By Leonard Momeny
Alumnus, Space Studies, American Military University
There are few instances in history that compare to the moments NASA provided the world during the Apollo program.
NASA’s Apollo program included 12 moonwalkers and other astronauts and flights between 1968 and 1972. National Geographic appropriately defined the entire Apollo experience as “Mankind’s Greatest Adventure.”
How exactly did Apollo happen and could something like that historic program happen again? Those who question a repeat are perhaps influenced by the many unfulfilled promises to return to the moon. However, it is now, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing, that we have a better understanding that manned space exploration is once again in a position to make “the next giant leap for mankind.”
The significance of the Apollo program has often been acknowledged, but all discussions point in different directions. How could we achieve so many goals in just a decade across the three different space programs of Mercury, Gemini and finally Apollo? How could everything culminate in the first manned exploration of the moon and then simply stop?
How Could ‘Mankind’s Greatest Adventure’ Last for Such a Brief Time in History?
How could “Man’s Greatest Adventure” last for such a brief period? Even members of the Apollo program have asked themselves this question. After nearly 50 years after the first moon landing, are our best years in space behind us?
There is some legitimacy to the concern about NASA’s efforts and achievements following the Apollo program. For a time afterward, the country could only stumble through the often-forgotten Skylab years. That is not to devalue Skylab as a program, for it was after all the next page in the von Braun playbook and it was supported through tremendous innovation and cost savings methods. Pete Conrad, moon walker and Apollo 12 commander, would later mention that he was most proud of his Skylab mission.
Following Skylab came the troubled development of the Space Shuttle, which never kept to its schedule. When Skylab finally did arrive, there was no space station for a destination. The years following Apollo were filled with challenges, financial strains, setbacks in development and limited imagination.
Space Shuttle Ushered in a New Period in Manned Space Flight
The space shuttle ushered in a new period in manned space flight, but it was locked into low earth orbit (LEO). NASA would continue to look to presidential “Kennedyesque” leadership without success. So we have remained in LEO for the last four and a half decades. History is so far removed from the moon landings that a large percentage of the world’s population wasn’t even born when Neil Armstrong took man’s first steps on the moon on July 20, 1969.
What followed the Apollo program were many unfulfilled promises of lunar bases and trips to Mars along with an ongoing debate about space exploration and America’s future in outer space.
A parade of astronauts would come and go, each waiting for the unfulfilled, promised lunar return. Instability in agency leadership concerning oversight of various programs, inflation and waffling political leadership all played a part in America’s locked LEO program.
After the United States won the great space race against the Soviet Union, NASA critics found the space program to be excessive, some going as far as to question the necessity of space exploration altogether. With the Soviet threat removed, the world changed.
In the following years, other nations joined the U.S. in space. Will we ever see a program as grand and dramatic as Apollo or are its successes consigned to a future with no heir to its accomplishments?
A little-known interview by Doug Ward of flight director Gerry Griffin is recounted by author Craig Nelson in his book Rocket Men. This interview has given us a better understanding of that historic space achievement and the potential for another achievement on the scale of Apollo.
In an interview for the NASA Oral History Project, Griffin relates Neil Armstrong’s response to the question, “How did Apollo happen?” Griffin paraphrases Armstrong that it was all possible due to the alignment of four curves — Leadership, Economy, Peace and Threat. As recounted by Griffin, Armstrong states “My theory is that when you get all of those curves in conjunction, when they all line up together, you can do something like Apollo.” The curves can be explained quickly as healthy space budgeting, Kennedy-like leadership, the perceived threat of the Russian effort, and finally, peace in the program country of origin. These are the “Armstrong Curves.”
When the Apollo program is analyzed in terms of the “Armstrong curves,” it becomes evident how they lend themselves at critical moments to space flight and provide a barometer for identification of potential in spaceflight.
While Americans are concerned about the future of NASA, especially given the current tumultuous relationship with Russia, an analysis of the agency’s current operations, its international space partners, and the new Orion craft are signs of a strong future for the space agency. These current efforts are cast against the Armstrong curves and make clear that an Apollo-like moment is once again at hand.
Going back to the moon by 2024 does not seem impossible. The agency leadership is present, the funding is being allocated and NASA engineers are moving with renewed energy toward the goal. Technology and expertise are available in the booming civilian space sector, and innovation is advancing a legitimate space effort.
As climate change looms, the idea of moving beyond the LEO boundaries might one day mean our survival. Apollo was no fluke; there will be a second coming. The growing army of space professionals at NASA, SpaceX and Boeing will make it so.
About the Author
Leonard Momeny currently serves in the United States Army at the rank of CW4. For the last 15 years, he has served as a UH-60M Instructor Pilot. Leonard has an M.S. in Space Studies (Honors) from American Military University and has been published in Army Aviation Digest and Stars and Stripes.