To the Moon: 50 years after Apollo 11, is SpaceX the new NASA?

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.

What it's like to live on the moon

This article was originally written in July of 2009.

Ten years ago, on the fortieth anniversary 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 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 previous president, Barack Obama, was in the second year of his first term in office.


NASA's Space Launch System (SLS)

From a political and economic perspective, the world looked quite a bit different than as it does now, and the priorities of this country were also very different. We now have a new president, Donald Trump, and his visions for space exploration are a significant departure from the previous administration -- he wants to prioritize all efforts on a mission to Mars, and also intends to militarize space with a newly formed branch of the US armed forces, the Space Force.

The Space Shuttle was due for retirement in 2009. That happened in 2011, and I wrote an article 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 launch capability for human-crewed 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 canceled in favor of a new program, the Space Launch System, which was announced in September of 2011. There have been a large number of changes to the SLS since this article series was written including the cancellation of the Block 2 advanced booster variant.

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. 


NASA Space Launch System Configurations (Image: NASA)

While there was significant political debate regarding which of the launch system configurations was better or more affordable, Aerojet Rocketdyne is again 50 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 canceled, 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 crewed moon missions as well. 

While the final arrangements of the SLS itself are being fleshed out, we still don't have much of a plan for a manned landing 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 canceled 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 and Super 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 will use Boeing for its CST-100, which will eventually eliminate our dependence on Soyuz and Progress.

Hope for a future crewed moon landing is not lost. In April of 2019, Lockheed Martin announced its plans for developing a design for a new lander.

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. 

It's quite possible that NASA is not at all the future of manned spaceflight, but instead, it will be entirely the domain of private enterprise like SpaceX -- which is developing its Mars-capable launch system with the "Starship" version of the BFR Super Heavy rocket.

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