In the 1960s and 1970s
the technology didn't exist to travel to the moon.
In making this statement, conspiracists often draw parallels to
the consumer technology of the 1960s. "If they couldn't make X, then
how could they go to the moon?"
First we must remember that NASA was on the cutting edge of
technology in the 1950s and 1960s. They had an enormous budget and
attracted the top scientists in the country. At the height of the
Apollo project there were half a million scientists and engineers
working on different aspects of the missions.
In a larger sense, it's easy to lose touch with technology. That
is, it's easy to look back to the past and wonder how we ever got
along without the miracles we enjoy today. We sit at our gigahertz
computers and forget that there was a time when an eight megahertz
computer was pretty cool.
Just because we rely today on one particular technology or another
in order to do some hard thing, doesn't mean it was impossible to do
that thing before our modern technology was invented. For example,
nearly all modern clocks use a real-time clock integrated circuit. It
does all the timekeeping. In the 1970s we had analog clocks that used
synchronous electric motors to precisely drive mechanical gears.
Would it be correct to say that accurate timekeeping was impossible
before that integrated chip? Of course not. Similarly, old
mechanical action clocks used pendulums and springs to keep
surprisingly accurate time.
What's the lesson? Just because we choose to use some particular
technology today to solve a problem doesn't mean that problem was
unsolvable before we had today's technology. Apollo engineers didn't
have high-speed portable computers to make self-contained guidance
systems, so they just built guidance systems differently. The
computer was only one part of the guidance system. When John Glenn
orbited the earth in his Mercury capsule, there were no
computers with him. Yet his capsule was fully automated.
The moral of the story is that people can be very ingenious
working with limited tools.
Many people from NASA
have said it would be difficult or impossible to return to the moon
This, unfortunately, is probably true. But not because the
technology never existed to go to the moon.
In the 1960s we had a clear mandate to go to the moon. Although
NASA had an ambitious program of scientific exploration planned, the
real motivation in the public's mind was to beat the Russians. After
Apollo 11, interest in the space program dwindled rapidly. And
consequently the budget was slashed and then slashed again.
Most of the people involved in the lunar landings have retired,
and many have passed away. That is a lot of expertise to lose. A lot
of that has not been passed on to the next generation of engineers
because the newer engineers don't need that knowledge. Landing on the
moon required a specific set of skills that isn't much in demand in
the space program anymore.
Most of the equipment is gone too. A few lucky museums have
command modules or lunar modules, or other significant chunks of
Apollo hardware. But a lot of it has been scrapped. The
manufacturers no longer have the specialized tools to build these
spacecraft, and the detailed design documents have been thrown out.
Not that we would actually use these machines, but today's engineers
would study them to understand what their predecessors worked out for
solutions to various problems.
How could these people throw out something so dear to the national
heritage? Unfortunately these are private companies intent on making
a profit. They are in the aircraft business, not the museum
business. The plans and design documents for one lunar module take
several thousand cubic feet of storage space.
NASA is, unfortunately, suffering a brain drain. While it was
fashionable in the 1960s and 1970s to work for the space program, it
isn't anymore. NASA is scrambling for talented scientists and
engineers. There are probably two reasons for this. First, NASA
isn't the same organization it was in the 1960s. Today it's more
bureaucratic, more like the other government agencies. Second, much
of what NASA does today is seen as routine and repetitive. The
magical allure of space travel isn't what it used to be.
Henry Ford invented his
automobile, and now a hundred years later the technology to produce
automobiles is still commonplace. Similarly if the technology existed
to go to the moon in 1969, it should still be around
It's not very useful to draw a parallel between technology that
was intended from the start to be a mass-produced consumer product,
and a highly specialized technology, only twenty or so items of which
would ever be produced. There just isn't a big market for manned
spaceships. The companies that produced them in the 1960s and 1970s
went back to making conventional aircraft. Some of what they learned
making the Apollo spacecraft was incorporated into their more
consumer-oriented products, but some wasn't.
There were processes involved in making lunar spacecraft that were
known literally to only a handful of people. They were the people who
invented them. These techniques aren't necessarily needed into
today's aerospace market, and so they weren't passed on when those
people retired. Most automotive engineers can't make a wheel for a
horse-drawn covered wagon. It's not technology that's required much
anymore, so it's not generally passed down through the ranks of