Elegance vs. Fragility in the Lunar Module Design

Should the Apollo Lunar Module design be idealized and held up as the benchmark for space vehicle design?

At a recent conference, the presenter referred to his conceptual spacecraft design as looking, appropriately, like the Lunar Module. I think what the presenter meant by this was that it was okay that the vehicle looked ungainly and fragile, because the LM has been extolled for decades as a vehicle that is ugly, and ugly is okay. In fact, Volkswagen even had an ad campaign that compared its cars to the LM, with the slogan (I believe), “It’s ugly but it gets you there.”

To make it clear, I am a huge fan of the vehicles of the Apollo program (although it was not without its issues) and a huge fan of the LM in general. Earlier in my career, I even got to work as the Lunar Lander) design team lead for a large aerospace prime contractor under the cancelled Constellation program.

But having put a lot of thought into elegant design lately, and having recently studied the cancellation of the Apollo program in political environment of the the early 1970’s, I have begun to question the gospel of LM design sanctity. History says that the LM design should be held up as what a manned in-space spacecraft should look like. The one-of-kind, first-of-its-kind spacecraft accomplished its mission flawlessly, and even performed outside of its functional design, acting as a lifeboat during Apollo 13.

A more critical look at the LM shows another story. The design that was proposed by Grumman was lighter and was designed to be more robust. NASA’s ability to technically evaluate a proposal on such a vehicle was understandably limited at the time, and fundamental assumptions about the mission were changing frequently. That being, said the vehicle that emerged as the LM was fragile and extremely limited in its capability, functionality and duration. Thus, the initial Apollo missions were a short jaunt to the lunar surface, and the more advanced Apollo were a short jaunt with the edition of a small electric rover.

As a result, I believe it could be argued that one of the reasons that the public quickly lost interest in crewed lunar missions, and has remained indifferent to the missions for another forty years, is that the eventual LM vehicle that flew was too limited to do anything more than leave flags and footprints and empty LM Descent Stages. If additional margin had been built into the system, if the walls of the vehicle were strong enough to resist putting a foot through, if the vehicle could eventually support more than two crew, there would have been significantly more extensibility in the available lunar missions, and there may well have been opportunities for vastly increase public support of then-current and then-future exploration missions.

While it could be argued that there was inherent extensibility within the LM vehicle, I do not believe that would have resulted in significantly more mission capability. Vehicles such as the Mars Exploration Rovers, which I had the privilege of working on, lasted well beyond their design goals. The first of the rovers to go offline, Spirit, performed its mission for years and years past its designed-to mission surface capability of approximately ninety days. Of course, Spirit did not have to contend with unique human factor interactions such as airlock-cycling, sticky dust, errant hands and feet, and more basic biologics.

In the more austere funding environment of today, building "more vehicle than you need" does fly in the face of elegant design. And by elegant design I primarily am referring to the philosophy of strictly limiting functionality to only what is required. However, unlike the consumer market that encourages people to buy a new iPhone every year by continually adding new features and capabilities, government large-scale system acquisitions happen in a timeframe of decades, not years.

From what I have seen, I am willing to conclude that the Apollo LM, although an amazing vehicle that did amazing things, should be categorized as an adequate, and very successful, first cut spacecraft attempt that ended up being too limited to do anything more its basic mission. History has shown that good designs should be more robust than they appear and more extensible than they are required to be. Elegant design does not have to equal limited design. A good design, with its ability to do more than what someone thinks it should do at the time of its conception, can positively influence the development of a system. Because, unlike a government-led endeavor, markets should respond to needs and forces, not requirements.