SciFri Archive: Marking 40 Years Since Apollo 11
In this archival interview, Alan Bean, Harrison Schmidt, and more remember the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the moon.
This story is part of our celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. View the rest of our special coverage here.
Alan Bean passed away on May 26, 2018. He appeared on Science Friday on July 17, 2009, to mark the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the moon. We’ve pulled this interview from the SciFri Archive in his memory.
Humans first landed on the moon 40 years ago this July. Just three years later, the last human mission left the lunar surface. Ira Flatow talks with Apollo astronauts Alan Bean and Harrison Schmitt about their time on the moon, and whether humans should make the trip again.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from NPR News. I’m Ira Flatow. About 40 years ago, just about this hour, this is what you would have heard had you been listening to the chatter between the Apollo 11 astronauts and the capsule communicator on the ground, Bruce McCandless.
– All right. I’ve got the world in my [INAUDIBLE]. And looking at it through the binoculars, I’m feeling something. I wish I could describe it properly. But the weather’s very good. South America is coming around into view.
I can see what appears to me to be upper horizon. A point that must be just about Seattle, Washington. And then, from there, I can see all the way down to the southern tip, Tierra del Fuego, and the southern tip of the continent.
– It sounds like you’ve got a beautiful view up there.
– Absolutely fantastic. I hope the pictures come out.
IRA FLATOW: At that time, commander Neil Armstrong, command module pilot Michael Collins and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin were a day and a half into their three-day mission to the moon, where they would successfully land the lunar module Eagle on the edge of the Sea of Tranquility and safely return to Earth a few days later. Mission accomplished, fulfilling President Kennedy’s vision, just six months shy of 1970s. A quick succession of five more missions made it safely to the moon where the Apollo moon walkers gathered hundreds of pounds of moon rocks.
They set up experiments for scientists back home. And then, in 1972, only three years after the first landing, Apollo 17 astronauts Jack Schmitt and Eugene Cernan climbed back into their lunar module and blasted off the moon’s surface for the last time. Three planned missions, Apollo 18, 19, 20 were canceled.
The three remaining giant Saturn 5 rockets were scrapped as ornamental lawn pieces, serving as roosting places for birds. And since then, no one has been back. When asked later about what he thought the most fantastic part of the moon landing was, science fiction icon Arthur C Clarke quipped, it was the fact that we could go to the moon and never go back.
This hour, we’ll talk about those moon missions called moon shots by those of us who remember them. They were not without their disasters, like the Apollo 1, in which three veteran astronauts died without leaving the ground, and the story of Apollo 13, which turned a public ho-hum mission into a nail-biter and a tale of human ingenuity. So we’re going to talk about the future, too. NASA plans to return to the moon by 2020, but so do a few competitors like Japan, China, and India, who have expressed their desire to do so also.
We’ll also talk about other ways of going to the moon that may have come up. A lot of stuff to talk about this hour. Our MoonFest begins. Our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. And if you’re on Twitter, you can tweet us your questions by writing the @ sign followed by SciFri, S-C-I-F-R-I. And you can go to Second Life, where a whole of bunch of folks who are in Science Friday [INAUDIBLE], talking about what we’re talking about on the program today.
Let me introduce my guests. Alan Bean is an astronaut and lunar module pilot for Apollo 12. His artwork is featured in two new books, Alan Bean Painting Apollo and Mission Control, This is Apollo with Andy Chaikin. He also joins us from our NPR studios in Washington. Welcome to Science Friday, Captain Bean.
ALAN BEAN: Thank you very much, Ira. Glad to be here, and it’s a beautiful day here in Washington.
IRA FLATOW: Thank you. With you there is Andrew Chaikin. He is a science journalist and a space historian. He’s the author of Voices From the Moon: Apollo Astronauts Describe Their Lunar Experiences, and a new children’s book, Mission Control, This is Apollo. He’s also, as I say, in our NPR headquarters. Welcome back to Science Friday, Andrew.
ANDREW CHAIKIN: Hello, Ira. It’s good to be back.
IRA FLATOW: Good to have you back. Also with us is Dr. Harrison Schmitt, who is an astronaut and lunar module pilot for Apollo 17. He is the author of Return to the Moon: Exploration, Enterprise, and Energy in the Human Settlement of Space and a former US senator for New Mexico. He was the first and the only scientist, a geologist, to ever walk on the moon. He joins us over the phone today. Welcome to Science Friday, Dr. Schmitt.
HARRISON SCHMITT: Good day, gentlemen.
IRA FLATOW: Dr. Schmitt, when you walked off the moon, did you know that this would be the last time we’d be visiting it for a while?
HARRISON SCHMITT: Oh, yes, of course. That handwriting had been on the wall for a number of years. And in fact, upon further research on my part, the writing started in 1969 before Neil Armstrong ever landed on the moon. NASA made their last purchase of Saturn 5s, and that pretty well settled that we were certainly not going to go beyond Apollo 20. And then, as the years went by, 20, 19, and 18 were canceled.
