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Engineering Apollo

September 02, 2008

Jack Ganssle-September 02, 2008

My dad was surprised to find that it was illegal to shovel sand from Jones Beach into the back of his station wagon. Was he going to jail?

It was 1958. Two successful and surprising Sputnik launches had energized the political class and spawned engineering efforts to match or beat the Soviet's success. All the U.S. had managed to loft was Explorer 1, which, at 31 pounds, was a mere 3% of the mass of Sputnik 2. But even in those very early days of spaceflight, when getting anything into even a near-Earth orbit seemed impossibly difficult, work was being done on a manned lunar landing. At Grumman on Long Island, my dad was doing pre-proposal landing studies. They thought sand could simulate the lunar surface. The cop somehow didn't believe his wild story about traveling to the moon, but simply issued a warning and moved on, no doubt shaking his head in disbelief.

The word "lunatic" comes to mind.

But just over a decade later, two astronauts managed to land and return safely. In another couple of years, the country was bored by the concept; I remember watching a later mission blasting off in a quarter of the TV screen while a football game filled the rest.

Neil and Buzz took their lunar waltz 39 years ago. Even after four decades, manned access to space is still fraught with danger and uncertainty. The costs are still astronomical. And America's only human-rated launch vehicle will go into mothballs in just two years.

It took just a decade to go from no space capability, through early manned launches, to a successful moon landing. Ironically if Orion meets all of its schedule goals, which seems unlikely given the routine overruns that plague big government contracts, it'll take 15 years of development and test to repeat Apollo 11's, by then, fifty-year-old accomplishment.

How did Kennedy's mandate succeed, especially given the primitive technology of the era? How did armies of mostly young engineers invent the spacecraft, the web of ground support infrastructure, and the designs of the missions themselves in such a short time?

The rich history of space exploration has been well told in many books. My favorites include Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut's Journeys by Michael Collins, the lonely pilot who stayed in orbit during Apollo 11's descent.1 Of all of the astronaut autobiographies, this is the most literate and finely crafted.

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