back to article To the Moon - with extreme engineering

It's a temptation, watching many of the 40th Anniversary retrospectives, to think of the Apollo space program as a triumph of power and industrial might. The superpowers' space programs were, of course, political and chauvinistic, designed to showcase national wealth. But there's a better way of looking at the program, Dennis …


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  1. The BigYin

    No joke

    That "joke" is a total myth. Both the Russians and the Americans used pencils at the start. But broken leads and the sharpening would cause graphite shards to float about. A *serious* risk to eyes and electircs. A humble ball point would have done the job perfectly, bar the fire risk.

    The company Fisher came up with the "space pen", paying for all R&D. They are used by the Russians and Americans.

    If you fall for a simple myth like that, what other crap is your story filled with?

  2. This post has been deleted by its author

  3. Ian Ferguson


    Thanks for the article. It kind of reaffirms my opinion - that despite the subsequent advances in technology, knowledge and safety, it will cost (proportionally) many times more in money and beaurocracy to send people back to the moon than it originally did to send them the first time.

    By the way - the second link in the footer ('LOIRP image gallery') is broken.

  4. Josco

    Backwards to oblivion

    Reading this makes one realise that we, the human race, are starting to go backwards. Tie that in with the article about renewable energy and power shortages and it is obvious that the wrong people are in charge.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    "Even back then nasa was metric" It's a shame they're not now and humming and harring if they are going to convert or not...

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    nasa rockets including saturn v

    I believe all nasa rockets have a zero carbon footprint, spitting out mostly water and ammonium salts.

  7. Paul Kinsler

    public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite

    "That capture is now complete - scientific "study" merely serves the political fashion"

    Wrong! -- that's the scientific-technological elite becoming the slave of public policy.

  8. Graham Marsden


    Snopes is your friend:

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    A Dilbert moment

    A lovely article and I'm sure I'm not alone in recognising echoes of the horrible management practices mentioned in employers past and current. Pyramid structure? 3 developers and 7 managers - check!

  10. Tim Spence

    RE: nasa rockets including saturn v

    The actual exhaust may be "carbon neutral", but generating the massively obscene amounts of hydrogen for the fuel in the first place isn't.

    Unless you know something we don't...?

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    In the 50s & 60s Engineers managed the projects. they looked for solutions. Now project managers manage the projects and they look for problems.

  12. Tawakalna


    going backwards? we never even got started! when I were a lad, I was promised that by the year 2000 I'd be living on the Moon, have a rocket car, and live in a space podule in some towering space city.

    so where's my flying Moon car then? i don;t think that my ten year old Ford Focus does the job in that regard, nor does my pre-war semi in Staffordshire quite match the dream I was sold with my Eagle comic and Ladybird "Race into Space"

    I haven't got an atomic kitchen yet either. I suspect that we wus being lied to.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @The BigYin

    That's why it's a joke...

  14. Lutin

    @The BigYin

    @The BigYin

    Most jokes are myths.

    The article didn't state or suggest that the joke was actually based on a true story.

  15. Michael 82

    Yes, we are going backwards

    And it was the great Jeremy Clarkson who predicted this towards the end of his series "speed about 10years ago! As cars and planes are getting slower and slower.....

  16. Anonymous Coward

    'Plumbers' are going back to the Moon

    Good article! This sort of 'engineering' can be done today... just check out the teams in the Google Lunar X Prize competition. Some are 'space professionals' but many are the kind of engineers and entrepreneurs you call 'plumbers' in the article. As a member of one of the teams, I believe 'free enterprise' can do it "better, faster, cheaper" then NASA.



  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Going Backwards

    I would say that's mainly due to Bean-counters, patent trolls and lawyers. These people are all out to make as much money as possible, never mind any benefit to society just make money.IMO in the 60's having the superpowers battling for space supremacy meant people had a common goal and budgets were less important.

    But now there's seems to only be short term profit as motivator.

  18. WFW

    Moon images

    ' It was the Orbiter that took the first "whole earth" picture (not Apollo) and provided the first pictures of the dark side of the Moon.'

    Please, ot the "dark" side, the far side. And not the first. That was the Soviet Luna 3 flyby of

    October, 1959. See for details.

