Space Studies Tuesday: Woe to the Loss of the Saturn V--NOT

There is so much interesting stuff in John Lewis' MINING THE SKY that I may never touch on it all.  However, he brought up the Saturn V, and since now and then, I hear people bemoaning the loss of the Saturn rockets, I want to address that.

The Saturn V took the Apollo capsules to the moon, but when the program died in 1973, the program was scrapped.  In fact, a set of the plans were given to the Scouts for recycling (go OPSEC!) and two flight-ready rockets were relegated to lawn ornaments.  (The last three Saturn 5 boosters, already build and paid for, were put out as lawn ornaments at Cape Canaveral, Marshall Space Flight Center, and Johnson Space Center, to rust into ruin..."  pg 4, Mining the Sky)

Well, not quite a lawn ornament, but you get the picture.
With the scrapping of the Saturn rockets, we scrapped our abilities to get to the Moon and beyond.  This article in the New York Times notes some of the ways the Saturn V could have helped even unmanned space exploration.

The termination of the Saturn V program also had a stifling effect on the robotic exploration of other planets. In essence, we lost the ability to deliver larger, and in some cases faster, payloads elsewhere in the solar system.
Take, as an example, the 5,600-kilogram Cassini spacecraft, which was launched in 1997 and is now in orbit around Saturn. Its launching was timed so that after spending two years looping around the inner solar system to pick up speed, it could rendezvous with massive Jupiter for an additional boost that would send it to Saturn. All told, its flight time took seven years.
Had the Saturn V, modified with an appropriate fourth upper stage, been used to launch Cassini directly to Jupiter first, its flight time to Saturn could have been cut by more than half. In space, as on Earth, time is money, and the money saved could have been spent elsewhere.
Alternatively, for the same flight time, a vehicle of greater launching capacity can deliver a heavier payload. Take as an example the 480-kilogram New Horizons spacecraft, launched over a year ago to fly by Pluto in 2015 and eventually to explore the Kuiper Belt of icy debris that lies beyond it. Had it been launched on a modified Saturn V rocket, New Horizons could have carried a payload that was 15 times heavier and far more scientifically capable.

At this point, bringing back the Saturn V is not a good idea.  In addition to being technologically old, it wasn't build to be cost-effective.  According to NASA, the cost of one Saturn V, including launch, would be $1.17 billion (SP-4221 The Space Shuttle Decision, adjusted to inflation in an article in Wikipedia).  We no longer have the "Just git 'er done" attitude of the Space Race of the 60s.  Now, we have a stronger focus on expenses and safety.

More important than the rocket itself, however, is the attitude that the scrapping of the Saturn V represents.

As Lewis notes, this marks a significant turning point in the space program.  Most importantly, it shows how little interest we as a nation had in continuing our space-based endeavors once we'd "won" the Space Race.  (Russia, incidentally, dropped out once they saw the Saturn V program was outpacing their G-class rockets.  It's pretty obvious men walking in space was more about men posturing on Earth.)

NASA at the time had some plans for a Moon colony, but overall, people did not have a drive for space exploration, and we've never had a long-term plan--or even long-term aspirations, just some nebulous dreams.  We depended on the government to fulfill that dream, but when other voter-directed or politically expedient priorities arise, the long-term focus drops.  The Shuttle and the ISS were restarts on that track, but just like the station, we ended up going in circles for thirty years.  I don't think the powers that be of the time really thought about what the station could accomplish in the bigger manned space mission--or if they did, they lost it fast.  We started to take a step outward with the Ares rockets and a moon-based mission, but it was scrapped.  The SLS is in preliminary design phase, with the alleged mission of Mars, but who knows if that will survive an election?

Fortunately now, we are seeing a growing civilian interest, and not just as spectators or NASA supporters.  From bloggers to businessmen, we are looking to space as more than bragging rights or national pride, and as a result, we'll have more communities upholding the long-term goal of manned space.  The attitude that made the Saturn V is gone, and I hope the era of a post Saturn V world is ending as well.  We're ready, technologically and in some ways, economically, to embark on a new era--a little slower, perhaps, but hopefully a more sure era of getting man beyond the Earth and into the exciting new frontier.

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