One Giant Leap

How many times have you heard it said: “If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we (you fill in the blank)?” On July 20 we commemorated the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong taking mankind’s first step on the moon and adding this unique point of comparison to our society’s lexicon. The only problem is that the analogy no longer is useful in today’s risk-adverse, technology-driven society. 

Back in the Day

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy told Congress that we must join together as a nation and put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. Although we were in a heated space race with the Russians that began with the launch of the first Sputnik in October 1957, I’m certain Kennedy knew that the country that first set foot on the moon would get bragging rights for all time (and perhaps militarize space first). I suspect he also knew that the process of researching the basic science and engineering the necessary complex technical systems would yield many technologies that would benefit society for years to come.

NASA immediately answered Kennedy’s challenge by developing a technology development plan that was focused solely on putting a man on the moon—putting all other distractions aside. The enormity of the task was beyond the comprehension of ordinary folks, but those thousands of engineers and scientists who clamored to join the team knew this was a once-in-forever opportunity.

Many designs developed in the following years failed, and three Apollo astronauts lost their lives in early testing of the capsule’s high-oxygen environment when a fire broke out. Undaunted, design changes were made, and new astronauts drawn from the ranks of military test pilots shrugged off the incalculable risks of flying in space and pushed on. Ironically, Neil Armstrong was the notable exception. A former Naval aviator and test pilot, Armstrong was at the time of his flight a civilian employee of NASA.

In my opinion, the defining achievement in the history of the entire space program occurred when Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong took mankind’s first step on the lunar surface 40 years ago. Unfortunately, it’s been downhill ever since.

NASA returned to the moon in sequential flights ending with Apollo 17 in late 1972, except for the aborted Apollo 13 flight. Additional flights were cancelled due to NASA budget cuts and public apathy over space flight. Today, there are just a few Space Shuttle flights remaining before those ships are put out to pasture; the reusable has become disposable. Future rides to the International Space Station will probably require U.S. astronauts to stick out their thumbs and hitch a ride with the Russians.

Unintended Consequences

Those early space flights have left a legacy of science and engineering excellence, including advanced technologies that have directly benefited the power generation industry.

For example, NASA, under several development contracts, developed combustion turbine engines with lower noise and much lower emissions of NOx, carbon monoxide, and unburned hydrocarbons. Advanced lubricants originally developed for the Shuttle Mobile Launcher Platform found their way to power generation systems because of the lubricants’ superior oxidation life. Flywheel energy storage systems that are now commercially available were derived from NASA-sponsored research programs through which they were developed as a chemical-free replacement for batteries. And don’t forget that solar energy technology, weather forecasting aids, air pollution measuring sensors, and so on were developed with NASA funding. The power generation industry owes a debt of gratitude to NASA and those early space pioneers.

A New Day

Today, NASA has an identity crisis. The youngsters (the average age of the mission control staff was 28 when Apollo 11 landed; when the Space Shuttle Atlantis was launched on May 11 this year, the average NASA employee was 47) have turned into graybeards. In fact, Chris Kraft became NASA’s first flight director in his early 30s, and Apollo 11 flight director Gene Kranz, author of Failure Is Not an Option and immortalized by Ed Harris in the movie Apollo 13, joined NASA at 27. How do you think those young fire-breathers would be viewed in a 21st-century highly disciplined yet risk-adverse NASA?

Did you know that John Glenn, a distinguished flight pilot, did not possess a college degree when he was selected as a member of the original astronaut corps? Today his resume wouldn’t even get him an interview at NASA.

There is another key difference that makes the old NASA successes unlikely to be repeated. In the 1960s, there were few opportunities for top engineering and science graduates other than to work for the defense industry, government agencies, or NASA, and only the best were accepted. In 1969, the NASA staff was very lean and mean and focused on the single goal of putting a man on the moon. Today, the best-of-the-best have virtually unlimited options for employment outside of the defense department or aerospace industry.

A recent Campus Track T-School survey by Nielsen found that almost half of engineering and science graduates want to work in high-technology-related industries, with the remainder favoring the automobile industry (the survey was taken before the recent economic crash), telecommunications, and other infrastructure development occupations. Many also reported a more entrepreneurial interest by indicating that they plan to start their own business. Today, NASA is an 18,000-person bureaucracy spread across dozens of shifting priorities that include planning for a return to the lunar surface. To Kennedy’s credit, he kept NASA focused on the “one big thing.”

Pay to Play

President Obama spoke to the National Academy of Sciences in late April about his plan to regain our technology leadership by “devoting more than three percent of our GDP to research and development.” Obama continued his speech by pointing back to Kennedy’s challenge to the country: “We will not just meet, but we will exceed the level [of science and technology achievement at] the height of the Space Race.”

Perhaps, but it’s all about that space-time continuum problem: Engineers and scientists have many more interesting and lucrative options than working on a return trip to the moon. Working for a bloated NASA with shifting and unfocused priorities holds little interest for a new graduate who can make double the salary in private industry. Few X-generation science and technology graduates will have the patience to work on a project that may get into space a decade from now.

Certainly, space technology will attract many of the nation’s best and brightest, but it was the Apollo project’s singular focus, daily risk-taking, and youthful exuberance that spurred NASA forward. The reward for those involved was a “giant leap for mankind” and for the power generation industry.

—Dr. Robert Peltier, PE is COAL POWER’s editor-in-chief.

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