To the Editor:
As the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s landing on the moon approaches, I find myself confused.
We completed six and a half successful lunar missions back then, in relatively quick succession. Since then, aerospace technology has presumably advanced tremendously, and yet, a half-century later, we still haven’t gone back. In fact, no country has sent someone to the moon, or, to be more precise, anywhere beyond low earth orbit. I haven’t found a record of any living thing being sent beyond (a brief) 740 miles.
It hasn’t been due to a lack of desire or intent. NASA has on multiple occasions announced that we will be going back — in “X” years. But those years pass, and each time, the prediction recedes, due to technology problems that need to be solved.
The first problem is the Van Allen radiation belts, two bands of deadly charged particles caught in Earth’s magnetic field. One extends roughly from 600 to 4,000 miles up, the other roughly 8,000-40,000 miles. These belts protect all life on Earth by blocking deadly incoming radiation from outer space. But the radiation inside those belts would kill any living thing exposed to it.
It is said the Apollo astronauts just went very fast through a thin part of the belts and weren’t in them long enough to be injured. Why is it that we can’t do the same thing again?
In any case, the belts aren’t the ultimate problem. Anyone who gets beyond them has to deal with the intense radiation in space that the belts are protecting us from. NASA says this will require major shielding. And then there are the meteoroids, some traveling as fast as 50,000 mph.
NASA acknowledges it doesn’t yet have a solution to any of that. Customary radiation shielding — concrete or lead — is impractical. Workable force fields have yet to be invented. Yet, 50 years ago, the Apollo astronauts landed on the moon in a thin-skinned craft of laminated Mylar. Why aren’t we just re-using all that technology that worked back then?
One apparent reason is that NASA has lost it all — the original video and audio data, the telemetry data from the monitoring of health and equipment functioning, the plans for all the space vehicles, even the plans for the Saturn V rocket that boosted them off Earth. 13,000 reels of data tapes, all gone. A 2009 NPR report about the loss prompted NASA to mount an extensive search, which turned up nothing. NASA guesses they probably recorded satellite data over the tapes, to save money.
Okay, so we don’t have that technology any more. What we do have, though, is technology that presumably has advanced light-years from that primitive earlier version.
So as I say, I’m confused. 50 years. Why are we not only not on the moon, but also appear to lack any clear possibility of getting there any time soon. We may get there eventually, but how did we do it back then?