So there I was on Friday listening to Apollo astronauts Walt Cunningham and Jim Lovell--along with Mission Control Director Gene Krantz--talk about the effort it took to get to the Moon. When I asked them if we are now at the point in space exploration they thought we would be 50 years ago when the Apollo program began, they all agreed that we are not. And they also agreed that the reason we have not been to Mars or have a permanent colony on the Moon yet is that we as Americans don't want to take risks anymore.
We used to be the country known for taking risks. We were founded by a bunch of farmers, tradesmen and lawyers that risked fighting the mightiest army and navy on the planet at the time for our independence. We risked permanent division of our country to end slavery and determine the powers of the Federal Government. And we are still the only country to send men to the Moon.
So much of what was accomplished in the Apollo program was done right at the edge of acceptable risk. There were a few unmanned flights to test rockets and components--but those were minimal, and men put their lives on the line to see if everything worked the way the scientists and engineers thought it would. When the Lunar Module wasn't ready for Apollo 8 to test in Earth orbit, the mission was completely changed to send the Command Module to orbit the Moon instead. NASA didn't send an unmanned capsule out there first to make sure timing for firing the rockets to enter lunar orbit--and to get back out of it--were correct. They sent three men up there to figure it out--Lovell, Frank Borman and William Anders.
And Apollo 11 was not preceded by seven or eight test launches to put unmanned LEM's on the lunar surface until we could "figure out how to do it". Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were sent out there with plenty of simulator training--which came in handy when the computers missed their targeted landing area and Armstrong had to navigate past a field of boulders to avoid a crash landing.
If we were trying to run the Apollo program today, we would likely still be on the ground. We would demand that the engineers make the rocket engines foolproof--and to test them thousands of times. There would have been dozens of unmanned missions to test maneuverability, docking and burn times so that everything would be "perfect" before any man would go into space. And the entire process would be bogged down by endless debate over whether the cost and the risk are commensurate to good that would come out of it.
So it's a good thing that the Greatest Generation were the ones who decided to go to the Moon, because if it was up to the current generation of Americans, our fear of any kind of risk would have us cowering in the corner.