Apollo Investigation

Is There Any Hope for a Moon Base? 

by Phil Kouts PhD

See also commentary on this article next page

NASA documents on the now-defunct Constellation Program for a return to the Moon by 2020 reveal startling evidence that the agency is still actually unable to send a manned mission to the Moon. It’s as if nothing has been learned from Apollo.


Since NASA's Constellation Program (CxP), intended to return humans to the Moon by 2020 was cancelled in 2010, there has been no shortage of professional views as to what should happen next. Nevertheless, development work on systems to fly beyond low-Earth orbit (LEO) has continued without interruption, with the main targets remaining the same: to resurrect technologies that were allegedly available back in the late 1960s.

So, the key aspects of the current strategy defined in the US Authorization Act of 2010 are unsurprising: to develop a heavy launch vehicle and a module for the crew, capable of the safe return from space journeys beyond LEO. Doesn’t this simply mean a rocket analogous to the Saturn V launch vehicle and a capsule similar to the Apollo Command Module (CM)? 

However, the CxP plan to return to the Moon was not the first of its kind. An historical review (Arch. Study, 2005) pointed to a number of NASA task forces which, since at least 1989, had been assembled periodically in order to formulate the next viable Moon mission. A permanent base on the Moon had seemed to be the most logical and attractive goal, bearing in mind the apparent success of the Apollo program. Had the planned road maps of the early 1990s been realised within a span of some 15 years, in all probability a functioning inhabited outpost would have been developed on the Moon by now.

The most recent of the human space flight projects, the CxP again planned to at last get to the Moon. Until its cancellation in 2010, the project had achieved remarkable progress in planning, design and early development at a cost of around US$10 billion. Yet, on 15 April 2010, President Obama – speaking to scientists, astronauts and policy makers – finally denounced the CxP. Instead of a program to return to the Moon, he outlined the plan for NASA:

"By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth," the President said. "And a landing on Mars will follow, and I expect to be around to see it!" (Pres. Speech, 2010)

Obviously, this totally new strategy means no landings, either on the Moon or on Mars, for at least some 20 years from 2010. So then, what is the major problem with landing on the Moon? What does it really mean in terms of technology and logistical challenges to repeat a feat which, according to the record, was confidently accomplished many times, more than 40 years ago?

The answer can be found in the latest US Government and NASA documents. Any such mission is a complex chain of essential operations all of which have to be accomplished safely. It is sufficient for one or two links in the chain to be unreliable to make a Moon return deadly dangerous, and the mission becomes absolutely impossible when just one link is incomplete. Such links were actually acknowledged by NASA.

Heat Shield of the Command Module

One crucial link in any mission to the Moon requires that the return capsule is equipped with an effective and reliable heat shield to thermally protect the craft.  In particular, it was literally the vital element in the construction of each Apollo CM. This essential protection was necessary for re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere on lunar return. The CM hits and enters the Earth’s atmosphere at the re-entry speed of 11.2 km per second (escape velocity value).  Development of such a high specification shield must have been a highly significant scientific and technological challenge – especially in the mid 1960s – due to the complex technical requirements.

According to the chronology, the first successful use of the Apollo heat shield with a crew on board was in December 1968 during the return of Apollo 8 from the journey around the Moon. After that, all Apollo missions reportedly completed perfect landings and no problem has ever been highlighted or discussed.

However, the Architecture Report for the CxP reveals that NASA now does have a problem with the thermal protection material: ‘A Thermal Protection System (TPS) requires materials specifically designed to manage aero-thermal heating (heat flux, dynamic pressure) experienced during hypersonic entry, for both nominal and abort scenarios... Only ablators can meet maximum requirements; they are designed to sacrifice mass under extreme heating efficiently and reliably... The Apollo ablative TPS (AVCOAT–5061) no longer exists. Qualification of new or replacement materials will require extensive analysis and testing.’ (Arch. Study, 2005 p.629)

Apollo 14 CM
Apollo 14 Command Module, allegedly returned from the Moon, now housed at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida (Phil Kouts)

The essential requirement of a CM returning to Earth with its crew is to protect the module against enormous heat at deceleration from the high re-entry speed to a descent speed appropriate for parachutes to be deployed. At entry into the atmosphere, the protective material has to withstand around 2,700 degrees C, compared to the lower temperature of approx. 1,600 degrees C at which the Space Shuttle’s shield operates. (NASA News, 2006)