IRA FLATOW: Andrew Chaikin, why did that happen? What happened to our interest?
ANDREW CHAIKIN: Well, the simple answer—and it’s hard to simplify something as complex as this, but we didn’t go to the moon for the sake of exploration. We went to the moon to beat the Russians. And once we accomplished that, once we won the moon race with Apollo 11, then the political impetus—the political underpinnings for spending that kind of money on space exploration evaporated. And so the only reason we were able to go back to the moon as many times as we did is because people like NASA administrator Jim Webb had had the foresight to build an infrastructure and make sure that we had enough space craft and boosters in the pipeline that it would last well beyond the first landing.
IRA FLATOW: Alan Bean, do you ever get tired of people asking you about this trip?
ALAN BEAN: Not really. I’ve been blessed by getting a chance in my lifetime to go to the moon, walk around there, and do a lot of other amazing things as part of the space program. So I believe that all of us that got that chance, that gift, really have a duty to try to share it and try to tell people what we think might be good to do for the future. We think about space probably more than anyone else, so we’re, in a way, experts in some ways. And so our opinions may have value just because we thought about them a long time and a lot.
IRA FLATOW: I heard Buzz Aldrin on the radio the other day, saying—and when asked, should we go back, he said, no, we’ve been there and done that. Let’s go on to something else. Would you agree with that?
ALAN BEAN: Well, I do in a way, not that bluntly. People say to me, would you rather go back to the moon or Mars. Since I believe the number one thing we got from the moon trip was a heightened opinion of human capability and teams working together in groups and what groups could do, I don’t think we will be able to get that again by going back to the moon. I don’t see the moon is really directly on the way to Mars.
I see—Mars, to me, is the next thing. But that is not important. We don’t even need this discussion unless somebody says, we’re going to give you the money to do it.
Because right now, nobody gives NASA the money to do more than we’re doing right now. So you and I and everybody else could talk about this till we’re sore in the throat. It doesn’t make any difference. We don’t have any money.
IRA FLATOW: I thought we did have plans to go back by 2020.
ALAN BEAN: Well, I—
IRA FLATOW: We have the plans, but we don’t have the money.
ALAN BEAN: That’s right. It’d be like your mom saying to you, when you were a teenager, here’s your lunch money. And by the way, I want you to buy yourself a car. So you can’t borrow ours. And you’d say, well, Mom, I’ve only got lunch money.
Well, I don’t care. You go get a car. By the way, this is only my opinion. Remember that.
And I’m an artist now, and I’ve been away from it. I think Andy and Jack can give you a more informed answer than I can.
IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Jack, do you want to chime in on that?
HARRISON SCHMITT: Well, I spent most of the last three years, four years as chairman of the NASA Advisory Council. And to a significant degree, Alan is right. Now, President Bush set NASA on a course to return to the moon and go on to Mars, and I think that was the correct course and the fastest course to get to Mars.
But the Bush administration did not ask for, nor did Congress provide, the level of funding necessary to keep that program on schedule. And if you have inadequate reserves of funding, then if you hit unknown problems in the development, you’re going to have to switch schedules. And that’s what’s happened.
A great deal of work was done under administrator Mike Griffin to implement the president’s vision, but there is a limited amount that an administrator or an agency can do if Congress continues—one, not to provide adequate funds, and if they’re not asked for by the OMB—and then you go through continuing resolutions that further deplete those resources.
And so we’ve ended up in a position where not only are we much delayed on implementing that vision of returning to the moon and going on to Mars, but we now have probably at least a five-year gap, in which American astronauts will not be delivered into space by American launch vehicles. If we do it at all, it will pay the Russians to do it, and that, I think, is an unacceptable national policy position to be in.
IRA FLATOW: Andrew, there are polls coming out this week, of course, about the moon. And I even put up a tweet on my Twitter site saying, what were you doing 40 years ago. And so many people said, I wasn’t around 40 years ago. I mean, have we lost—
ANDREW CHAIKIN: I was around. I feel like an aging baby-boomer living in the past sometimes. But I’ve got to just say something counter to this notion that somehow the moon is been-there-and-done-that. I don’t think that anything could be further from the truth.
The moon is actually the jewel in the crown of the solar system. It is a spectacular place, as I’ve been lucky enough to hear from Jack and Alan and their colleagues who actually made the trip. Scientifically, it’s the place where we can get the cleanest record of the early history of the solar system.
It’s also a perfect place to serve as a kind of outward-bound school for learning how to live on other planets. And it’s also the only place in the solar system where we can stand on another world and get that consciousness-raising view of our home planet as a very precious and very finite oasis of life in the void of space.
IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And in fact, it looks almost like the lives of astronauts who’ve been to the moon have been shaped by their experiences of being there.
HARRISON SCHMITT: Well, you know, any life is shaped by life experiences. And you’ve got to recognize that all of us were unknown until we went to the moon. And then, now that we’re known—Alan shows that spectacularly—we get a lot more interest than we did before we went to the moon.
So yeah, I think lives were shaped—no question about it. And every individual has to talk to it. But we also have had an opportunity to do that talking, which is unusual for most people on this planet.
IRA FLATOW: Let me interrupt, because we have to take a break. We have a whole rest of the hour to talk about it. I’m talking with Jack Schmitt and Alan Bean, the two astronauts who walked on the moon, and Andrew Chaikin, space journalist and space historian. Our number—1-800-989-8255.
When we come back, we’ll take your phone calls and your tweets to talk more about the moon. Stay with us. We’ll be right back.
I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from NPR News. You’re listening to Science Friday from NPR News. I’m Ira Flatow talking with Andrew Chaikin, author of Voices From the Moon: Apollo Astronauts Describe Their Lunar Experiences, Alan Bean, astronaut and lunar module pilot for Apollo 12—his artwork is featured in Alan Bean Painting Apollo and Mission Control, This is Apollo with Andy Chaikin, and Dr. Harrison Jack Schmitt, astronaut and lunar module pilot for Apollo 17 and author of Return to the Moon: Exploration, Enterprise, and Energy in the Human Settlement of Space. Our number—1-800-989-8255. Jack Schmitt, do you think the scientific value that Andy was talking about is lost on most people—for going back to the moon?
HARRISON SCHMITT: Well, it certainly is important, and most people are not aware of it. They’re not aware of a lot about Apollo and about space, because media doesn’t cover it on a regular basis. There’s really only one form of continuing education for the American people, and that’s the national media.
And you don’t get an awful lot of space except on anniversaries or when there’s a particular technical problem. And you find also that when media is covering space, national popular support for space activities goes up, just because people are being exposed once again to it. I think we all have to recognize that and understand that.
But from a strategic point of view, deep space has a great deal to do with the future of liberty here on this planet. And if the United States and its like-minded partners are not active in space—and, in fact, dominant in space as leading space-faring peoples, then non-democratic regimes will be. And I don’t think that bodes well for the future of human liberty on this planet, independent of all the other returns that come from both going to the moon and just being active in space.
IRA FLATOW: Andy Chaikin, how did you decide that you were going to be the guy to document the Apollo program?
ANDREW CHAIKIN: Well, I felt compelled. It was in my blood. I mean, I grew up with the space program. I met Alan and several other astronauts when I was 12 years old, by chance, and wanted to be an astronaut and spent most of my life imagining what it would be like to go to the moon. And when I became a science journalist, which really almost happened by accident, starting at Sky and Telescope and then moving onward, it didn’t take me long.
As I thought about a book, I realized nobody had gone around to all these guys and recorded their experiences in a manner that would allow the average person to feel that they were, sort of, stowaways along with them and understand what happened—the man inside the space suit that we never really got to know. So I didn’t know that I would be able to accomplish it. I set myself that goal in 1985, and eight years later, I had a book.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones—1-800-989-8255. Gene in Fort Lauderdale. Hi, Gene.
CALLER 1: Hello, hello.
IRA FLATOW: Hi there, go ahead.
CALLER 1: I’d like to say hello to everybody and that I’m a big space proponent myself. My question about the actual flight that each of them took was, how much time NASA allocated for them to reflect on what they were doing. I know they had—once they left the Earth orbit, then did they position the spacecraft to look back at Earth? Or did they look at the moon? And what did they think about on the trip, or were they very, very busy?
HARRISON SCHMITT: Well, I’ll start. We were very busy, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have time to reflect. Certainly, while you’re in flight to the moon and returning, there’s plenty of that time.
While we’re on the lunar surface, there are occasional periods where the flight plan or checklist is not dominating your every activity. And I suspect Alan reflected as we all did. But I found that most of my opportunity for reflection is through memory and having time back here on Earth—to do that and to answer people’s questions like we’re doing today.
CALLER 1: Very good.
IRA FLATOW: Alan?
ALAN BEAN: Yeah. I agree with Jack. Now, I remember, on my flight, that when I got down to the bottom of the ladder, Neil had something philosophical and historic to say, and he said it. But I didn’t have that goal, and I was looking at my cuff checklist, thinking, I hope I can get my balance here—it takes two or three minutes in that light gravity, as I remember—and get on with what we’re supposed to do.
And a number of times on the moon, I would stop and look up and say to myself, that is Earth. It was hard for me to believe it at the time. This is the moon.
