50 years.
5 decades.

No matter how you describe it, there’s something about that particular passage of time that brings nostalgia, reflection, and sometimes a bit of “where did the time go?”

Certainly when I turned 50 myself, that was the case. Thinking back on my life to that point was sobering, but when I also thought about historical events that have happened in my lifetime – I realized that I’ve certainly lived in (ancient Chinese curse) “interesting times”.  

One particular “it’s been 50 years” event anniversary that just happened was the last flight of NASA’s Apollo lunar landing program (Apollo 17). Flown from Dec 7-19, 1972, this was the last time a human-rated spacecraft had landed on, much less visited the Moon.

Back to the Future

NASA had finally launched the Space Launch System (SLS) with the Orion spacecraft on the Artemis I mission on November 16th. It also was in orbit around the Moon at the time of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 17!

As an unmanned version of the same Orion vehicle configuration that will eventually carry the first humans to the Moon in a half-century, Artemis I provided a functional and operational checkout flight of the physical vehicle components, the operational ground control (which hadn’t needed to deal with something outside of Earth’s orbit in awhile), and of course a rather unique trajectory.

This trajectory, designed by some old friends in my former NASA/Mission Control stomping grounds, included several unique characteristics, including what has been deemed the “Distant Retrograde Orbit” (DRO). The DRO is different in that Orion’s orbit around the Moon was the *opposite* direction of the Moon’s path around the Earth. The Apollo missions orbited in the same direction as the Moon’s path.

DRO was a very stable and ultimately efficient orbit that, due to orbital mechanics between the Earth-Moon system, allowed Artemis to reduce the overall mission fuel consumption.

A bonus for this was breaking Apollo 13’s record for the farthest distance from Earth for a human-rated spacecraft. That’ll be broken again, hopefully, with humans onboard next time!

Watching Artemis I’s powerful and impressive launch a few weeks earlier had brought back understandable memories from 50 years previous when the massive Saturn V lifted off with the crew of Apollo 17.  Seeing a derivative vehicle made up of new and legacy components (from the Shuttle program) had numerous challenges of its own, but NASA overcame them and the launch was beautiful and awe-inspiring.

What made this launch even more exciting was knowing that the next time an SLS stack lifted off would be in 2024 to carry humans back to the Moon, albeit on a fly-by mission for Artemis II (similar to Apollo 8).

Artemis III, in 2025, is scheduled for the first human return to the surface of the Moon, bringing us full circle to Apollo missions 11-17 (excluding, of course, Apollo 13).

Having accomplished all of the lunar orbit objectives, Orion returned to Earth, but this time with a unique profile called the “skip reentry”. Unlike Apollo, this was a shallow entry profile that reduced both heating and g-force loading on the vehicle (and ultimately crew). But – like other bits of the Artemis I mission, it was theoretical until it was actually tried.

Successfully reentering and splashing down off the coast of Baja California, NASA is set to press forward with the Artemis II and III missions, proving operational readiness for a return-to-the-Moon landing in far fewer flights than the Apollo program. Building upon both prior knowledge, current operational architecture and procedures, and far fewer unknowns about actually landing on the Moon makes the Artemis II/III timelines reasonable.

Mixed Feelings

Again – mixed feelings here, because NASA’s primary mission of pure exploration makes these sorts of initiatives right up their alley and exactly what they should be doing. However, seeing the massive advances in the Commercial Space arena gives lots of 20/20 hindsight into “what could have been” had they been involved more from the beginning on this and the SLS program not dominated so much of the NASA budget for so very long.

What we can debate, though, is *why* it has taken 50 years to get back to this.

Yes – the SLS and Artemis programs are woefully overbudget with massive cost overruns and schedule delays. Parts due, of course, to government “oversight” that changed requirements that forced redesigns that affected both budget and schedule (remember the “Constellation” program?). 

Remember, too, that NASA’s budget is a tiny fraction of the overall US Federal budget – and that has shrunk over time

But there has to be a substantial blame laid at the feet of the monolithic entity that is NASA itself. 

There was no push for a timeline, therefore there was no reason to meet specific schedules.  There was what seemed to be a steady stream of funding, therefore there was no reason to cut costs or accelerate programs – rather the opposite of what appeared to be a continuous feeding at the trough when more accelerated lunar mission accomplishments would have served NASA (and human spaceflight) better.

Having said all of that, you can’t ignore the “space industrial complex” of contractors that also are looking at the “bottom line” and profit margin, rather than an accelerated end goal. It never made sense for them to stop the pipeline of funding and contracts … so they didn’t.

Yes – Skylab, Shuttle, and ISS were NASA’s primary human spaceflight priorities for the 1970s-present day. What can’t be debated, though, is that these three major programs – as with all of NASA’s efforts – have produced innumerable advances in technology, medical knowledge, and understanding of our planet and the rest of the universe.

As always, though, it becomes a question of public and political will. NASA could easily have “walked and chewed gum” at the same time had there been a true desire to return humans to the Moon and onwards to Mars. Unfortunately, in our short-sighted and easily-distracted culture, trying to get the support for even what was accomplished seemed to be a constant battle.

When I announced my departure from NASA after my career as a Space Shuttle Flight Dynamics Officer (FDO), my Division Chief commiserated with me that it was going to take a LONG time before we were flying back to the Moon.

I didn’t realize then, though, that it would take until the mid 2020s before we’d be landing on the Moon again.

What will it take?

I often wonder – what will it take to get things rolling again at a pace that will continue to push exploration forward in our lifetime?

How can we get that excitement again?

How can the public see the benefits, spinoffs, and massive technological steps forward that these sorts of “great leaps forward” programs always provide? 

How can we have a space program that inspires and produces results again within affordable budgets and reasonable timeframes?

How can we take the lessons of SLS and Artemis, show successes on the Moon, and then move outwards to place humans on Mars?

I wish I knew.

I wish anyone did.

I just hope it doesn’t take another 50 years.

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The space exploration advocacy website of Roger Balettie, former Flight Dynamics Officer in NASA’s Space Shuttle Mission Control Center.

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The Flight Dynamics Officer (FDO, pronounced “fido”) is a Flight Controller in the Mission Control Center responsible for the overall trajectory, or flight path, of the Space Shuttle and all related payloads or other space-bound vehicles associated with the Shuttle.

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"Houston… Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."

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