Why the space agency struggles to achieve its human spaceflight goals Ever since Apollo 11 carried the first people to the Moon, NASA has vowed that it will surpass its most historic achievement — either by returning to the Moon or by sending people to Mars. But after half a century, NASA hasn’t managed to turn their grand visions into reality, and it’s possible the agency’s most prized accomplishment, the Apollo program, may be partially to blame for the stall.
“There are few things in life that we could look back on and say that have regressed since 1969,” Mark Sirangelo, who recently helped to lead NASA’s Moon return plans before departing in May, tells The Verge. “And I could say, very objectively, that human spaceflight in America has gone backwards.”
“human spaceflight in America has gone backwards.”
The agency’s latest human spaceflight flagship is the Artemis mission. Its goal is to establish a long-term presence near the Moon and put the first woman on the lunar surface. To get Artemis off the ground, NASA is using much of the same established infrastructure it’s used since the dawn of the space age. Just like it did 50 years ago, the agency is insisting on building and overseeing the most crucial pieces of hardware itself: the rockets and spacecraft. But this Apollo-era model requires massive space budgets that haven’t materialized since the Cold War, leading to delays and stagnation as workers attempt to do more complicated work with less resources. Compounding the problem, a national sense of urgency is simply missing. Instead, NASA is at the whims of lawmakers who prioritize employment in their districts over finding the most efficient route to deep space.
Many of these things must change before the United States can once again take up a position at the vanguard of human exploration. A return to Apollo’s glory days will require a different hardware pipeline, a new funding structure, and a soul-searching assessment of NASA’s role in the entire process. And there needs to be more clarity about why NASA is doing any of this at all.
“I think it’s a mess to assume that NASA has to be all about humans going into deep space to be important and of value,” Lori Garver, the former deputy administrator of NASA under the Obama administration, tells The Verge. “And I think that is the mess of Apollo.”
The Apollo precedent
Apollo’s success is inextricable from its context. The missions took place at the height of the Cold War, when the United States was looking for ways to show off its strength against the Soviet Union. Advisors to President John F. Kennedy told him that the best way to beat the Soviets in space was to send a man to the Moon. So in 1962, Kennedy publicly promised to send humans to the lunar surface by the end of the decade in his famous speech at Rice University.
Driven by patriotic one-upmanship, Congress followed through and supported the initiative. NASA’s budget increased, swelling from $500 million a year in 1960 to more than $5 billion in 1965, according to NASA. At the time, that was about 4.31 percent of the overall federal budget. Today, NASA only receives about 0.5 percent of the annual federal budget.
Still, support was tenuous at best. Throughout the 1960s, up to 60 percent of the US population opposed how much money the government was spending on the Apollo initiative. At one point, Congress was poised to reduce the amount of money for the program, and Kennedy himself became concerned that the pros of Apollo didn’t outweigh the cons.
“The perfect storm that set up Apollo will never exist again.”
Then in 1963, Kennedy was assassinated. In the aftermath, the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson determined that Kennedy’s ambitious dream should become reality. Johnson called for an increase in funds to NASA’s budget and maintained funding for the Apollo program through the pivotal Apollo 11 mission. “No Congress, no subsequent president could dare to take that away from the memory of Kennedy,” Robert Pearlman, a space historian and founder of collectSPACE, tells The Verge. “Even Nixon understood completely — he couldn’t cancel Apollo until after it was achieved or the Russians won.”
But once Apollo succeeded, its necessity in the eyes of politicians quickly diminished, and crewed landings came to an end in 1972. Eventually, the Cold War ended, too, leaving the United States without a human spaceflight rival to measure themselves against. “The perfect storm that set up Apollo will never exist again,” says Pearlman.
What Apollo left behind
Fifty years later, Apollo’s ghost still haunts our space agency. The program created an expectation that NASA must always have some kind of flagship human exploration initiative. “That notion of having a big central government program that was going to manage this frontier — to manage this whole zone of activity for human exploration and eventually for robots — was really born,” Jim Muncy, founder of PoliSpace, a space policy consulting agency, tells The Verge.
“what we have is the structure of [Apollo], except we don’t have a national crisis.”
Over the last few decades, presidents including both Bushes, Obama, and now Trump, have all proposed big human spaceflight endeavors like sending people to the Moon and Mars. Each of these lofty plans have floundered, and one of the biggest reasons is money; NASA just hasn’t received the same substantial budget boost it received during Apollo. “Now what we have is the structure of [Apollo], except we don’t have a national crisis,” says Muncy. “There’s plenty of other things for people to work on, and they can’t hire as many people as they did back then, because they don’t have as much money.” Instead of a devoted human spaceflight budget, if NASA needs extra funding, administrations are often forced to cut within the space agency itself. The result is that other areas of NASA — like planetary science, Earth science, astrophysics, education, and more — get cannibalized to meet the “worthier” goal.