I felt like this mission was more science fiction to us that had trained on it, knew all the difficulties of getting there, the risks, and all those things, than the people back on Earth that weren’t involved with the space program. But when I would do that, I can remember saying, quit doing that and look around, and try to see if there are any unusual rocks or any topography that I could make a comment on. Indeed, it’s interesting—when I did admonish myself to do it and did look around, I did see those things—not really important things but something.
And so I tried to minimize that time that was so valuable on the surface, because I knew when I got back in the spacecraft later, before taking a sleep period and on the way home, I’d have plenty of time to think about it. And indeed, that’s the way it was. So I felt guilty thinking about it actually on the moon for over 10 or 20 seconds.
IRA FLATOW: I was lucky—
HARRISON SCHMITT: The human mind is a wonderful thing, Ira and caller, in that it doesn’t have to just do one thing at any given time. And I think we were both absorbing the experience at the same time that we were sticking with the cuff checklist and doing the job that we were sent there to do and that the American taxpayer was paying for. And so the reason I think—I can’t speak for Alan—but I think why he does such beautiful artwork is that his mind remembers all this.
And he didn’t stand on the moon and do field sketches. Those field sketches were embedded in his mind, and that’s absolutely critical to remember—that human beings are extraordinarily flexible computers. And they do record these kinds of experiences and relive them later.
IRA FLATOW: Alan, you started taking art classes at night school in 1961, and you painted lots of colors in your paintings of the moon. But how colorful was it, really? Pictures we saw were gray and white.
ALAN BEAN: Well, it was gray, dark gray, and light gray, and the sky was patent leather black. And I believe the only person who ever saw—or the only crew that ever saw any other color—was at 17 when they ran across some orange rocks. Now, there’s probably—and Jack may want to comment about that—there’s probably a number of other things like that up there.
But don’t forget. We were only six different crews. We just looked at a small portion of the moon. For some reason, people think that if you go to the moon once, you’ve seen the moon.
We don’t think that about the Earth. If we’d landed in the Sahara Desert, we wouldn’t think we understood New York City or Muir Woods or something like that. And the moon, although it doesn’t seem to have the variety that the Earth does, is different in all these different locations—in the mountains, inside craters, in the lowlands.
I’m sure that Jack—Harrison—can tell us those things. He knows the variety. And a question might be, what percent of the moon, just by visiting, do we understand or have we been to?
IRA FLATOW: Jack, do you want to take it?
HARRISON SCHMITT: Well, I would—you know, not knowing what you don’t know—that’s a very difficult question to answer. But based on the discoveries with each succeeding mission, I would say that we’re not even 10% of the way. The moon had an extraordinarily diverse history in its first 800 million years.
And it got less diverse over time, but still, up to a billion years ago, there was volcanic activity taking place in larger areas of the moon. The major impact activity had ceased, and you were left with relatively small impacts.
Small is a bad word, since some of those impacts produced craters 80 kilometers in diameter. But still, we have barely scratched the lunar surface, so to speak, in trying to understand the story it has to tell us about the early history of the solar system.
IRA FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Talking with Andrew Chaikin, Alan Bean, and Dr. Harrison Jack Schmitt about the moon. We have a little bit of an audio clip that I want to play for you, and it’s something that, maybe, Jack, you can describe to us after we’re done with it.
– (SINGING) I was strolling on the moon one day—
– (SINGING TOGETHER) In the merry, merry month of December—
– No, May!
– (SINGING) May. When to much to my surprise, a pair of bonny eyes—doo-doop, doo-doop, doo-doop.
– All right. This is a neat way to travel.
– Isn’t it great?
– I like to skip along.
– [INAUDIBLE]. Skip.
IRA FLATOW: Jack Schmitt, you sound like you were having a good time up there. That was you and Gene Cernan?
HARRISON SCHMITT: Yeah, it was. And in fact, I was having a good time. I mean, when you’re doing useful work in a beautiful place as we were, a valley of Taurus-Littrow, deeper than the Grand Canyon of Colorado—I really did enjoy myself. And one of my big problems in those days was that whenever I heard a fragment of a song, I would start singing that song, and that’s what triggered the singing of “Merry Month of May.”
IRA FLATOW: Did you have trouble taking up time? You know, did you think you had to sing songs to occupy yourself? I’m sure you must have been very, very busy.
HARRISON SCHMITT: No. I learned a long time ago, I can sing and work at the same time. I mean, I’m sure you can sing and take a shot at the same time. Why can’t I sing and do geology at the same time?
IRA FLATOW: You know—
ALAN BEAN: This is Alan here. And I think one of the things that we overlooked and you kind of touched on earlier is, humans aren’t robots. And humans when they go somewhere where there’s Mars or the moon or anywhere else—they do human things. Now, they say, OK, I want you to spend every minute doing useful work, and you spend a lot of it doing useful work—the most you possibly can.
