JULY 20 MARKS the 40th anniversary of man landing on the moon. Naturally, the celebrations and coverage will focus on the heroic astronauts like Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin who manned that risky mission, not to mention the engineers that backed them.
But one often-overlooked facet of the Apollo program is the industrial and technical might required of private industry to get those astronauts into space, onto the moon’s surface, and then safely home. And it took plenty of know-how and money to get them there.
See 10 companies that sent America to the moon
NASA spent $19.5 billion on the Apollo project. (NASA’s budget for 2008 was small in comparison at $17 billion.) Among other things, the money went to private companies that made everything from the rockets that launched the astronauts into space, to the space suits they wore while floating in zero gravity.
SmartMoney took a look at those companies to find out where they are now, and one overwhelming trend emerged: consolidation. NASA made a particular effort to get smaller companies involved in the Apollo project, according to the agency’s contract archivist, Liz Suckow. But over the years many of those once-independent firms were swallowed up by bigger companies and eventually became part of conglomerates like Boeing (BA), Lockheed Martin (LMT) and Northrop Grumman (NOC).
I worked for 5 different companies without leaving my desk, says Stan Barauskas, who worked on the rockets that allowed for small adjustments that kept the Apollo spacecraft on its intended path. He started out with North American Aviation in 1963, which merged with Rockwell Standard Corp. in 1967 and eventually was acquired by Boeing in the mid-1990s.
Such consolidation, however, can stifle the type of innovation that made not only the moon landing, but also many everyday technologies, possible. With fewer companies, there have been fewer job opportunities for the engineers and scientists who’ve been trained to develop those new technologies.
As the civilian veterans of the Apollo program retire, Sterner says, few are available to replace them. We lose [engineers] at the same time that countries like China are building them up, he says. The guys [in China] are in their 30s, it looks like NASA did in the 60’s. They’re building a whole generation of engineers. You look at our guys, they’re in their 60s.
But that doesn’t mean innovation has come to a complete standstill. Private industry is again using its intellectual capital to look for ways to get man to the moon. There’s still a lot of innovation happening, it’s just not happening in the traditional aerospace companies, says Sterner. You’ve got this whole generation of small companies that are kind of coming out of left field, they’re start-ups, but they’re financed well enough to actually make things happen and be innovative.”
Companies like Space-X, Blue Origins, or Virgin Galactic, created by Richard Branson in 2004, are looking for ways to promote so-called space tourism.