Lane Wallace is an author, pilot and entrepreneur who has written several books for NASA. She won a 2006 Telly Award for her work on the documentary, Breaking the Chain.
Fifty years ago, on May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy stood before Congress and laid out his famous challenge for the nation to "commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth."
It was a lofty goal that set in motion the intense technology development of the Apollo era, and a moment we remember happily because, after all, we succeeded! Against all odds, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, a full five months before the challenge deadline.
Achieving that success took a tremendous investment and focus of money and national resources, of course--an investment that was available because, as Kennedy made clear in his speech, going to the moon was not just an interesting scientific endeavor.
But while the moon landing was unquestionably inspirational--I still remember racing home from a camping trip to watch it on TV--and a decisive public-relations victory for the U.S. in its "space war" with the Soviet Union, it came at a price. In the late 1950s, NASA was working on other, more sophisticated ways of getting into space. The X-15 rocket plane (pictured below) incorporated exotic materials, the first throttle-controlled rocket engine and was designed to fly more than six times the speed of sound, at altitudes above 250,000 feet. Up at those altitudes, it used small bursts by hydrogen-peroxide thrust rockets for control (normal aircraft control surfaces, which depend on air pressure, would be useless outside the atmosphere) and then glided back for an unpowered landing on earth.
The Space Shuttle did, in fact, incorporate some of the earlier design concepts from the airplane side of NASA--including its reliance on gliding back to an unpowered landing on earth. But concepts like a single-stage-to-orbit rocket engine, scram and ram jets for ultra-high-speed transport planes, and better reusable spacecraft designs never made it off the drawing board. If they had, we might now have commercial spaceflight vehicles hopping from Japan to Chicago on a regular basis. As it is, even the Shuttle has to rely on the brute force of disposable rocket engines to get out of the earth's atmosphere, at a cost of around half a billion dollars a pop....