But then, all of a sudden, you—I can remember picking up rocks and throwing them just to see how far I could throw them. Because that’s what humans do. I remember, a couple of times, Pete looked at me and he says, quit messing around, Al, and let’s get back to work.
But you’re just trying to do one, two, three, four, but being a human, you stop and you sing, or you throw a rock, or you—I don’t know. That’s what humans do. That’s why we’re different than robots.
ANDREW CHAIKIN: Ira?
IRA FLATOW: Yes, Andy.
ANDREW CHAIKIN: Something is coming to me as I’m hearing Jack and Alan talk. You know, Alan was on the first mission to the lunar surface where they knew that they could land. They weren’t just trying to get down and show that they could get down and do a little bit of work and get off.
So they were the first ones—he and Pete were the first ones to have some time for a little bit of exploration of the surface. And of course, Jack represented the absolute pinnacle of scientific exploration on Apollo. But you know, Jack, I’m sure, didn’t have as much discretionary time to explore as he would have liked, and Alan had even less.
And I think that one of the things that we’re going to see when we do go back to the moon—and people are not constantly fighting the pressure of the timeline, second by second, minute by minute—is that not only will we see amazing science come out of that, but we’ll also see a human adventure of another layer, another depth of dimension from the fact that people will be able to show more of themselves in the act of being on the moon for a few months at a time. So I think it’s going to be an incredible experience.
HARRISON SCHMITT: I’d modify Andy’s comments just a little bit in that with Apollo 17, and actually 15 and 16 as well, we had a block 2 lunar module. We had no time to spend three full days on the moon. And we built into the planning of those missions time to be an explorer, to look around, to see what you might miss if you were just working against a pure timeline.
And in fact, the discovery of the orange soil that I made at the Shorty crater—even though it was a stop where we had to cut our time down to about a half an hour—did reflect that. The way we operated was, as soon as we stopped at a planned station—by the way, those plans were very important to being successful on these missions.
IRA FLATOW: Jack, let me stop you there for a second. I have to take a station break and remind everybody that this is Science Friday from NPR News. I’m Ira Flatow talking with Jack Schmitt, Alan Bean, and Andrew Chaikin, talking about Apollo moon missions. And Jack was talking about Apollo 17 and your discovery of that orange rock and what it was like.
HARRISON SCHMITT: Well, it was a planned station and we had thought through what we might encounter at that station before we ever left the earth. And as soon as we stopped, I began to look around to try to analyze what would be the best approach to that particular site, particularly since we didn’t have much time left. And it was in that process that I scuffed up and was able to see the orange tint to the debris layer that covers most of the moon.
And it was very important. And Andy makes that point—that you’ve got to give human beings time to use their computer that contains their experience and training, so that they can see what’s unusual and different and react to it, and to reprogram their activities instantaneously to take advantage of what they have seen.
ANDREW CHAIKIN: Alan, you know, whenever you hear a scientist come out against humans exploring space, I would be willing to bet that every time, that scientist has never done field work. Because field work is based on the ability to freelance and take advantage of the unexpected.
IRA FLATOW: You don’t think those Mars folks—
ANDREW CHAIKIN: Steve Squyres said to me—listen, I wrote a book called Passion for Mars. I spent four years on it. And after four years on—those rovers were on Mars. Four years later, I called Steve on the anniversary, and I said, well, OK, you’ve gotten so many places on Mars.
You’ve explored with those rovers for four years. Have your feelings changed about the importance of sending humans? And I’ll never forget this. He said, are you kidding me!
It took us four years to do a month and a half of field work. No, I feel as strongly as I ever did. You’ve got to send robots when robots are the only thing you can send. But then, eventually, there is no substitute for the human mind, human hands, and human intellect.
IRA FLATOW: Alan Bean, your mission went so smoothly. You came down—it was almost computer-guided to the bottom a little bit—change at the bottom there. You landed just a couple of hundred yards from an old pal. Right? Another robot that had been sent before.
ALAN BEAN: That’s right. A Surveyor 3 spacecraft which had landed earlier, some 33 months earlier. You know, often people will say, well, look, if you land—I remember back in this time frame. They’d say, well, you’re liable to sink down in the dust and never be seen again.
Well, we didn’t just go up there and hope for the best. We’d sent rangers to see what would happen impacting the moon. We’d sent orbiters.
Then, we sent these surveyors to land. We knew what the surface was sort of like, probably like, taking these pictures. We could have landed—because the targeting came from mission control, really—we could have landed right on top of Surveyor, which was really where we wanted to go. It shows you what mission control and Earth tracking can do when you’ve got a little time to figure it out.
IRA FLATOW: All right. We’re going to figure out the rest of the program about the moon. Stay with us. We’ll be right back after this break.
I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from NPR News. You’re listening to Science Friday from NPR News. I’m Ira Flatow, talking with Alan Bean, Harrison Schmitt, and Andrew Chaikin. Our number is 1-800-989-8255.