Whatever money NASA can scrape together is poured into an established system that dates to the earliest days of the space program. Apollo created an army of contractors and built NASA centers with expertise in building rockets. Now — long after the program’s end — both remain hungry for contracts and jobs from the space agency. NASA has obliged, and continues to use these institutions to spearhead the agency’s biggest projects and build rocket hardware. “For a large contractor, you know your job is stable,” Laura Forczyk, a space consultant and owner of space research and consulting firm Astralytical, tells The Verge. “That’s the way NASA operates, with these really large contracts that extend on and on, year after year.”
A prime example is Boeing. The company, along with North American Aviation and Douglas Aircraft Company, were the biggest contractors on the Saturn V rocket that took humans to the Moon during the Apollo era. Now Boeing, which acquired Douglas and North American, is the prime contractor on the Space Launch System — the giant rocket NASA is building to take humans into deep space. It was also one of the biggest contractors for the Space Shuttle and the US component of the International Space Station. Other companies like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Aerojet Rocketdyne all have ties to Apollo and continue to work on NASA’s biggest projects today.
“What Apollo did was create a space industrial complex.”
“What Apollo did was create a space industrial complex,” John Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, tells The Verge.
NASA centers like Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, and Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana were built for the Apollo program, and continue to build rocket hardware for the agency. They create thousands of jobs and are putting billions of dollars into local economies.
“Across the exploration portfolio — the Orion spacecraft, the Space Launch System rocket, the exploration grounds systems that comprise the ability to fly the rocket and the spacecraft and launch it — we’ve got all 50 states involved. And it’s a lot of jobs across the United States,” Mike Sarafin, the Artemis mission manager at NASA, tells The Verge. All of these companies, centers, and states have become accustomed to getting these jobs and contracts, without much competition or urgency to deliver.
“We have been building to the infrastructure and centers versus building a program that is responsive to the needs of the country in current times,” says Garver. “Because we had those centers, and we had to use them. And same with the people. It’s almost impossible to imagine what you would do differently without that, but you wouldn’t recreate them.”
Changing the status quo
Numerous government audits and investigations have found problems with NASA’s sprawling way of managing human exploration. These organizational problems are perhaps one of the biggest reasons NASA hasn’t reached any major human spaceflight milestones on par with Apollo, according to Sirangelo. “People look at the technology as the only piece of the puzzle,” he says. “But oftentimes, it’s the way you manage the technology. It’s the way that you manage the contracting. It’s how you set up the program. Those things need to be innovative as well.”
“People look at the technology as the only piece of the puzzle.”
After all this time, getting rid of the army left by Apollo is tricky. The SLS program alone supports more than 25,000 jobs across the country and is responsible for an economic output of $4.75 billion, according to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Uprooting people’s livelihoods can be devastating. And because NASA human exploration missions have sustained a lot of jobs in the South, many southern lawmakers are hellbent on keeping this employment intact.
Just look what happened when the Obama administration tried to cancel Bush’s Constellation program, an effort to send people back to the Moon. The White House claimed the budget needed to sustain Constellation just wasn’t realistic. But cancellation didn’t sit well with lawmakers whose constituents were about to lose a bunch of jobs, according to Garver.
An artistic rendering of Ares V, which was proposed for the Constellation program
An artistic rendering of the Space Launch System, which was derived from the Ares V vehicle
“Some of the people within NASA who were really committed to keeping these jobs sold Congress, and we were given an ultimatum that we had to do a big rocket, or we wouldn’t get commercial crew, and the technology programs, and the Earth sciences programs that we wanted,” says Garver. “So we took the deal.”
The Constellation rocket morphed into the Space Launch System, and NASA has been working on it ever since. And lawmakers like Richard Shelby (R-AL) or Mo Brooks (R-AL), who represent the districts where the rocket is being built in Alabama, will defend it at all costs. Meanwhile, the SLS has cost NASA around $14 billion so far over the last decade. It was originally supposed to fly in 2017, but probably won’t fly until 2021.
“Now your objective is not to get a man to the Moon, or a woman to the Moon, but to get a woman to the Moon while preserving X number of jobs in my district.”
This mentality preserves economies, but makes it difficult to achieve NASA’s long-term goals — something Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos has pointed out. “Now your objective is not to get a man to the Moon, or a woman to the Moon, but to get a woman to the Moon while preserving X number of jobs in my district,” Bezos said during a talk, according to GeekWire. “That is a complexifier, and not a healthy one… They didn’t have that back in 1961 and 1962. They were moving fast.”
The commercial option
The agency will have to change how it does business, or it will remain stuck in the same repetitive cycle. Fortunately, a burgeoning private space industry may provide NASA with a way out of the loop.
