Rivalry in space that put man on the moon

There are no compelling reasons now for humans to get back on the Moon

Creating history Neil Armstrong descends from the Lunar Module to take his first step on the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969. NASA via NYT

But the greatest byproduct of that competition was the ‘conquest’ of space and, most memorably, the first manned landing on the Moon.

The pace of discoveries that led to that achievement, 40 years ago on Monday, was unbelievable: More than half a century separates the Wright Brothers and the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, but only eight years passed between Gagarin and Neil Armstrong’s ‘one small step’.

The Soviets did not take President John F Kennedy seriously in 1961 when he declared the goal, “before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” The Russians knew they were way ahead in the space race, since they had by far the most powerful rockets.

The French physicist and space historian Jacques Villain gives the precise moment at which the work of Wehrner Von Braun and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was suddenly taken seriously in the Soviet Union. It was the spring of 1964, when KGB reports confirmed that the first pieces of NASA’s new Saturn V rocket were rolling out on schedule, ready for assembly.

Unrealistic targets
On Aug 3, 1964, the Kremlin issued orders for a Soviet man to land on the Moon in 1967, the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution. That was completely unrealistic, even by the standards of the day. Typically (and fatally), the job was entrusted to two separate and competing programmes: the Zond programme, using the new Proton rocket designed by Vladimir Chelomei, was to work on a circumlunar flight, while the N1-L3 rocket programme led by Sergei Korolev, the head Soviet rocket engineer and the designer of Sputnik, would work on a lunar landing. With unrealistic demands and split resources, the Soviet lunar program, although massive, was doomed to failure.
In 1968, however, the race still appeared on. On Sept 15 that year, the Soviets logged another first: the first unmanned circumlunar flight, using the Zond 5 rocket. Even if it landed in the wrong place on return (the Indian Ocean) and only carried insects and turtles, it was an impressive step toward a man on the Moon.

It was now the turn of the CIA to spread panic. The Russians appeared ready to send a man around the Moon before the end of the year. The end of 1968 was also the end of President Lyndon B Johnson’s troubled term, and he keenly wanted a lunar achievement.
The fear of being beaten by the Russians and presidential pressure led NASA to take a risk that would be unthinkable today. The first crew ever to leave Earth’s gravity, Apollo 8, was launched on what was only the third-ever launch of the Saturn V rocket. But all went well and Frank Borman’s ‘Merry Christmas’ from lunar orbit became the stuff of legend.

Apollo 8 was the death knell for the Soviet Zond programme. But the Russians still thought they had a chance for the big one, the actual landing on the Moon, with the giant N1 rocket conceived by Korolev (who had died in 1966).
In January 1969, 2,300 technicians assembled at the Baikonur base in Kazakhstan
for the complex preparations for its first launch. It took place on Feb 21, but 70
seconds into the flight the 2,700-tonne beast exploded. The team immediately
began preparations for another go.

Meanwhile, back at Cape Canaveral, NASA scored two more successes with flawless Apollo 9 and 10 flights, in March and May. All seemed ready for the big one. Two weeks before the scheduled Apollo 11 flight, the Soviets launched another N1 from Baikonur. It exploded spectacularly a few seconds after takeoff.

On July 16, Apollo 11 began its triumphant flight into history. Fortunately, history does not stress that the lunar excursion module’s computers had a puny memory and were grossly inadequate for the job. Nor does it dwell on those few seconds of fuel left in the Eagle at the moment of touchdown, a thin line between glory and disaster. America was first.

The Soviets, for the record, had not given up. They had another unmanned lunar probe programme, led by another strong personality, Georgy Babakin. On July 13, just three days before the launch of Apollo, Babakin launched a Proton rocket with a six-tonne Luna 15 probe. It was intended to bring home lunar samples (as a similar mission later did) and to demonstrate that Soviet engineers could explore the Moon without endangering lives.

But something went wrong. Just as Armstrong and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin were closing the door of their module after their first lunar walk, Luna 15 crashed uncontrolled onto the Moon. Apollo 11 seismographers registered the resounding blow. The Russians were beaten to the Moon.

The Apollo programme continued for a while, but President Richard Nixon’s priorities shifted. The last three flights were scrapped and the programme ended in 1972. No human has left Earth’s gravity since then.

Forty years later, we are, or should be, somewhat wiser. We’re now in the painful process of putting together the International Space Station. Not only will the programme last three times as long as Apollo, but from the start has also lacked a well defined purpose.

Review of manned space flights
President Obama recently appointed a committee to review US plans for manned space flights. Among other things, they are scrutinising NASA’s Constellation programme to return to the Moon by 2020, a goal set by former President George W Bush in 2004.
There are no compelling reasons to get humans back on the Moon. You don’t go to the Moon to do something you’ve already done or that could be done by robots. The benefits to science could never justify the literally astronomic expenditure. The notion of mining on the moon would also not justify the costs, in addition to being environmentally offensive.
Let Chinese scientists demonstrate that they can do what the US did 40 years earlier. But let NASA, the European Space Agency and all other willing agencies move on to bigger and better things.

Buzz Aldrin, for example, has talked about new destinations, including a permanent human presence on Mars. We’d need to develop new, challenging stuff to get to Mars, such as a really new propulsion system, possibly nuclear. And we’d need trillions, or roughly the same sum that went up in smoke in the subprime game. And why not? All we stand to lose are our Earthly chains.

Thank you, old Moon, for being there for the last four billion years and especially 40 years ago, for the Eagle to land on. We’ll return for sure, in a not-too-distant future, perhaps through private travel agents, maybe catering to newlyweds and serving all-you-can-eat honey on the way. Just please don’t block our way to deep space.

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