This subject has remained in the background for over 40 years but is now revealed as an outstanding problem. Worse still, it is perhaps a problem that has never been resolved satisfactorily. In a 2008 report by the Government Accounting Office (GAO), the admission is even more startling than the one made three years earlier: '[A]ccording to the Orion program executive the Orion Project originally intended to use the heat shield from the Apollo program as fall-back technology for the Orion thermal protection system, but was unable to recreate the Apollo material.' (GAO, 2008 p.6) The report clarifies: 'Heat shield design features required by the Orion, namely the size, have never been proven and must be developed.' (GAO, 2008 p.11)

The importance of a totally reliable and effective heat shield cannot be overstated. The availability of a proper heat shield was absolutely critical for the safe return of all the Apollo crews. NASA’s admission that the agency cannot now recreate the thermal shield of a return module is absolutely astounding. Such an admission could only be compared to an inconceivable statement that, for example, American military officials admit that after using armoured steel in their tanks during WWII, some 40 years later they don’t have the technology at hand to develop armoured steel, and have great difficulty in reproducing such steel despite the previous experience during the war. The GAO report concludes: 'With respect to Orion's thermal protection system, facilities available from the Apollo era for testing large-scale heat shields no longer exist.' (GAO, 2008 p.14)

Eighteen months later, possibly to soften the shocking revelation regarding the absence of an effective heat shield made in its first report, GAO provides clarification: 'NASA is using an ablative material derived from the substance used in the Apollo program. After some difficulties, NASA was successful in recreating the material. Because it uses a framework with many honeycomb-shaped cells, each of which must be individually filled without voids or imperfections, it may be difficult to repeatedly manufacture to consistent standards. According to program officials, during the Apollo program the cells were filled by hand. The contractor plans to automate the process for the Orion Thermal Protection System, but this capability is still being developed.' (GAO, 2009 p.11)

Does this help to convince the public that the problem is only one of small operations versus large operations, and therefore has been resolved? As recently as the end of 2012, it was announced that the Orion capsule is to be tested for a medium (around 8.9 km per second) re-entry speed at expected temperatures of up to 2,200 degrees C. (Orion Factsheet, 2012) This approach is entirely reasonable if NASA intends to investigate re-entry thermal conditions step by step, having had no preliminary experience. Again, it is evident that there is no reliance whatsoever on the claimed accomplishments of the Apollo program.

Re-entry into the Earth’s Atmosphere

Another critical link in the successful chain of operations is the choice of landing trajectory. The re-entry profile in particular determines critical requirements for the thermal shield. According to NASA, the Apollo systems performed a "direct entry", i.e. that which is along the simplest, shortest trajectory. But this choice carries with it the penalty of the maximum atmosphere resistance – resulting in maximum heat for the landing capsule and the maximum gravitational deceleration overload for a crew in the module. Another technique known as "skip entry" seems now to be preferred for returning crew modules from the Moon.

A skip entry means entering the Earth’s atmosphere with a longer gliding path and a soft bouncing on the Earth's atmosphere which allows the landing capsule to experience less heat and, at the same time, far less gravitational overload. NASA has reviewed trajectories for returning to Earth from the Moon and concludes that compared to those used during Apollo, the new concept should be implemented: ‘…it is recommended that NASA utilize skip-entry guidance on the lunar return trajectories. The skip-entry lunar return technique provides an approach for returning crews to a single ... landing site anytime during a lunar month. The Apollo-style direct-entry technique requires water or land recovery over a wide range of latitudes.’ (Arch. Study, 2005 p.39)

A wide range of latitudes would normally mean a few degrees on the globe which in turn would mean a large territory a few hundred kilometres across, which is in line with theoretical estimates for direct-entry. Strangely enough, to say that Apollo-style direct-entry requires a large territory, entirely contradicts the historical records regarding the Apollo CM splashdowns that were regularly done within a short distance from the recovery aircraft carriers. Typical splashdown miss distances of just a few kilometres were recorded for each Apollo mission recovery. Which should make the present day recovery teams very envious – as they currently pick up astronauts returning from the International Space Station (ISS) in territories dozens of kilometres across.

As a matter of fact, by mentioning "a wide range of latitudes" the modern NASA research teams denounced the declared achievement of the Apollo program in using the direct-entry technique. Today, NASA teams will have to actually develop a precise landing technique which was apparently available in the late 1960s.