  19. Ken Hagan Gold badge

    Saturn V's carbon footprint

    The *shuttle* burns hydrogen, but the first stage (at least) of the Saturn V burned kerosene. Given that it isn't air-breathing and probably *is* fairly efficient, its carbon footprint is roughly equal to its launch weight -- about 3500 tons if memory serves.

  20. b166er


    is wrong with calling it 'the dark side' ? Haven't you something important to be doing?

  21. Mike Smith

    So true, but so sad.

    "With our impoverished idea of human achievement, pessimism about our scientific and technological capabilities, and little faith in human organisation, it is hard to imagine Apollo happening today at all"

    When I was an ankle-biter in the late 60s and early 70s, I was completely in awe of what NASA had done. I can remember feeling cheated when the Apollo-Soyuz mission happened and then... nothing. Bit fat nowt apart from putting satellites into orbit.

    We're the pygmies of the present worshipping the giants of the past. Not sure if that's original - I suspect not - but I think it it sums it up very well. I don't think we'll ever see anything like Apollo again until the beancounters are removed from the decision-making process and visionaries with a JFDI attitude are allowed to take the helm.

    But don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen, folks. You'll suffocate.

  22. Robert Grant

    What's hilarious is...

    ...the funding that pushed America to the moon was completely politicised. The moon landing was a trophy for the US, and another blow in the US vs Russia fight.

  23. John A Fotheringham

    While we've still got the ability...

    ... I think we should build three space arks.

    We could populate the second with anyone who uses the words "paradigm" (*) or "celebrity". I'm sure peopel can think of others.

    (*) Oh bugger!!

  24. ShaggyDoggy

    dark side

    The 'side' of the moon receives the most light from the sun during a year is actually the far side, you can work it out with a football, torch, and orange.

  25. Mr Ian
    Thumb Up

    Enjoyable article

    Thank you, Andrew.

  26. dr_forrester

    Not about pride...

    The space race wasn't about national pride, or showing off the economy. Oh, that was part of it, too, don't get me wrong. But the space race was about testing ICBM's without coming out and admitting it - since you can't exactly hide an ICBM launch.

  27. Jeffrey Nonken

    @footprints and Fotheringhams and Rangers, oh my

    Remember that the total carbon footprint of a vehicle isn't just what it costs to run, but also what it costs to build. As limited a use as something like this would have, the latter would considerably outweigh the former, I expect. (Unlike an automobile which gets used again and again; its operating costs become more significant.)

    Mr. Fotheringham: I use the word "paradigm", I use the word "synergy". They are perfectly good words that have specific meanings that are often difficult to express without using those words. Unfortunately some middle-management types thought they sounded cool and intelligent and obscure and co-opted them for their biz-speak, thus ruining it for those of us who actually know what they mean and use them appropriately. Because now people think we're being show-offs and following a fad if we use them, even though we've been using them years before they were co-opted. It's enough to make a man want to build an ark.

    Me? I'm an embedded software engineer. I make things like the Times Square Ball (boast, boast) and flight simulator hardware (current job) and infrared spectrophotometers and industrial process controllers. And I refuse to stop using "paradigm" and "synergy" just because some pea-brained self-promoting managers can't help showing off their collective ignorance.

    And I refuse to get into the "B" Ark. I hate telephone sanitizers. ;)


    I think my father was involved in one of the Ranger projects. I remember B&W 8x10 glossy pictures (no circles nor arrows on the back) from my youth. Though it could have just been his company. I have sent him an e-mail asking about that.

    Pirate because, um, well, I feel like it. Arr, mateys!

  28. John Fairhurst

    Can't Disagree

    'Saturn V would surely never be completed now - somebody would complain about its "carbon footprint". With our impoverished idea of human achievement, pessimism about our scientific and technological capabilities, and little faith in human organisation, it is hard to imagine Apollo happening today at all.'

    I really wish I could disagree with the above statement, but I have to agree, especially with the comment about the little faith in human organisation and the impoverishment of the human spirit.

    It seems that the pedominant feeling these days is 'why should we...' or 'we can't do that...' rather than 'Why not...' or 'Let'ss ee what happens if...'

  29. No, I will not fix your computer

    Going Backwards?

