Would it be more or less difficult to put a human on the moon today?

As part of a recent trip to D.C., I enjoyed seeing a projection of a Saturn V rocket on the Washington Monument:

What if we tried to do this again? Would it be easier or harder to accomplish? As part of the new Corvette announcement, a GM executive talked about the “women and men” whose designs and efforts got us to the moon. We still have women and men and now also have a rainbow of additional genders. If diversity is our strength, shouldn’t it be easier to get to the moon?

But what, specifically, would be easier to engineer?

It seems as though guidance would be much easier, but the MIT Draper Lab guidance systems in Apollo worked well, didn’t they?

Are we able to build life support environments much more easily and cheaply now that we’ve had all of this space station experience? Or does our reduced risk tolerance and love of bureaucracy actually make it harder and more expensive to build space vehicles for humans?

[Separately, here’s how one of the Facebook righteous thought about the glorious days of JFK and Apollo 11 compared to these dark times when our president cannot even get organized to get to the brink of nuclear war

In awe about a President worthy about setting point and making Americans work towards that goal…what inspiration 50 years later…#apollo11…current drumph not worthy of even 1 year celebration. Seriously people…think…and change the trajectory…at least for our incredible chidren. In awe of their inspiring questions…give love and our children a chance…

JFK gave our children a chance to be incinerated in a nuclear war?]


11 thoughts on “Would it be more or less difficult to put a human on the moon today?

  1. No-one but a small number of slackers follow the space program. Elon Musk recently said it’s easier to just put humans on the moon than convince NASA it can be done. The latest moon probe crashed from a dead IMU. A human rated capsule that worked hundreds of times before, exploded on the test stand in April. None of it made the news. Does anyone in mainstream land even know NASA pitched another moon program called Artemis in the last 2 months?

  2. I’m reading @Bruce Charlton’s links but while doing that I have something to think about: what’s the prospective draw and the recruiting effort for really high-level engineers considering a career in aerospace and deep space exploration, or even relatively near-space exploration like putting humans on Mars or the Moon?

    I don’t think we have the brainpower to do it any longer.

    From what I’ve been reading the budget also isn’t there, there’s confusion over the vision and the priorities, everything is mercilessly and expensively bureaucratic, and we really have a “can’t do” attitude. More crucially, though, I have to wonder whether we’re producing anywhere near the same level of people we had during the 1960s, and whether those people are attracted to spaceflight engineering careers, especially manned spaceflight. We really like robots, we like movies about astronauts and past glories like Apollo 11 (as long as there’s no American flag in them) but I don’t hear about people of really high ability going into these areas – we hear about software, coding, Big Data, AI, Deep Learning, etc., etc., and I think the brains have been drained away from the effort.

    We’re in deep trouble. That post I wrote on Father’s Day comparing Boys Life magazines from the 60s and the early -00s was very telling to me. Boys don’t build things anymore, the level of the reading comprehension is disgustingly low, they’re not given the kind of encouragement and focus they need, and they’re being miseducated. Then we have the internet and the huge heap of garbage it has become, all short attention span, smack talk arguments, dopamine rushes over ‘likes’ and the rest of the crap that it is. Consciously or not, we’ve really screwed ourselves.

  3. To answer Phili’s question: in my opinion, it would be far more difficult not just because of risk tolerance and love of bureaucracy that we will be facing far more of it today, but because we are far less disciplined today than we were 50 years ago. The evidence of this is clearly visible in the movie “Apollo 11” [1]. If you have not seen it, I urge everyone reading this blog to go out and rent it. You can get it for free from your local library (might take few weeks if you have to put it on hold) or pay for it at RedBox (I have no idea if Amazon video or Netflix has it).

    The movie is mainly raw footage of the Apollo 11 mission, no drama or acting whatsoever — you see engineers in the mission control and around the rocket, families on site watching the rocket lift off, salaries recovering the capsule and the astronomers before and after the mission. It is amazing to see all those people from different walk of life how disciplined and simple everyone is.

    [1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_11_(2019_film)

  4. As far as risk tolerance is concerned, this country can’t run the risk of someone using pronouns that trigger someone’s sensitivities. Men who dare to think that adolescents shouldn’t be allowed to just walk into gender clinics and choose their own course of sex hormones that permanently alter their entire lives are being fired from the places they founded, by a handful of activists who have everyone too scared for their careers to speak out against them. And so the inmates are really running the asylum.

    We’re manufacturing stupidity and importing poverty as only the United States could. Everything is political propaganda and it revolves around all the same themes. It’s all propaganda. MIT Technology Review is propaganda. Scientific American has been going downhill since the mid 1980’s. It’s a political rag now, not a scientific publication for the intelligent layman. The quality of the articles and the IQ you need to read them has fallen like the proverbial rock. You used to be able to read SciAm and really learn something, but now it’s just another indoctrination platform.

    The 737 MAX debacle was just the tip of the iceberg, the problem is everywhere in this society, and it is inextricable in higher education. My prediction is that we’re not going to get back to the Moon in the next ten years, or Mars in the next twenty. We’ve lost the insanity war, as Lord Palmerston has noted in the past. Western Civilization and particularly the United States has succumbed to incurable mental illness, and not to put too fine a point on it, I think we’re going to get our asses handed to us very soon.

