 were until they’d solved the first 5,000. NASA and the companies that built Apollo created spaceships and spacesuits, heatshields and an electric car that could drive across the surface of the moon. They took computers that were half the size of a room and made them the size of a small briefcase, while also making those computers better, faster and more reliable. They had to “innovate on demand.”

And they did. By solving those problems, Apollo laid the foundation for the digital revolution by dramatically accelerating the development of the computer chips that power the world today, and by transforming battery technology that was the first step toward today’s array of devices, from cordless lawnmowers to smartphones and electric cars. But they didn’t know in advance what technologies solving those early spaceflight problems would create.

The new space age, too, has problems to solve: How do you create spaceships with artificial gravity? How do you manage the psychological strains on small crews, living and working in small spaces, for many years — which is what interplanetary space travel will require.

How do you design missions in which flight crews have autonomy? Current human spaceflight is all run from the ground. But the radio delay of manned missions to Mars (between 4 minutes and 24 minutes), and beyond Mars, means Mission Control will have to become Mission Support.

Solving these problems, and new ones yet to be identified, will generate new technologies and breakthroughs – we just can’t predict what those will be, and where they will lead in the decades to come.

Lesson 2: Incentives matter.

The race to the moon in the 1960s was a government-driven, government-directed, government-funded effort. Apollo wasn’t creating a space-exploration system, it was winning a race. When the goal was met, when the rival was bested, the effort deflated.

The new space age is driven by something completely different: economics. That means that space entrepreneurs like Bezos, Musk and Branson aren’t trying to operate “space missions”; they’re trying to lower the cost of spaceflight to the point that it becomes routine. In effect, they’re aiming to create a space economy—a zero gravity infrastructure.

That’s much different than the previous race to the moon, because a “space economy” will (or should) be self-sustaining. So unlike Apollo, which was a project, its growth and innovation will be organic—the way the digital economy has blossomed, and also reinvented itself, over the past 20 years. The fact that we don’t have a defined goal might make the path hazier, but it also makes it far more likely that this push into space will be permanent.

Lesson 3: Rivalry matters.

The first race to the moon was born from the Cold War rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States. The Russians dominated the first years of the Space Age: They launched the first satellite into orbit, the first probe to the moon, sent the first living creature into space (the dog Laika), and the first person into space. Apollo was President John F. Kennedy’s effort to get America back into the space race, to stop being second-best.

The race to the moon wouldn’t have happened without the Cold War, and the Cold War sustained Apollo through the decade it took to reach the moon. It also gave NASA and the Apollo contractors a sense of urgency and focus. Everyone knew the nation’s stature was on the line.

Rivalry is driving the new space age as well—just read the dueling tweets from Bezos and Musk—but differently from Apollo. This time it will cause a broadening of space technology and the space economy, rather than a narrowing of it.

We already have the routine rivalry of capitalism in some parts of the emerging space economy, between companies contending to produce the best kinds of technology and services. That’s happening with small cube-satellites; it’s happening at the other end of the scale, with the development of all-new rockets by SpaceX and Blue Origin. We don’t have just one car company, we don’t have just one smartphone company, we don’t have just one computer company or toothpaste company, and we won’t have just one space company—nor should we.

Rivalry got us to the moon, but then left space travel without a clear goal. In the new space age, rivalry will drive a diversity of players and objectives, an array of profit-driven space companies that won’t all be focused on the same goal or mission—but that will create all kinds of opportunities and innovations.

Lesson 4: NASA is good at development but bad at operations.

We need NASA, but not for everything.

NASA was brilliant as a developmental agency. That’s what it was during Apollo: a group charged with inventing space travel from scratch. But Apollo didn’t set up routine passenger flights to a moon base.

It turns out that NASA doesn’t do “operational” missions with anything like the vigor and imagination it does developmental ones, at least on the human spaceflight side. Both the space shuttle and the International Space Station are “operational” efforts, and both were brilliant technical successes that never really found a sense of purpose.

Private companies are now stepping in to find and take over the operational elements of space. That’s what SpaceX and Blue Origin and Bigelow Aerospace are about. So, we should redirect NASA back at the next wave of really hard space travel problems. In terms of human spaceflight, the Apollo example, and the experience of the years since, suggest that the agency should go back to being an advanced research and development agency and leave operational roles to companies and universities.

Lesson 5: Public cheerleading is overrated.

When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the moon on the evening of July 20, 1969, some 94 percent of U.S. households were watching.

By the time of the last moon landing mission, Apollo 17 in December 1972, fewer people watched the moonwalks than watched that week’s episode of the sitcom All in the Family.

The waning of public interest in America’s space program has always been taken as a critique: Americans don’t pay attention to space anymore, therefore it’s not a worthwhile investment.

In fact, the truth is exactly the opposite: Americans stopped paying attention because the extraordinary achievement of going to the moon became routine. That’s a sign of success, not failure. Americans didn’t follow each step of the decoding of the human genome breathlessly, with TV specials and magazine covers every month. But the decoding of the human genome was a huge achievement. Americans didn’t follow the work, week by week, of Larry Page and Sergey Brin as they sought to archive all human knowledge with Google, but we sure are glad they did it.

Worthwhile projects—from medical research to archaeological excavations—don’t need public attention to accomplish their goals, or to be worthwhile.

We need to separate the value of spaceflight from the question of how much Americans pay attention to it. In fact, the success of the new space age will be the inverse of the attention it gets. The better space exploration and space habitation go, the less we should notice them. That’s not a sign of a public that’s bored, it’s a sign of space travel becoming routine the way we’ve been expecting it will be since the days of The Jetsons.

Charles Fishman is the author of One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon, published this month by Simon & Schuster.

Source: www.politico.com

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