Why giant technological leaps aren’t always the answer

18th July, 2009

The Apollo 11 moon landing, whose 40th anniversary is celebrated this week, is still unsurpassed as a symbol of technological achievement. Visitors to Washington DC’s National Air and Space Museum can see the command module up close, and visitors to the Science Museum in London can see the very similar Apollo 10 version. Being this near to the spaceship defies belief: it looks more like a contraption from the steam age than the space age. Did this thing really go around the moon and come home again?

Forty years on, we have our own technological challenges, from finding vaccines for malaria and HIV to producing cheap, effective ways to generate energy without pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we achieve those goals?

More to the point: Neil Armstrong walked on the moon thanks to government management, government money and one of the most famous of all government ambitions. That was President Kennedy’s 1961 declaration that, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space.”

Shouldn’t, then, the world’s governments get over their fear of trying to “pick winners” and put some serious effort behind our more modern goals? It’s a tempting conclusion. I think the Apollo missions offer a more subtle lesson.

The most important contemporary benefit of the space race has been the satellite, and the obvious way to launch a satellite is the way that the Apollo lunar modules were launched, by using a set of rockets that blast off from the ground. This remains the dominant satellite launch technology to this day, and why not? Once Kennedy decided to head for the moon, rockets were the way to do it, so rockets have been the focus of government investment.

But ground-launched rockets are not the only way to get a satellite into space. One other obvious possibility is to build a much smaller rocket and carry it into the upper atmosphere using an aeroplane. This isn’t a new idea: the US X-15 plane piggybacked on a B-52 bomber and its first flight predated Apollo 11 by a decade. The X-15 flew at more than 350,000ft, over 106km; 100km up generally being regarded as the beginning of “space”. Neil Armstrong was one of the test pilots. But despite being a promising approach for launching satellites, it was no good for putting a man on the moon, and the technology was sidelined.

Air-launch technologies have been making a comeback thanks to private innovators. The Ansari X Prize for the first privately funded space flight was won by an air-launch system, White Knight One and SpaceShipOne. Virgin Galactic, which has teamed up with White Knight’s designers to develop a system to put tourists into space, has also expressed a hope that the system can be used to launch small satellites. And Orbital Sciences Corporation has been using an air-launched system, Pegasus, to put satellites into orbit for nearly 20 years. Such systems are more flexible – they can fly to where the good weather is, for instance – and may turn out to be cheaper in the long run.

It is too simplistic to say that Apollo was a dead end, but nor is it obvious that the project really was a giant leap in the exploration and exploitation of space. Inspirational it may have been, but Apollo also reminds us that in our urge to achieve magnificent goals, we should not overlook less glamorous alternatives.

Also published at ft.com.

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