  5. The following says it all:


    In fact, I would argue that the actual situation is FAR MORE DIRE.

    A recent poll shows only 8% of venture capital firms in SF Bay Area are interested in funding hardware startups, and the majority of the so-called hardware startups are focused on system-level hardware, such as glorified gaming gear and such that serve as alternative paths to sell entertainment. There is essentially zero appetite by US VCs to fund component-level physical electronics or semiconductor materials firms in the US. The Lemmings-like mentality chasing after AI and LIDAR are doomed to result in massive waste as well.

    Now, CFIUS has esentially cut off venture money flowing in from Asia, without offering any alternatives. The result is predicable – mass migration of core hardware startups moving east. Again, I am talking about startups that work on advanced materials and fundamental improvement of component-level electronics.

    If the US does not offer immediate remedy in this area, the technology war will be lost within this generation.

    • That’s the best article I’ve read in 20 years. I read Fukuyama’s book when it was first published. He was wrong.

    • I tell you why Fukuyama is wrong: when the economy is going well, people ignore political oppression. The Chinese economy has been growing 8-12% for nearly 2 decades, and only recently slowed down, but still grows at >=6% (let’s take 0.5% off as false data). In such an environment, who wants to complain? There is a huge class of extremely rich, extremely corrupt officials and their extended family, why would they disrupt status quo???

  6. The Mason Dixon Institute US Lecture Series for Chronic Underachievers – Lecture Topics:
    – How to cure your own paranoia
    – Know fear mongering when you see it
    – Learn how to identify baseless/impossible to prove generalizations when you hear them
    – Identifying and using the “Straw Man” debate techniques
    – Lessons from a professional wrestling promoter
    – Why the study of history is important
    – Lowering your expectations for government services
    – The difficulty of proving a negative
    – Fact check resources and how to use them
    – How to respond diplomatically to constant whining
    – How to delete Facebook and Twitter
    – Perspectives – Is the US a great country still undergoing changes or are we doomed?

    Additional topics from a long master list will be added over time, based on student demand.

  7. I look at SpaceX landing the boosters back in FL or on ships. Do you think that could have been done 50 years ago?

  8. I’m such a contrarian that when I read a bunch of old men waxing pessimistic, it turns me into an optimist.

    The US (and West more generally) certainly have deep problems but to say human potential peaked in 1975 is so self-refuting I think Mr. Charlton is trying to pull one over on us.

    What Apollo really represents is one of the last great successes of Big Government. Government has the ability to mobilize people and resources towards a goal at a scale an order or two of magnitude beyond what private organizations can do. When the goal is clearly-defined and smart, the results can be very successful (Hoover dam, unconditional surrender of the Axis powers, the A-bomb, man on the moon in 8 years).

    When the conditions of victory are ill-conceived or poorly-defined, a boondoggle is almost inevitable. The poorest 20% of the country are materially richer than the middle class of 1965 but the War on Poverty rages on. The public was ambivalent about Apollo through the 60s, and while it exulted when the Eagle landed, it wisely saw after a few more trips that we’d made our point to the Russkies and it was time to wind things down. The hash that NASA & co. made of the Shuttle program proves the point. (See also every “War on X” where “X” is something other than the unconditional surrender of an adversarial government)

    To say that human capability peaked in 1975 because after that we stopped flying humans to celestial bodies after then is to make us all insects in service of the hive. How many of you would like to go to a late-70s hospital for cancer treatment or a heart attack? How about fly on a late-70s airline?

    Likewise, while the anecdote about Boy’s Life is interesting, I’m not sure it’s all that revealing. I grew up with a bookshelf with a relative handful of DIY books whose bindings I wore out. Today a computer and internet connection that cost less than the Britannica give me access to a hundred times more information. The kid who built a crystal radio in the 60s can today gain access to the tools and knowledge to build damn near anything electronic. But, they might be writing mods (i.e. code) or implementing complex strategies in a video game because that’s more interesting to them. It’s also less obvious to you but that doesn’t mean it’s less valuable on a societal level. It just means your understanding of the world is out of date.

    As for China, I agree they are our strategic adversary, but they have huge gaps still. China might be graduating a City of Boston’s worth of “engineers” every year but many of them are glorified appliance repairmen and they still can’t build a modern jet engine on their own. Their life sciences sector is at turns laughable (traditional Chinese medicine gets far more respect than it deserves) or Frankenstein-esque with human DNA editing. Two US tech CEOs have hobby projects that are arguably approaching parity with the Chinese space program. The Chinese tech giants like Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu are largely copies of American businesses that were locked out of the Chinese market.

    China is certainly capable of producing scientists and engineers who are the very best in the world, but for decades they’ve chosen to come here to win their Nobels or build their products. That flow has changed somewhat recently as China has grown richer and more competitive in terms of funding, but they are going to throw a lot of that away with the return of the imperial system. They may ride that horse farther than the Soviets were able to, but in the end I believe it is just as likely to eventually collapse under them. Hopefully we are able to get there without too much bloodshed on either side.

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