    If, 40 years ago the world said "OK, lets do Mars now" and lets pretend that the world, all economies joined in, imagine that it took 40 years but we did it, actually sent people to Mars, got biospheres on the Moon then on to Mars, now think about all the money that we would have pissed away doing it, all the lives lost, all the environmental damage, and we would have gained exactly what?


    Going backwards? the US might have got a big political win after losing the space race up to that point (although they had to employ SS and Nazi war criminals to do it, would they have bothered if there was no cold war?), to stop wasting natural resources, money, clever peoples time and lives is going forward, not backward.

  30. Adam Foxton

    @No, I will not fix your computer

    We would have probably gained a whole new set of technologies we've not bothered to make yet- fancy new materials, for example. And we'd have started spreading out- helping secure our race in the event of some sort of planetary apocalypse and meaning we can finally take advantage of non-terrestrial resources.

    THAT is real, measurable progress. We've expanded, we've developed and we've faced and overcome a whole range of entirely new challenges. And we've been rewarded with resources that- even compared to our bountiful Earth- are nigh-on infinite. Plus, with more and more spaceflights happenning the technology becomes cheaper and more reliable- leading to the commodification of space travel. Meaning MORE people get to go offworld and exploit these resources and help overcome the challenges. Meaning we get to spread further, giving still more resources.

    What you're suggesting is that we're going forward because we're hiding from the potential failures and aliens and space-virusses and death and expense of space travel because... well, you've never been into space so it's never benefitted you has it?

    Also, I'd bet cash money that the environmental damage from a 40 year Mars mission starting in 1975 (when Apollo was cancelled) would have been less than 40 years of Ford and GM. If for no other reason than after 40 years of that sort of investment we'd probably have been mining offworld for quite a while. They'll also- directly- account for more deaths than the Apollo missions and produce fewer technologies while using up far, far more clever people's time.

    In fact you could have had more energy-efficiency-enhancing and environmental-processing technologies with a Mars mission than without it- you'd certainly need it on a long-haul mission.

    And can you imagine someone sat on Mars in this divergent 2015 saying "Man, we screwed up. If we didn't start that whole "get to mars" space program thing, we could have had cars that ran on Hydrogen! And have powered whole cities using the wind and sun"? No? Oh yeah, that's because they'd also have developed those (or alternatives) as their higher-tech society would have noticed the impending lack of fossil-fuel and reacted accordingly (quicker and faster and without a lot of the bullshit we've got today). Probably built a few breeder reactors

    I bet you thought getting rid of Concorde was a step forwards as well.

  31. Seán


    The story is mildly interesting but the amazing lack of secret projects and military industrial complex tie ins seems unreal. All this snivelling about today vs. then is the standard noise made by old failures about how their failing memories and inability to think clearly any more makes 1960's primitivism superior to the present day. Why didn't they build a Jupiter base in 1910?

    "With our impoverished idea of human achievement, pessimism about our scientific and technological capabilities, and little faith in human organisation, it is hard to imagine Apollo happening today at all"

    It's true, if you have that attitude you are a failure.

  32. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @No, I will not fix your computer

    Think of the time, money, and carbon footprint wasted on the development of computers and networking equipment. Maybe you should do the world a favor, and help us all move forward, by throwing yours in the trash.

  33. This post has been deleted by its author

  34. Jeffrey Nonken

    Update: Message from Dad

    I promised to ask my father about his involvement. Here's his reply:

    Stand back - you pushed an ancient button....

    The Launch Guidance System computer was attached to a complex GE radar system

    built in Syracuse NY, The system used transceivers (receivers and

    transmitters) riding on the rocket being guided. The GE Radar did Direct

    Tracking of the position of the rocket in spherical coordinates (Range:

    distance: Elevation: angle; and azimuth: angle). To provide redundancy and

    further accuracy, it also had a doppler radar system (a relative of the radar

    used by highway control to catch speeders) that measured speed in three axes,

    rather than position in three axes. These measurements were transmitted to our

    computer, which translated these six measurements into deduced actual position

    and speed along its trajectory, and then computed what steering commands to

    send up to the missile. This steered the Launching rocket (mostly an Atlas

    Missile) with a payload on top, into an earth orbit.