We’re talking about the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, which about now at this time, 40 years ago, was about a day and a half into its three-day mission of getting to the moon. America’s earliest manned missions—Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo—were all made possible in no small part by a German rocket scientist—you all remember him—Wernher von Braun. He wasn’t working for the US in the beginning.
He studied rocketry, developing V2 ballistic missiles for the Nazis and the ones that rained down on London during World War II. But towards the end of the war, he surrendered to the US and began designing rockets like the Jupiter ballistic missile for the US Army. And then, in 1960, he moved to the newly formed agency called NASA, with an assignment to build something even bigger—the Saturn.
– The Saturn is our first big step into the real high-thrust area. And a vehicle like the Saturn, of course, can not only carry dead equipment up there, but it can very definitely also send manned capsule up there, with repair crews that would be capable of returning to the earth again. And from there on, it doesn’t take much imagination to see that with a big boost like the Saturn at the bottom of such a vehicle, you need not limit this to one man, but we can send a bus load of people up into orbit.
IRA FLATOW: That was from an interview in 1959—Wernher von Braun talking about sending people into space with this new rocket called the Saturn 5. And after the shuttle retires in 2010—we’ve talked about this a little bit—we’re facing a five-year gap just getting a handful of astronauts into orbit, let alone bus loads of them. And NASA’s current plan, as laid out under the Bush administration, would get us to the space station by 2015 and back on the moon by 2020. And to do it, well, they’re planning on a pair of next generation rockets called Aries 1 and Aries 5, whose developmental costs are somewhere on the order of $30 billion.
But there’s one group of NASA engineers and contractors that think there’s an easier and cheaper design to get humans back into space using available technology and parts from the shuttle program. Joining me now to talk about one of those designs is my guest, Ross Tierney, founder of the DIRECT team. He joins us by phone from Cocoa Beach, Florida. Welcome to Science Friday.
ROSS TIERNEY: Ah, thank you very much, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: What’s wrong with the designs we have now? You say you can do it a lot cheaper, a lot faster?
ROSS TIERNEY: Essentially, we have a couple of concerns that the two vehicles that were posed in 2005 are no longer affordable. When the proposal was originally put out, NASA was supposed to be getting, about, $2 to $3 billion extra every year. Unfortunately, what’s happened since then is, the economy is taking a downturn, and NASA’s budget in real terms has actually been cut three times. So we’re in a situation today whereby the original proposal is no longer affordable.
IRA FLATOW: And so you think we can recycle some of the shuttle parts?
ROSS TIERNEY: Absolutely. And it’s not a new idea either. The idea has actually been proposed by NASA three times in the past—once even in 1977, four years before the first shuttle flew. Essentially, what we’re suggesting is to take the current space shuttle hardware—the two solid rocket boosters, the orange external tank fitted between them, and the main engines from the winged orbiter element—and rearrange them in such a fashion so that the payload goes on the top, the engines go on the bottom, and you can save an awful lot of weight, which equates to additional performance.
In addition to that, you can also place the crew right on the very top of the vehicle, and that increases safety. And this vehicle has a performance that would allow NASA to build just one vehicle at significantly lower costs than the two they’re currently planning.
IRA FLATOW: And you have lots of people on this DIRECT team that actually work for NASA and their contractors.
ROSS TIERNEY: Yes, absolutely. The majority of the team is made up of NASA engineers and managers, contractor-engineers and managers from around the country. There are only a handful of people like myself who are just spokespeople for the group. But the engineers are quietly working behind the scenes, volunteering their time, because this is something that they believe in.
IRA FLATOW: Are you getting a fair hearing from NASA?
ROSS TIERNEY: Initially, I don’t think people really took us too seriously to start with. But over the last year or so, I think we’ve made an enormous amount of headway, to the point that the Augustine Commission, who’s been set up to analyze the human spaceflight program after shuttle retires, have performed a full analysis on our system and essentially validated what we’ve been claiming.
IRA FLATOW: Let me ask my astronauts here, Harrison Schmitt and Alan Bean for their thoughts on this. Jack Schmitt, what do you think?
HARRISON SCHMITT: Well, I have no doubt that if your only objective is to get back into space that you can come up with alternative means of doing that, including a shuttle-derived launch system such as we just heard about. The thing is that if you’re looking, as NASA was under President Bush, for a broad continuing development program that not only enabled many astronauts to return to the moon but the development of lunar bases, and then also the basic systems to go on to Mars, then that takes quite a different set of implementing ideas. And I have no idea what the current administration is going to want to do with respect to space. And that’s going to determine a great deal about what you do and what price you pay for it.
IRA FLATOW: Alan Bean?