Augustine Report

It is worthwhile noting that in the period of approximately three years since late 2009 – the time of the Review of the United States Space Flight Plans Committee, also known as the Augustine Committee Report – to the end of 2012, the developments with the Orion capsule were focused on its completion for trips to and safe return from the ISS. The ISS is of course only stationed in LEO, where the capsule would not experience the same extreme conditions, as is the case with return flights from the Moon.

Radiation beyond Low-Earth Orbit

Regarding the radiation limits for travelling beyond LEO, ‘NASA relies on external guidance from the National Academy of Sciences and the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP) for establishing dose limits. Due to the lack of data and knowledge, the NAS and NCRP recommended that radiation limits for exploration missions could not be determined until new science data and knowledge [were] obtained.’ (Arch. Study, 2005 p.109)

The next year, in swift response to NASA's request, the NCRP produced a report with a title to puzzle an unprepared reader: Information Needed to Make Radiation Protection Recommendations for Space Missions Beyond Low-Earth Orbit (NCRP, 2006). By this, the NAS admits that there is no substantial information available on cosmic radiation beyond LEO, including data on lunar surface radiation, despite the alleged achievements of Apollo.

The Augustine Committee quotes another report, this time from the National Research Council (NRC, 2008), which largely confirms the problem: 'Lack of knowledge about the biological effects of and responses to space radiation is the single most important factor limiting the prediction of radiation risk associated with human space exploration.' (Augustine, 2009, p.100)

The National Academy of Sciences needed some raw information just to be able to start working on those recommendations. Of course, some data should have been readily available to the American scientific community over the 40 years since the Apollo program.

Common sense tells us that information regarding radiation effects on the Moon, if such information exists at all, should be available within NASA, but from the Committee’s report, it is clear that NASA does not have it either. This is an incredible omission because if the Apollo crews were indeed on the lunar surface, the agency definitely should have the relevant extra-vehicular radiation data. Where is this data? Especially significant would surely be those of the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions.

According to the mission reports, the six astronauts on these three missions spent from 18 to 20 hours each on the lunar surface during three exits (extravehicular activities, EVAs), under the direct radiation from the Sun and other sources, in their space suits – without any additional shielding. Moreover, some EVAs occurred at the time of elevated solar activity, potentially bringing excessive solar flares or particle events and resulting radiation to the crew. It is notable that more than 40 years later, there is no overt indication that the Apollo astronauts ever experienced any residual effects from radiation exposure. 

In their late 70s and early 80s, the astronauts seemingly continue to lead normal lives. Neil Armstrong recently passed away at the respectable age of 82, due to causes apparently unrelated to radiation effects. This is a fantastic outcome of the Apollo program – provided it really was accomplished in 1969-72. Yet, strangely enough, there is little indication that NASA has ever paid any attention to this remarkable bio-medical fact which is a direct scientific outcome of the Apollo program. This is important self-evident information, and NASA should have started talking about this exciting finding: that no special medical and protective precautions against walking and working on the Moon are required.

On the contrary, NASA is silent on the matter and as shown above, has asked for help on a subject where the agency should be in full possession of the prime information and be the proud leader in this research. It is also noteworthy that in its mass media releases, NASA regularly reminds its audiences about Apollo 11, where astronauts were on the surface for only two hours, while it does not usually talk about circumstances of the Apollo 12 and 14 EVAs to such a degree, and is remarkably silent on Apollo missions 15 to 17 which would be crucial evidence in favour of harmless trips to the Moon.

Regarding radiation effects on humans, the Augustine Committee concludes: 'These radiation effects are insufficiently understood and remain a major physiological and engineering uncertainty in any human exploration program beyond low-Earth orbit.' (Augustine, 2009 p.100)

The Committee doesn't speak specifically about potential radiation problems on the lunar surface itself. Nor is the radiation danger during landing of crews on the Moon in the Apollo missions considered to any extent. Could it be that the decision not to mention Apollo was based not on the fact that the committee limited itself to studies carried out in LEO but precisely because there is no medical data on effects on human health beyond LEO? In fact, there is no connection or reference at all to the legendary Moon missions regarding the radiation problem in the quoted NASA reports (i.e. Arch. Study, 2005, and Augustine, 2009).

