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Sturgeon's House

The Everlasting Glory - And The Impervious Stain - of Excellence: A Query

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The Apollo Program is in my opinion the greatest achievement of mankind, so far. I am biased of course, but this isn't for knowing nothing about the manned spaceflight effort of both the United States and Soviet Union during the '60s. I wouldn't consider myself an expert in the remotest sense, but I am much more familiar with the details than the average joe.

So I say this as someone who most decidedly believes that Apollo was a demonstration of excellence of the highest order: Should we have done it?

I encapsulate in this question a couple of distinct ones. First, given the inexperience of the U.S. space initiative, it seems to me that Apollo was positively charmed given that it only suffered the problems it did. The breakneck speed at which the US raced for the finish line is... Well, in retrospect a bit concerning. Consider a few facts that help highlight how absolutely primitive from a development sense Apollo really was: Neil Armstrong was one of nine astronauts selected in only the second class of NASA astronauts ever, following the original "Magnificent Seven". Further, the Saturn V rocket was the first purpose-designed manned US orbital launch vehicle ever to fly (you might count the Saturn IB, but consider that its first stage is literally a bunch of short-range ballistic missiles strapped together atop adapted V-2 rocket engines, and that the rest of it is the third stage up of a Saturn V). This makes sense, considering the Apollo program was begun before the US had even made its first manned suborbital flight.

Taken into account, these facts don't blemish the accomplishments of Apollo at all; in fact, to me they make Man's first footsteps on the moon all the more glorious. We challenged the Soviets to the greatest race in history from a sitting start, and won by (hundreds of thousands of) miles. But that's not the point; Apollo really was just one more baby step on the road to having a full-fledged, mature space program, that's why I ask...

Second, did Apollo set a dangerous tone for US manned spaceflight from that point on? Consider the dangerous Space Shuttle, which I won't go so far as to call "ill-conceived", but which clearly left a lot to be desired in the safety and management departments, was already in the planning stages before even the landing of the Eagle in the Sea of Tranquility. If Apollo was the product of the US space program in its very infancy, what was STS? The triumphant second lap of an unbeatable runner, or a dangerous gamble against luck?

I don't really know the answer to these questions. Spaceflight is dangerous, and unfortunately in an operation as complex and risky as this, some people may very well die. I don't hold responsible the desire to explore our cosmos for the deaths of astronauts or cosmonauts in any incident; but when a holistic view of things is taken, it's remarkable just how much is done with how little was known. And with that, I can't help but wonder how things might have been different.


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In the long run, I honestly think the Lunokhod program was more influential when it comes to space exploration. Apollo was definitely one of the greatest achievements of mankind. But when it comes to long term impact, the rover technology pioneered by the Soviets has proved more important so far.


STS was an attempt to make space travel more affordable and thus accessible by having a reuseable spacecraft. Unfortunately, at this point, STS didn't prove as economical as hoped, which ultimately led to pressures on NASA to cut on costs and skip steps, which are a lot of the reasons why Challenger and Columbia happened.

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