For the longest time, NASA was the leader in creating rockets that could get a lot of stuff into space at once. There simply weren’t any options for outsourcing this kind of development to companies outside the space industrial complex. That’s starting to change. Companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and the United Launch Alliance (an outgrowth of Lockheed Martin and Boeing) are developing less expensive rockets.
“What if the answer for putting humans to the Moon was: we let Blue Origin and SpaceX and other companies compete against each other for how to do that?” says Muncy. “And we’ll buy from the ones that we think have the smartest approach, and we’ll partner with them.”
Image: Blue Origin
Blur Origin’s Blue Moon lander concept
In some ways, that’s exactly what NASA is trying to do. The agency selected various companies to send robotic landers to the Moon, and NASA officials claim commercial rockets will be needed in the lunar return. Additionally, NASA plans to select one or two companies to build human lunar landers in their own way, without as much agency oversight. “It’s an ‘and’ approach where we’re using the stalwarts of the aerospace industry and some new entrants,” says Sarafin.
The problem is that the private industry hasn’t fully surpassed NASA yet. Some vehicles like SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and ULA’s Delta IV Heavy are reliably flying, but many of the more ambitious projects promised by commercial companies have yet to take shape. NASA’s Commercial Crew Program — an experiment to see if the commercial space industry can take the reins of sending people to low Earth orbit — was first funded in 2010, but has yet to actually fly any astronauts due to struggles in development.
“It’s an ‘and’ approach where we’re using the stalwarts of the aerospace industry and some new entrants.”
While commercial space is finding its footing, NASA is inextricable from almost any major American space endeavor. Its guidance is needed to jump-start big initiatives — especially since there is no obvious market yet for sending people into deep space. And private industry really needs NASA’s money. The agency’s investment can often make or break a space startup, even for the largest players on the stage today. SpaceX, one of NASA’s biggest partners, owes its success in large part to NASA development contracts it received as it was getting off the ground.
Until the commercial space industry starts to repeatedly fly giant rockets more often than NASA does, the agency will probably continue to build its own vehicles. “There are just a lot of promises, and we can see the history of how much companies have overpromised and under-delivered,” says Forczyk. “It is really a bit of a Catch-22 in that you want to open up the possibilities for including commercial players, but there’s multiple companies who have not yet proven themselves. But can they prove themselves without the massive funding?”
Breaking down the Apollo model has been NASA’s biggest challenge for decades, and perhaps one of the key ways that NASA can overcome this is by articulating why we need to send humans into deep space so badly. The current White House claims the goal is to maintain American leadership in space, harvest materials on the Moon and help the commercial sector. Those goals aren’t measuring up to the passion ignited by the Red Scare and the national mourning of a slain president.
The current administration is trying to push NASA to accelerate their timelines to create a feeling of urgency once again. In March, Vice President Mike Pence challenged the agency to put humans on the lunar surface in 2024 instead of 2028 as originally planned. But even with a time crunch, NASA is struggling to get a requested $1.6 billion boost in funds from Congress. The House ignored this increase when drafting a budget for NASA for 2020, and lawmakers have expressed concern over the cost of a lunar initiative and where the money will be coming from.
“You don’t have to create a war, we have to create a purpose.”
Compared to the piles of money bulldozed over to NASA by Congress in the 1960s, the trickle of funds is damning. Domestically, there’s no need for politicians outside the districts that house NASA contractors and centers to push for increased funds. And from a foreign policy perspective, no other superpower poses enough of a threat to spur a substantial space race once again. Many experts looked to China as a potential motivator, as the country expanded its efforts in space by launching robotic landers to the Moon and by sending humans to a space station in low Earth orbit. But some argue China’s ambitions are not lofty enough to spur action from the United States. “The Chinese landing on the Moon with rovers that we did 40 years ago, it’s not the same,” says Garver. “It’s not threatening.”
Ultimately, it’s going to be difficult to sustain anything ambitious when the public support for deep-space human exploration is even lower now than it was under Apollo. So until NASA can articulate the need of doing another Moon program or going to Mars, any growth will move slowly — as long as the Apollo paradigm lives on. “You don’t have to create a war, we have to create a purpose,” says Sirangelo.
Apollo had a purpose. It was a major relay in the Space Race, and it showcased the incredible feats of engineering people can achieve when they bend their wills toward a common, monumental goal. It let people dream, and inspired innovation. But if NASA can’t find a new purpose that motivates in the same way as the Cold War did, it’s possible that the agency may remain trapped in its current cycle of development for human exploration for some time. The agency is trying to break out of this mold, but the politics of NASA and the space industrial complex that have been developing rocket hardware for decades make it difficult to evolve. And the agency may have the Apollo program to thank.
Correction July 16th, 11:30AM ET: This article originally stated that Kennedy’s speech occurred in 1961, when it occurred in 1962.