Landing On and Taking Off from the Lunar Surface

While considering optimal strategies of travelling to the Moon and Mars, NASA admits that there could be technical problems when actually landing and thereafter taking off again from the lunar surface. The Augustine Committee considers an option to delay the Moon landing as more viable and contemplates that '[a]t least initially, astronauts would not travel into deep gravity wells of the lunar and Martian surface, deferring the cost of developing human landing and surface systems' (Augustine, 2009 p.15) – thus also avoiding any issues concerning radiation exposure during EVAs.

Nevertheless, when giving preference to a combined strategy where landing on the Moon is indefinitely delayed, the Committee admits the difficulties of developing the landing technologies. Again, why not rely on the experience apparently gained from the Apollo program? And why is a technical aspect which was so successfully handled some 40 years ago, now labelled as a "deep gravity well", implying that it is a struggle to get out of the lunar or Martian environments?

Although the Augustine Committee talks about gravity on the Moon and on Mars at the same time, one may note that the gravitational forces on the surfaces of these two space bodies are different. Let’s state it relative to our own on the Earth, in percentages: then the gravity on Mars is 37% of Earth’s, the Moon’s gravity is 16.6% or just one-sixth of Earth's. Obviously, it must be far easier to take off from the Moon.

So, one would expect NASA to discuss the comparatively greater challenge of take-off from Mars, yet the agency places both at the same level of difficulty, which seems totally illogical. In 1969 gravity wasn’t a problem for take-offs from the Moon – but for some reason by 2010 it had become a very serious problem.

The Augustine Committee expands on previous objectives set out in 2005 as broadly as one can imagine today: 'The missions would go to places humans have never been to, escaping from the Earth/Moon system, visiting near-Earth objects, flying by Mars, thereby continuously engaging public interest. Explorers would initially avoid traveling to the bottom of the relatively deep gravity wells of the surface of the Moon and Mars, but would learn to work with robotic probes on the planetary surface.' (Augustine, 2009 p.43)

The initial intention of the CxP was to complete a satisfactory return to the Moon that could be seen as the first step in this new broadly brushed range of programs. But now the time frame and scope have become entirely uncertain.

The findings of the Augustine Committee regarding lunar exploration demonstrate that the connection to the data from Apollo systems available in the 1960s, i.e. human landing and surface systems, as well as the ascent capabilities of Apollo, has been deliberately sidelined. This action implies that all the data from Apollo is of little value to the actual requirements of space exploration, which takes us to that ascent vehicle – the Saturn V rocket.

Saturn V
The Saturn V (NASA)

The Heavy-Launch Rocket

At the outset of the CxP in 2005, NASA put forward this recommendation: ‘Adopt and pursue a Shuttle-derived architecture as the next-generation launch system for crewed flights into LEO and for 125-mT-class cargo flights for exploration beyond Earth’s orbit. After thorough analysis of multiple ... options for crew and cargo transportation, Shuttle-derived options were found to have significant advantages with respect to cost, schedule, safety, and reliability.' (Arch. Study, 2005 p.47)

Despite these advantages, the Space Shuttle system as a key candidate had a fundamental flaw: limited payload capacity. It could hardly serve as a heavy lift vehicle for a Moon mission.

Indeed, the Saturn V allegedly used to take up to LEO a payload of approximately 120 tons, while Space Shuttle systems are limited to payloads of around 100 tons or so, including the orbiter. The redesign of these systems presents a completely new task (see below).

It is not surprising that NASA has continued to examine options for the suitability of various powerful rockets for travelling to the Moon and beyond. It would seem logical that this next generation of launch rockets would have taken into account the achievements of the Saturn V system deployed during Apollo.

First-Stage Engines (F-1): The success of the Apollo program was largely based on the performance of the Saturn V rocket with its five massive F-1 engines in the first stage, which were claimed to be the most powerful rocket engines ever built. However, in NASA's comprehensive 750-page Architecture Study, the F-1 engine is neither considered as a fall-back option nor analysed as a prototype for further development. It is only once vaguely mentioned in this detailed review of NASA's capabilities in rocket science and technology. (Arch. Study, 2005 p.467)

F-1 Engine
F-1 Engine (Rocketdyne)

Instead, four years into the CxP, NASA had made no clear decision regarding what the next heavy-lift launch vehicle should be based upon. By mid-2009, the Augustine Committee was still trying to choose between the newly suggested 'Ares I + Ares V architecture ... a Shuttle-derived vehicle; and a "super-heavy" launcher derived from Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle ... heritage'. (Augustine, 2009 p.64)

The latter were vehicles of medium capacity, routinely used by NASA in recent unmanned missions. The Ares rockets were part of the CxP. Here again, the Augustine Committee mentions neither the Saturn V, nor the F-1 engines.

