To the Moon: 45 years after Apollo 11

To the Moon: 45 years after Apollo 11

Summary: A new generation of manned missions to the moon by NASA is not a certainty, but many of the parts are being put into place to make it possible.

NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) if built to completion, might return us someday to the moon. Art: NASA

Five years ago, on the fortieth anniversarry of the Apollo 11 landing, I wrote a series of articles titled "To the Moon: How we Built the Technologies". In it, I profiled the key companies that contributed to the space program in order to make the moon missions a reality.

As part of those articles, I also talked a bit about where those companies are now and where our space program was going next. In 2009, the future of our space program was uncertain and our president was in his second year of his first term in office.

From a political and economic perspective, the world looked a bit different then as it does now, and the priorities of this country were also a bit different.

The Space Shuttle was due for retirement in 2009. That actually happened in 2011, and I wrote an article at the time about why it was necessary. At the time, the successor to the shuttle and also the Apollo was the Constellation Program, which would have had all of the components needed to return this country to having its own launch capability for manned spaceflight.

When I wrote those articles, the findings of the Augustine Committee had not yet been released. As a result of those findings, the Constellation Program was cancelled in favor of a new program, the Space Launch System, which was announced in September of 2011.

While both are multiple configuration heavy-lift systems, the SLS differs from the Constellation program in that it uses more of the Space Shuttle's technology, primarily the Rocketdyne RS-25D/E re-usable SSMEs on the main boost stage as opposed to the cheaper, throw-away Rocketdyne RS-68 used currently on the Delta IV heavy lift launch platform. 

The various block configurations of the Space Launch System. Art: NASA

The upper Earth Departure Stage of the SLS, like the Constellation, is likely to incorporate the Rocketdyne J-2X, which is a direct descendant of the upper-stage engine used in the Apollo program.

The SLS is also going to incorporate solid rocket boosters (SRBs) similar to that of the Space Shuttle which are manufactured by ATK.

While there is great political debate regarding which of the launch system configurations was better or more affordable, Aerojet Rocketdyne is again 45 years later in the driver's seat for the main propulsion systems and Boeing, the inheritor of all of the companies that built the Saturn V itself, is again on the top for building the cryogenic stages and the avionics systems for the SLS.

And while the Constellation program was cancelled, the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) is still being developed by Lockheed-Martin, in partnership with Boeing. The MPCV would not only be suitable for low earth orbit missions, but potentially also for manned moon missions as well.

A competition for prime contractor for the liquid fuel rockets used in the the SLS Block II main boost stage configurations is underway and is likely complete in 2015. Originally, the two main competitors were Aerojet and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne.

Aerojet's design uses a group configuration of a domestically-licensed and produced version of a Russian NK-33 engine, whereas Rocketdyne's design is a modernized version of the Saturn V's F-1.

The merger of the two companies in 2013 have now made the victor of this competition something of a formality, regardless of which design actually wins out. I think many of us would like to see the F-1 fly again, simply as a statement of national pride.

Aerojet Rocketdyne's engines may even become more important for the future of space exploration now that relations with Russia may have been completely derailed due to recent developments in Ukraine. 

Our supply of the NPO Energomash RD-180s used in the United Launch Aliiance Atlas V heavy lift rocket is dwindling, and will likely require replacement if Russia refuses to sell us new ones, particulary if broad sanctions by our government against entire sections of their economy are enacted.

There has been no talk yet of retrofitting the Atlas V with Rocketdyne engines, but this may very well be what comes to pass due to our need for routine military payload launches. 

While the SLS itself is being fleshed out, we still don't have much of a plan for a manned lander like we had for Apollo 11. The Altair, the spiritual successor to Grumman's LEM, which was only in very early development stages at the time my articles were written, was effectively cancelled when the Constellation program was deep-sixed by the Obama administration.

The SLS's prime objective, in the immediate term, is to get us a launch vehicle to replace the Space Shuttle, and in the longer term, to give us a platform for eventually achieving a manned landing on Mars.

Private firms such as SpaceX with their manned and unmanned version of the Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy boosters, as well as the United Launch Alliance and the Orbital Sciences Cygnus will hopefully help us get through any gaps that might arise by any potential denial of access to the Russian Soyuz and Progress systems for missions to the International Space Station and for other orbital missions.

In addition to the Dragon, the NASA Commercial Crew Program is actively selecting and funding designs for crew to low earth orbit, including those from Boeing for its CST-100, which could potentially eliminate our dependence on Soyuz and Progress.

But hope for a future manned moon landing is not lost. In January 2013, Northrop Grumman, in conjunction wtih a new private aerospace firm, Golden Spike, announced their plans for developing a design for a new lander, and formed an advisory board for planning the next generation of lunar missions.

It is unclear as to whether these missions and any lander design that is proposed will come to fruition and whether the SLS will carry any of them, but if the American public wills it, anything is possible.

Will NASA again return us to the moon? Or will it be private industry, or a combination thereof? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Innovation, Nasa / Space


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • Private industry can do some things....