    In the case of the Ranger launches being discussed in this article, the

    combination being launched was an Atlas Missile with an Agena spacecraft

    sitting on top. When the Atlas has inserted the assembly into earth orbit, it

    detached and fell into the ocean, and the Agena injected the remaining

    assembly into a moon orbit, with the Ranger spacecraft on its top. the Ranger

    Spacecraft then does all of the stuff described in the article.

    Atlas Agena combination was used for many different missions, with our ground

    guidance system guiding the first approximately five minutes it took to inject

    into earth orbit, and then sending the agena a set of precise data about where

    it was going how fast in what direction. Based on that baseline data, the

    Inertial Guidance system in the Agena could initiate its job of further guidance.

    We also guided Thor Missiles as Launch vehicles (for Gemini, for example). In

    addition to Agena Spacecraft we later carried Centaur spacecraft on top.

    For some Gemini launches we launched a Thor with the Gemini manned spacecraft

    on top, and then switched over to launch an Atlas Agena to rendezvous with the

    Gemini 90 minutes later.

    For other launches, that we didn't guide, we did "Range Safety" by tracking

    the launch to assure that it was going where it should, and keeping a range

    safety officer apprised of how it was doing. We never caused a failure or

    even delayed a launch. Being transistorized, we were more reliable than all

    those vacuum tubes around us.

  35. Filippo Silver badge

    @No, I will not fix your computer

    Is this a troll? If humanity had actually set out to create permanent habitats on the Moon and Mars, and managed to do it by 2009, we'd have solved the following two problems, which are absolute requirements for settling space - how to make lots of food and power without fossil fuels and without harming the ecosystem.

    I'd be all behind your "let's not go to space" policy if it implied "...and spend at least as much resources directly on pure research instead" - but it's plain to see that it hasn't happened.

    You mention natural resources - but we're going through them at an ever-faster rate. You mention money - but the latest crisis alone has burned more of it than all the world's space programs combined. You mention talent - but the best and brightest are working on figuring out better ways of posting lolcats (CS), or are severely underfunded (physics), or are actively opposed by the public out of sheer ignorance (bio). You mention lives - but how do the death toll from space exploration compares to that from oil wars?

    Face it, the "we've got more important problems to solve with our resources" argument against space exploration is bullshit. The resources saved by abandoning the space programs have been completely and utterly wasted, and I have no reason to believe it won't be the same in the near future. If we had kept up space exploration, at the very least we'd have had major technological advances in a variety of useful fields.

  36. Alien8n

    No space race?

    No space race then no global telecommunications. No GPS. No Satellite TV (actually that's probably not that bad an idea). No composite ceramic technologies. No computers. No portable radios. No non-stick frying pans. No velcro.

    The list of advances that we take for granted today goes on and on, but without America and Russia throwing large chunks of metal up into space we'd be years behind technologically.

  37. mark jacobs

    These comments are...

    badly moderated. You are reading what they want you to. If they really went to the moon, then why don't they point the Hubble at it and beam back pictures of artefacts left by the astronauts? Because they aren't really there! Fail, like the Register moderators always do.

  38. Jeff Rowse

    @mark jacobs

    Can Hubble's cameras focus on anything that close?

  39. Mark Greenwood

    Idiot conspiracy theorists

    "Can Hubble's cameras focus on anything that close"

    No, but Patrick Moore's telescope in his garden can. He's got pictures somewhere.... bloody conspiracy idiots.

    Anyway... Amen to article. If the Apollo program had been run by the numpties who manage me it'd never have got off the ground (pun intended). Overloaded with management theories and not permitted to do *anything* without a "business case", our ability to invent and innovate is stifled to the point of non-existence. All this textbook management crap is really good at is ensuring a nice consistent level of mediocrity that bean counters can analyze. Anything innovative actually scares them... we're going backwards.. Douglas Adams had it right with his spaceship load of telephone sanitisers.

  40. mark 63 Silver badge

    carbon print

    "The actual exhaust may be "carbon neutral", but generating the massively obscene amounts of hydrogen for the fuel in the first place isn't."


    This is why most people think electric or hydrogen-cell cars are the answer to all energy worries.

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