ALAN BEAN: Well, I spent 18 years there at NASA. And one of the things that I observed when I was talking about different things and different ideas that came up was that NASA had developed a really wonderful methodology of making trade-offs between these kinds of ideas. And in my experience, to achieve the goals that were stated for the agency at that time, these different groups came up with the solution that was best for that application. So I know you can cite anything and show that that’s better in one way or another, or worse in one way or another—cost, performance, whatever else—and to follow along with what Jack said.
But to achieve the stated goals of the agency, I have not found that NASA made a single mistake in the balancing of these different ideas off one another. So I’m telling you. Sometimes, early on, I would go against them, but I was found to be wrong. So I don’t go against this NASA methodology anymore.
HARRISON SCHMITT: The one thing that is absolutely clear and was just made clear again is that NASA has been underfunded. The Office of Management and Budget and the Congress have not provided the funds that originally were said to be necessary for the constellation program. And when you do that, there’s only one thing you can do, and that is delay schedules in order to take care of the contingencies that come up in any kind of development program.
With Apollo, we had essentially a 100% management reserve. Jim Webb asked George Low and others what they thought it would cost, and they said, oh, $7 or $8 billion—in those year dollars. And when he went to the Congress and the OMB, he doubled it.
And that was our reserve, and that’s what we did it for. And you need those kinds of reserves for the unknown unknowns. Now, if you don’t provide those reserves, and if indeed you not only don’t provide them but you keep cutting the budget, then you’re going to delay things and make things much more expensive.
And that’s what we’ve seen happen to the constellation program. If the new administration decides they want to continue to be a dominant space-faring nation at the moon and beyond, they’re going to have to pay the price. And they’re going to have to provide the reserves and the overall funding necessary in order to implement such a program.
IRA FLATOW: Let me—
HARRISON SCHMITT: If all they want to do is get back into Earth orbit and go to the space station, that’s a whole different story. And that’s a much cheaper thing to do.
IRA FLATOW: Ross, are you confident? Or have you gotten any hints from NASA that you might, you know—
ROSS TIERNEY: There’s definitely change in the air. There’s no doubt at all that, as Alan and Jack both said, the current budget is insufficient to make the current program work. But there are two potential approaches.
Either get more money from Congress or, alternatively, reduce the outlay you have to do to be able to accomplish the same mission. What we’ve essentially come up with is a way to produce the same amount of performance, equal amounts of safety, and all the capabilities that we essentially need to be able to go to the moon, and then onto Mars, and then even potentially go beyond that. We’ve come up with a way of doing it, instead of for $30 billion of development money, for $12 billion. In addition to that—
HARRISON SCHMITT: And if you believe that, I’ll sell you a Brooklyn Bridge. I mean, you know as well as I do, those kind of numbers are just something that will change with time as people realize that other things have to be done to reduce risk.
IRA FLATOW: You got a bridge for us, Ross? Or do you want to take issue with that?
ROSS TIERNEY: I hate to do it, but yes, I’m going to take issue. Unfortunately, the issue is, you have two launch vehicles in development. The Aries 1 is going to cost a little over $14 billion, because it needs new engines, new stages, new upper stages, new facilities, new manufacturing, et cetera, et cetera.
The Aries 5 then has to do it all over again. It’s a much larger vehicle, much more complicated, with much higher performance. What we’re saying is, just develop one. Don’t even replace the boosters.
You can save $2 billion right there. Don’t replace the main engines. You can save another billion dollars right there. Keep the current manufacturing that’s building the external tanks for the shuttle, and reuse about 70% of it to build a new course stage with the engines mounted immediately underneath it.
Place the payload on the top like a regular rocket. And at that point, you’ve create a 75-ton launch vehicle. If you want to put an upper stage on the top of that, you can increase performance over 100 tons.
Now, today, the Aries 1 and the Aries 5 together will be able to lift about 180 tons. Two of these vehicles would be able to lift over 200 tons. So we can exceed the performance requirements of the Aries vehicles quite comfortably—again, with two launches, but with only one vehicle development and one vehicle operational program. That saves you, like I say, somewhere in the order of about $18 billion in upfront costs and over $1 billion a year in operational costs.
IRA FLATOW: All right. Thank you very much. Good luck to you. We’ll keep track of your progress.
ROSS TIERNEY: Thank you very much for giving me the time to speak with such wonderful people. And I just want to say, thank you very much to both of you for being such an inspiration to all of us on this 40th anniversary of Apollo 11.
IRA FLATOW: Ross Tierney, founder of the DIRECT team in Cocoa Beach, Florida, joining us from Florida. I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from NPR News. Talking within the last few minutes, we have Andrew Chaikin, Alan Bean, and Harrison Schmitt. Any last thoughts?
Let me ask you. I have to ask you one question. I’ll ask both astronauts. You’ve said this a little bit, and I’m sure you’ve said it a billion times. But everybody wants to know, what did it feel like, Alan, to put a foot on the moon at that one instant there?
