Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun is a great science-fiction/fantasy epic about a far, far future version of the Earth, where there were many incredible technologies developed, but they’ve all been lost. In the time of the story, people live in the decayed remains of a high-tech world, but understand very little of it, and get by using advanced devices that they essentially understand as magic. There’s a very well-known passage
The picture he was cleaning showed an armored figure standing in a desolate landscape. It had no weapon, but held a staff bearing a strange, stiff banner. The visor of this figure’s helmet was entirely of gold, without eye slits or ventilation; in its polished surface, the deathly desert could be seen in reflection, and nothing more.
This warrior of a dead world affect me deeply, though I could not say why or even just what emotion it was I felt
The picture being described is this one, or one like it:
The part of the Book of the New Sun that contains that quote was published in 1980, during the not-quite nine years between Apollo 17 and the maiden voyage of Columbia, the first Space Shuttle. At that time, the notion that spaceflight would be a lost technology so forgotten that a regular person couldn’t properly interpret a picture of a person standing on the moon was fanciful.
Today though, most of the Apollo program is lost technology. The F-1 and J-2 rocket motors that took Apollo to the moon cannot be built today, because no one knows how. Every now and then, someone floats the idea of building a team of technological historians to scour the archives and conduct interviews with elderly engineers in nursing homes to try and resuscitate the secret of these rocket engines, but it’s never been done. Some people believe that there was a certain degree of tinkering and know-how to those engines that couldn’t be learned anyways. It’s also been pointed out that much of the complexity of the F-1 had to do with the fact that its designers didn’t have digital sensors and electrically actuated valves and such, so they had to use a bewilderingly elaborate fluid-based system to safely turn on the engine and spin up the turbopumps and do all the other things in the exact right order. People have suggested that a much simplified version could be built using modern gadgets, but that’s never happened either. For practical purposes, the technology of Apollo has been lost.
After Apollo, NASA moved on to the Space Shuttle program. STS was ultimately a fatally flawed concept, but was as technologically daring as you can imagine. Instead of expending the rocket, the idea was to have a large orbiter (the familiar plane-like part that sat on the side at launch) that would carry the expensive engines all the way to orbit, then back to earth. The solid rocket boosters on the sides were supposed to be recoverable and refurbishable, with only the external tank (the big orange central component) being fully disposable. There were a bunch of engineering challenges, but two are worth noting. First, the Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs) that were mounted on the back of the orbiter needed to fire from launch all the way through reaching orbit. On most rockets, there is a hard trade-off between having a rocket that is efficient in space (which requires a big nozzle) and having one that is safe to fire at sea level (where, for complicated reasons, having a big nozzle can destroy the rocket). The SSME does both by having a sort of virtual nozzle inside the main nozzle that allows the engine to fire safely at sea level, but then use a big nozzle in vacuum. In addition, (I believe) that the orbiters are the largest objects ever to safely reenter the atmosphere, and could not be built in the standard capsule style used for Apollo and other manned spaceflight missions. Instead they had an unbelievably complicated system of ceramic tiles to protect the orbiter from the heat of reentry. Developing the shuttle took about 8 years and cost perhaps $40 billion.
After shuttle was cancelled, Bush II proposed a program called Constellation, that would adapt Apollo and Shuttle technologies for a Mars-capable rocket. The program was over-budget and unsuccessful and was cancelled when Obama came into office. A cut back version of the program called the Space Launch System carried forward starting in 2010. The basic idea of SLS is that you take a Space Shuttle that’s ready to launch, and you simplify it by moving the SSMEs from the back of the orbiter to the bottom of the fuel tank. The boosters stay in the same place, but they stretch them out a bit. Then you get rid of the whole orbiter thing, and just put a second stage and an Apollo-style capsule on top. (The second stage is essentially a 50-year old design borrowed from the Delta II rocket.) An incredible fact is that SLS will actually be using the same physical SSMEs that went into space on Shuttle. They were, after all, designed for reuse and came back with the orbiters. Unlike Shuttle, SLS is fully expendable. The basic idea is to give up on Shuttle’s ambitious and troubled goal of reusability and kludge together a system using Shuttle spare parts that can fly. Not very elegant, but quick and dirty and cheap.
Except: SLS and its capsule (called Orion) have already cost $30 billion. SLS has never flown, and it was recently announced that it will not be able to fly prior to late 2021 (i.e., 11 years from the start of the quick/dirty/cheap design process, about the entire lifetime of the Apollo program, from conception through the end of operations). Even that date is purportedly not possible without a bunch more cash. Here’s a good thing on SLS from Oliver Morton’s new book on the moon:
(Mostly included for the line about Easter Island statues.)
Appropriately, SLS is the intended workhorse of the Artemis program, the parody space program that has been announced to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 and to flatter Trump’s ego with the idea that his administration could put people on the moon by the end of his (bite your tongue) second term. Artemis is supposed to cost another $20-30 billion.
There is a good chance (I would say >50%) that SLS never flies. Needless to say, Artemis will not put a man on the moon by 2024, and likely never will. The technology to fly to the moon has been lost. There is something very Wolfean about 2019 humans rummaging around in the warehouse, pulling out some mothballed SSMEs, and then trying feebly to cobble together a working rocket around them. (And take longer than it took to design and build the SSMEs AND the STS orbiter AND the rest of the shuttle system.) Forget using them for their intended purpose of reuse. Never even think of trying to build something better. Instead, burn up the physical legacy of the technologically sophisticated past to provide some sad light for the present. And, perhaps, fail to do even that.
I find lost technology to be a very enlightening way to view the world. It’s hard to see, because an exponential explosion in the power of digital computers has papered over the regression. Here’s a good piece about how modern software is horribly designed, but is able to modestly outperform older systems due to having many orders of magnitude more processing power at its disposal:
Only in software, it’s fine if a program runs at 1% or even 0.01% of the possible performance. Everybody just seems to be ok with it. People are often even proud about how inefficient it is, as in “why should we worry, computers are fast enough”…
You’ve probably heard this mantra: “Programmer time is more expensive than computer time.” What it means basically is that we’re wasting computers at an unprecedented scale. Would you buy a car if it eats 100 liters per 100 kilometers? How about 1000 liters? With computers, we do that all the time.
Or this piece about how scientific advances have slowed, despite exponential growth in resources (plus all those computers!).
The picture becomes clearer when you think about the physical world, where digital computers can’t carry the load for us. For example, the US has about 775 miles of subway currently. For 2019, according to this source, there is an additional… 1.7 miles of underground rail on tap for 2019. Highway mileage grew at about a 0.75% pace in 2017 (source). Our effort to master high-speed rail technology in California was a costly failure–it’s beyond our power.
So enjoy the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, and start gearing up for the 47th anniversary of the last. Toss a few books on the first to keep yourself warm as you contemplate the godlike power of our ancestors.