Furthermore, the GAO points to an issue identified during the early study and modeling of a new Ares I crew launch vehicle: 'Current modeling indicates that thrust oscillation within the first stage causes unacceptable structural vibrations. There is a possibility that the thrust oscillation frequency and magnitude may be outside the design limits of the Ares design requirements (emphasis added).'

Then, the GAO continues: 'A NASA focus team studied this issue and has proposed options for mitigation including incorporating vibration absorbers into the design of the first stage and redesigning portions of the Orion Vehicle to isolate the crew from the vibration... Failure to completely understand the flight characteristics of the modified booster could create a risk of hardware failure and loss of vehicle control.' (GAO, 2008 p.10)

This statement has an historical aspect. The same problem – i.e. structural vibrations in the body of the rocket, caused by the vibration of the thrust chambers of the first stage engines – was found at the second-ever trial of the Saturn V, after its unmanned launch on 4 April 1968, known as Apollo 6. The so-called pogo vibrations were found to be so large that they were recognized as a threat to the health and survival of the crew and to the integrity of the payload, including the Lunar Module (LM). Even at the time it was admitted: 'Had there been men on board Apollo 6, the crew probably would have aborted the mission during the pogo, when they would have been so violently banged around that they couldn’t have operated the spacecraft.' (Apollo, 1989 p.314)

However, without any further test launches since the problematic trial in April, in December 1968 the Saturn V, according to NASA reports, successfully took Apollo 8 to fly around the Moon with a human crew. Much later, during the third unmanned launch of the Saturn V with Skylab on board, the vibrational problem returned. During the launch on 14 May 1973, the Skylab station was heavily damaged due to the severe vibrations of the first stage of the rocket. One solar panel was torn away from the station body and severely dented it as a result. For some period of time, due to the damage, the station was treated as lost.

Yet it begs the question: how did the Saturn V manage to run perfectly from 1968 through to 1972 and then, some six months after the end of the Apollo missions succumb to the same problem that it had at its birth? For it was between the second and the third unmanned launches of the Saturn V that all the apparently successful missions to the Moon occurred.

These historical events could help us to understand the recent decision-making processes in NASA during the development of a heavy launch vehicle. While not relying on Apollo’s best technology, NASA has struggled to select the design of a large launch rocket. It faces immense engine vibration problems similar to those that occurred during at least two unmanned Saturn V launches.

In mid 2009, some 18 months after its first comment on vibrations identified in the first stage, the GAO admitted at the time of the Augustine Committee report that NASA still had vibrational problems with Ares I: ‘Another issue related to vibration is vibroacoustics – the pressure of the acoustic waves – produced by the firing of the Ares I first stage and the rocket’s acceleration through the atmosphere – which may cause unacceptable structural vibrations throughout Ares I and Orion. According to agency officials, NASA is still determining how these vibrations and acoustic environments may affect the vehicles.’ (GAO, 2009 p.13)

The Augustine Committee expressed similar concerns about the Ares I rocket, without suggesting any viable solution. ‘...NASA determined that the original plan to use the Space Shuttle main engines on the Ares I upper stage would be too costly... But the replacement engine had less thrust and inferior fuel economy, so the first-stage solid rockets had to be modified to provide more total impulse. This in turn contributed to a vibration phenomenon, the correction of which has yet to be fully demonstrated.’ (Augustine, 2009 p.111)

To sum-up, a four-year period of research and design has resulted in identification of the key problems analogous to those experienced with the Saturn V unmanned missions. Soon, the Ares rocket development was cancelled. The vibration problem of Apollo 6 allegedly had been solved by December 1968 since, for the Apollo 8 launch vehicle, this supposition was made: ‘The new helium prevalve cavity pressurization system will be flying on the S-IC for the first time. In this system, cavities in the liquid oxygen prevalves are filled with helium to create accumulators or "shock absorbers" to damp out oscillations. This system was installed to prevent excessive longitudinal oscillations experienced in [sic] the Apollo 6 flight.’ (Ap-8 PK, 1968 p.47)

If this oscillation issue truly had been settled, then one must forcibly conclude that this fix was withheld at the time of the Skylab accident and is not to this day considered a viable solution for future space travel. So the observation remains that, once again, there is no reliance on the Apollo experiences in this regard, all allegedly successful Saturn V launches for the nine manned Apollo missions are questionable.

