Over the weekend, I read an article about NASA's plans to put Americans back on the moon in 2018. I was underwhelmed. First, why should it take so long to do it? John F. Kennedy set a goal back in the early '60s of putting a man on the man by the end of the decade, which was successfully accomplished. Less than ten years then, but now it takes us thirteen years? Why?
Even worse, NASA's plan is to cobble together a lunar mission using leftover parts from the Apollo and Shuttle programs. My reaction: You've got to be kidding me! That technology is 30+ years old now, so it will be almost 50-year-old technology by the time of the 2018 moon mission. I just do not believe that there haven't been advances in design, materials, technology, etc., that couldn't be implemented in a new and improved spacecraft design. Scavenging old parts to try to make a new spacecraft is hardly the hallmark of a vibrant space program. It sounds like something that a second-rate nation would do.
I'm not talking about the computer and communications technology, of course, which will certainly be state of the art. I'm talking about the bus they'll be driving. It's the equivalent of putting fancy chrome and a state-of-the-art sound system into a 1974 AMC Pacer and thinking you have a pimped-out ride. The proposed hybrid Apollo-Shuttle spacecraft would be the equivalent of a 1974 AMC Pacer, the Mirthmobile from "Wayne's World." Sometimes making something new look retro is a successful marketing tool. Look at the most recent incarnation of the Corvette, which looks much like the 1953 version, or the retro-inspired PT Cruiser. These are, however, new cars with all the bells and whistles. A hybrid Apollo-Shuttle moon mission would not be retro, though; it would just be old.
Back in the 1960s, the space program had a major "wow factor." It was glamorous. It was cool. And we thought it had a vision, although it turned out that the vision was far too limited, since all we really cared about was getting to the moon before the Russians did. Once we got there, we jumped up and down a few times and planted our flag, but then we left and we didn't go back. The mid-1970s were a bad time, with Vietnam ending badly, Watergate turning us into a nation of cynics, and then the trials and tribulations of the Carter administration. The whimpering end of the Apollo program was just another symptom of a nation that appeared to be in decline. The coolness of the space program, the wow factor, was gone.
NASA had an opportunity here to show some vision, to come up with something bold and new. Something cool. Something with flair. And they instead have decided to try to do it on the cheap, sending a 1974 AMC Pacer to boldly go where we've already been before. How disappointing.