ALAN BEAN: Well, people are often disappointed with the answer I give, because NASA is a very good training organization. They’re able to find ways to simulate what it’s going to be like. In fact, my—not motto but credo, essentially, is, if you get any big surprises when you’re doing something for NASA, we didn’t train you right.
And so they trained us in different vehicles to feel the 16G to go around on volcanic fields, to do everything that we could think of. And my opinion is, when we got there walking on the moon wasn’t exactly like any of them. However, walking on the moon was almost like all of them.
And so it wasn’t any big shock. And that’s what you’re supposed to do. Notice how great it is when astronauts of today repair the Hubble Space Telescope.
I can remember when we could hardly go outside of a Gemini spacecraft and grab an Agena, or go behind it. Like when Gene Cernan went back there and tried to put on a maneuvering unit, couldn’t get it on—too sweaty. Well, we learned to do the training on Earth to do that. And these guys go up and do EVA after EVA, and assemble things, assemble the Space Station—
IRA FLATOW: Let me interrupt, because I have a minute left, and I promised Jack Schmitt to allow him to give us an idea. You already said you had to stop yourself from looking around at some point and get back to work.
HARRISON SCHMITT: Well, I’ll tell you. I think the biggest surprise was a gradual one and that was how easy and how enjoyable it was to run across the mountains of the moon, as John Denver once said. And using a cross-country skiing technique, you could move through boulder fields with a great confidence. And I think the future inhabitants of the moon are going to have a really enjoyable weekend, every weekend, running across the mountains of the moon.
IRA FLATOW: Is there a tool you think that they should develop that you never had? Would you like them to make some kind of tool that you didn’t have?
HARRISON SCHMITT: Well, that’s hard for me to say, since I was sort of overseeing the development of the tools based on what we were capable of doing. But there certainly should have been and could have been much more relief of mundane tasks by the astronauts—having automatic determination and documentation of samples should have been done, and unfortunately, it wasn’t. I hope it will be done the next time.
IRA FLATOW: As a geologist, is there a spot you’d love to visit that we haven’t been to? We haven’t been to so many places there, but one in particular?
HARRISON SCHMITT: Oh, the place to go is the far side of the moon. I tried to get NASA to consider that back 40 years ago, but they were starting to get much more conservative than I. But clearly, that’s where the scientific interest will be, initially—to get to the far side of the moon.
IRA FLATOW: Because? Why? What’s on the far side?
HARRISON SCHMITT: We don’t know.
We’ve taken pictures of it, but we don’t know.
ANDREW CHAIKIN: The monolith.
ALAN BEAN: This is Alan. I wanted to say—I was talking with Jack Schmitt once about the time near the end of his third EVA when he was making his body move and ski down a very slight mountain slope. And he told me—he said, next time they go to the moon, I’m going to tell him to take some Teflon skis. So maybe that’s a tool he wants them to take.
HARRISON SCHMITT: (LAUGHING) That’s right.
IRA FLATOW: All right, Andy. Andy, I got 30 seconds. Any last words?
ANDREW CHAIKIN: Yeah. Let’s get out of low Earth orbit. I’m not even feeling particularly choosy about where. Whether it’s the moon or a near-Earth asteroid, we’ve just got to get out of this rut we’ve been in since Apollo ended and get back to the game of exploring with humans as well as machines, because that’s our destiny in our long-term survival.
IRA FLATOW: And there you have it—Andrew Chaikin, a science journalist and a space historian, author of Voices From the Moon: Apollo Astronauts Describe Their Lunar Experiences. Alan Bean—astronaut and lunar module pilot for Apollo 12. His artwork is featured in two new books, Alan Bean Painting Apollo and Mission Control, This is Apollo, also coauthored with Andy.
And Harrison Schmidt—astronaut and lunar module pilot for Apollo 17, author of Return to the Moon: Exploration, Enterprise, and Energy in Human Settlement of Space. Thank you, gentlemen, for taking time to celebrate the Apollo 11 with us today and all the Apollo missions.
ALAN BEAN: Thank you, Ira.
ANDREW CHAIKIN: Thanks, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome.
HARRISON SCHMITT: Take care. Good to talk with you guys.
Alan Bean was an astronaut, lunar module pilot during Apollo 12, and author and illustrator, Alan Bean: Painting Apollo and Mission Control: This Is Apollo. He was based in Houston, Texas.
Andrew Chaikin is a science journalist and space historian, and author of A Man on the Moon (Viking, 1994) and Voices From the Moon: Apollo Astronauts Describe Their Lunar Experiences.
Harrison “Jack” Schmitt is an Apollo 17 astronaut, former U.S. Senator, and author of Return to the Moon: Exploration, Enterprise, and Energy in the Human Settlement of Space. He is based in Albuquerque, NM.