    ...but there's no money in exploration, so governments are going to have to do it to the extent that it is seen as being in the public interest (no, I don't think private foundations are capable of raising that kind of money). In the short term, the only things I see private enterprise doing in space are satellite launches and maintenance, space tourism, and possibly salvaging the remains of old moon missions ("the Vulture has landed"). Space settlements on the lines of those described in Isaac Asimov's "Nemesis" (or like Heinlein's Luna City) are possible and might well be established by commercial firms, but I think we're at least a couple of decades away from that.
    John L. Ries
    • There has never been any money in exploration

      Which is why it has always been sponsored by kings, princes, and governments. Colonization has been sometimes left to private enterprise (as England did when colonizing the east coast of North America), but it has never been relied upon for exploration. Note that even Thomas Jefferson (long treated as a saint by libertarians) sent Lewis and Clark to explore the little-known areas of the the newly purchased Louisiana Territory at public expense.
      John L. Ries
      • That was because nations could claim sovereignty

        Monarchies and governments floated expeditions because they could claim sovereignty over any new lands discovered. The other factor was opening new trade routes, finding way stations such as islands, and other vital info which back then could be kept private for years.

        Neither of these is a factor today. The "map" of the solar system is open to all (not to mention there's nobody to trade with), and by international treaty no nation can gain sovereignty over the planets.
        • And individuals couldn't?

          De facto control was all some Viking chiefs really needed; official recognition came in due course (but that's a matter of settlement, not exploration).

          Speaking of which, Eric the Red and his son, Leif Ericsson do provide the only two counterexamples in the last 2000 years or so of which I am aware. It appears that when Eric the Red discovered Greenland, he was exploring on his own account, not that of any ruler; he then made money by selling land to settlers, naming the country appealingly, though inaccurately. Likewise, Leif's initial expedition to what he called Vinland appears to have been private.

          It should be noted, though, that both settlements ultimately failed (though not because of the private nature of their foundings) and that it wasn't a huge jump from Iceland to Greenland.
          John L. Ries
    • That doesn't really matter

      The government/commercial political thing is really irrelevant since the math just doesn't work and it won't be any different few decades from now. I remember the 70s when we were going to have people living on the Moon by the turn of the century but then the reality set in. As long as we're still using Newton to do lifts, it's not going to change.
      Buster Friendly
      • Newton is really all we have to reach escape velocity

        Relativity only becomes relevant out in space at much higher velocities than we are currently capable of achieving.
        John L. Ries
  • The Senate Launch System (SLS) is the stupidest thing ever built

    A job creation scheme, not a functional space program component.

    It is basically Constellation without the lander.... to which I say, hello? You can't go anywhere if you don't land?

    Meanwhile, for a fraction of the cost Elon Musk is designing landable rockets, the only way we're actually going to get to Mars and leave again. SpaceX will get to Mars long before NASA will ever get anywhere with its own ships... if China doesn't get there first.
    • Mac_PC_FenceSitter: "Senate Launch System"

      A great idea, but the Moon is much too close. I'd look for a big rock somewhere in the Oort Cloud. Vger may still be of some use before its batteries expire...
      Rabid Howler Monkey
    • Yea okay

      Yea, you don't actually buy that scam artist's spew do you? He's good at making money off BSing people that don't understand the science.
      Buster Friendly
      • Good grief

        you know the dragon has actually docked at the ISS, right? You're not one of those moon hoaxers are you?
        • And?

          Was there a point in there somewhere?
          Buster Friendly
          • "He's good at making money off BSing people that don't understand the..."

            Objectively untrue. That was my point.... unless you really are going there, about Buzz and Neil in a sound stage.
          • No, you didn't make that point

            No, you tried to support all his hogwash with a government financed rocket making a 1960s era maneuver. Then you used a personal attack. That didn't support his BS either. Basically this scam artists lives off tax payer money and stock bubbles created by deliberate misrepresentation of technical and financial issues.
            Buster Friendly
          • um, what?

            The COTs program is specifically NASA trying to get their budget under control by having third parties loft cargo and astronauts.

            SpaceX bid on this program, is one of two winners (Orbital Sciences is the other), and has executed all their milestones... going into production on the cargo delivery element. It is "government financed" because the government is the one seeking for companies to do the work... and has found those companies.

            I do have to ask - what the heck are you going on about?
          • If only

            If only that was it. The reality is politicians wanting a photo ops and saying they "privatized" when it's really just another government contractor.
            Buster Friendly
          • Well, except for the fact that it is not

            A government contractor is someone who labours as part of government program delivery. The shuttle manufacturers who made the SRBs were contractors.... They delivered NASA designed parts on NASA's schedule.

            ISS deliveries ride the same Falcon kerosene rocket that SpaceX puts private satellites up with. So unless you count an airline that happens to sell seats to government workers as "government contractors " then no they're not.
          • When the government hires a contractor,

            that IS the definition of privatizing. Not that private CUSTOMERS cannot come along later (if the product is suitable for private use), but having the government as the FIRST customer is a good way to get past the learning curve and get some quick economies of scale. Uncle Sam did not build government owned factories to build tanks and aircraft for World War II, and neither did the other side (although, of course, the Soviet Union did). We and our enemies both hired private companies to build them.

            In this case, SpaceX and its competitors are a step MORE privatized than the original space program up through the Shuttle, in that the private vendors are RUNNING the launch facilities and working for the customer to pay them for a successful launch.
          • The other side didn't need to

            Hitler could simply order German industrialists to provide whatever he needed at whatever price he wanted to pay; and the suppliers were in no position to say "no" to him. His government could even supply prisoners to help do the work (Albert Speer discussed this last item at length in his memoir).

            There is no such thing as free enterprise in a totalitarian state.
            John L. Ries
  • For what purpose?

    While we learned a lot about the Moon's origins from Apollo, there was very little good science compared to expense. We can do far better with unmanned rovers and other probes. It all comes down to weight.
    Buster Friendly
    • That's not why we go into space

      and to the extent that it is, we already have robotic missions doing that.

      We send people into space in order to someday settle there. Robots offer us little assistance in accomplishing that.