J-2X Engine
J-2X Engine

Second-Stage Engines (J-2X): Whatever the first stage of the heavy lift vehicle would be, for the second stage a hydrogen engine, J-2X, had confidently been selected. A recommended rocket stage for departure from Earth’s orbit will also require J-2X. This means the development of a modified engine as a derivative from the J–2 upper-stage engine used in the Apollo-Saturn system.

Along with the F-1 engine, the J-2 engine was the basis of Apollo's success. The engine had a thrust that could not be delivered by any other means of comparable size and weight, and it was essential, first, to bring the payload into LEO, and then to launch the lunar combo, (the Command/Service Module) CSM/LM craft to the Moon. The J-2 engine was not used after the Apollo missions except on one launch of the Saturn 1B rocket in 1975 for a space rendezvous with the Soyuz craft in LEO (the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project).

At the beginning of the CxP, NASA was determined to modify the J-2, although the agency admitted there were problems: The use of a J–2S engine for an Earth Departure Stage (EDS) is an area of high risk because a J–2S engine has never been flown. The J–2S (J–2 simplified) was designed to replace the Saturn vehicle upper stage J–2 engines... Thus, the estimated time of 4 years for qualification, fabrication, and testing of the engine poses a significant risk to the program.’ (Arch. Study, 2005 p.8)

After the analysis and design work had been already under way for some three to four years, the GAO then made a provisional suggestion of a required time frame and intensity for this redevelopment: ‘The development schedule for the J-2X is aggressive, allowing less than 7 years from development start to first flight, and highly concurrent.’ (GAO, 2008 p.12)

If the engine had indeed been reliably used some 40 years ago why would it now take – at the current rate of progress in technology – a massive seven years for its redevelopment?  And why was the redevelopment which is going to be concurrent, raised as a troubling aspect? Naturally, NASA should have relied on its experience with the Apollo systems on similar concurrent development works.

The GAO reaches an astounding conclusion on the J-2X upper-stage engine: ‘Although the J-2X is based on the J-2 and J-2S engines used on the Saturn-V ... the number of planned changes is such that, according to NASA review boards, the effort essentially represents a new engine development.’ (GAO, 2008 p.10)

How does this conclusion compare with the whole Apollo spacecraft development, which was completed in the mid-1960s within seven years, and was indeed new and concurrent with several other critical developments – all completed for the first time?

The construction of a heavy launch rocket as the key part of the CxP was eventually stopped by 2010.  The crew vehicle, Ares I, was tried in unmanned flight only once, in October 2009, and it was already clear at the time that it had no future. There was no reliance on the Saturn V's key elements such as the powerful F-1 engine of the first stage, and there was very little reliance on the J-2 engine of the second stage.

In the CxP, the new Moon rocket appeared to be based on new developments unrelated to the Saturn V.  Moreover, the legendary F-1 engine is not even mentioned in modern NASA documents. It is as if it had never existed. While NASA doesn’t have a suitable heavy launcher, it implies by this omission that it doesn’t have confidence in the Apollo technological capability, either.

In April 2008, the GAO saw the key technical elements of the Apollo Space Program as a fall-back option to the system under development. However, quite possibly it was also becoming clear over time that supportive solutions were not always available from NASA’s previous experience and expertise. Whatever might be the real reasons behind this lack of will to rely upon Apollo data for matters lunar, by mid-2009, the US Government had come to realise the impossibility of completing the Constellation Program within the initially allocated timeframe of 15 years. 

The GAO notes that it has reported on 'areas of technical challenge in the past, including thrust oscillation, thermal protection system ... and J-2X nozzle extension'. The GAO continues: 'In addition to these challenges, our recent work has highlighted other technical challenges, including Orion mass control, vibroacoustics, lift-off drift, launch abort system, and meeting safety requirements.' (GAO, 2009 p.10)

The GAO has identified multiple technical risks for both the launching rocket and the Orion development and, as a result, for the current mission to the Moon. Many problems identified in 2005-09 are surprisingly similar to those that would have been encountered and, of course, solved – in order for the legendary Apollo program to be successful.

The viability of the old program was inevitably questioned inside NASA when the new one started. If there wasn’t much expertise to inherit from the legendary Apollo program, then the question as to whether such a program could have been completed 40 years ago, is now highlighted in a major way. NASA still faces technical challenges which were seemingly resolved some 40 years ago. The overall message of the latest NASA reports is that the technology for journeying to the Moon is not available. Neither is a launching rocket, nor even a module for the safe transportation and return of a crew back to Earth.

Departure from the Moon’s surface, which wasn't a problem during the Apollo era, is now a problem due to the perceived difficulties in getting out of the so-called deep gravity well. Furthermore, NASA admits that the agency doesn’t have sufficient understanding of radiation beyond LEO. If just one crucial link in a Moon visitation project is missing, the whole program becomes impossible.
One such link is, certainly, the heat shield of the returning module which is still to be developed. Without an effective and reliable shield any manned lunar missions would be one way only – incapable of returning.

It was recently admitted by Tom Young, a retired Lockheed Martin executive that NASA is on "a declining trajectory". Asteroids and Lagrange points "can be steps," but do not "inspire", while there are only a few "practical" destinations – the Earth’s moon, the moons of Mars, and Mars itself. (Young, 2013) So, an idea to develop an inhabitable lunar outpost, cherished initially (Arch. Study, 2005, p. 56), still stands.

In the light of the above and many recent findings, to identify honestly the key problems and to clear the way forward to their pragmatic solution, wouldn’t it be more productive to finally recognise that the Apollo manned missions to the Moon, allegedly completed four decades ago, did not happen?

Phil Kouts
Aulis Online, June 2014

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About the Author

Phil Kouts lives and works in New Zealand.

Phil Kouts has a PhD in applied physics and gained considerable experience in applied research, working as research fellow in various universities in the UK as well as an R&D manager in private companies. 

He writes under a pseudonym to differentiate his professional occupation from his interests, and can be contacted by email at philkuts@gmail.com


  • Ap-8 PK, 1968: NASA, "Apollo 8 Press Kit" (No. 68-208), 15 December 1968, http://tinyurl.com/nz4kryl
  • Apollo, 1989: Murray, Charles and Catherine Bly Cox, Apollo: The Race to the Moon, Simon & Schuster, New York,1989
  • Arch. Study, 2005: NASA, "NASA's Exploration Systems Architecture Study – Final Report" (NASA-TM-214062), November 2005, http://tinyurl.com/kd33me7
  • Augustine, 2009: Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, "Seeking a Human Spaceflight Program Worthy of a Great Nation", October 2009, http://tinyurl.com/ygcz243
  • GAO, 2008: Government Accountability Office, "NASA: Ares I and Orion Project Risk and Key Indicators to Measure Progress" (GAO-08-186T), 3 April 2008, http://tinyurl.com/lr3edy
  • GAO, 2009: Government Accountability Office, "NASA: Constellation Program Cost and Schedule Will Remain Uncertain Until a Sound Business Case Is Established" (GAO-09-844), August 2009, http://tinyurl.com/mshm6kv
  • NASA News, 2006: "NASA Developing New Heat Shield for Orion", 13 September 2006, http://tinyurl.com/qykr3v6
  • NCRP, 2006: NCRP, "Information Needed to Make Radiation Protection Recommendations for Space Missions Beyond Low-Earth Orbit", Report No. 153, 2006, http://tinyurl.com/pqmnhxy
  • NRC, 2008: National Research Council, Managing Space Radiation Risk in the New Era of Space Exploration, The National Academies Press, Washington, DC, 2008, http://tinyurl.com/ovfa9fa
  • Orion Factsheet, 2012: NASA, "Orion Exploration Flight Test-1", 18 May 2012, http://tinyurl.com/kjyyc9k
  • Pres. Speech, 2010: NASA, "President Barack Obama on Space Exploration in the 21st Century", 15 April 2010, http://tinyurl.com/y35g9gt
  • Young, 2013: SpacePolicyOnline.com, "Tom Young: NASA on Declining Trajectory, Beware Unintended Consequences of SLPA", 1 March 2013, http://tinyurl.com/ojzqpfj

This article is also published in NEXUS vol 21 No.5, August-September 2014

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