The wrong stuff.
July 20, 1994, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing, would be as good a time as any to can a halt to that vainglorious exercise in hubris known as manned space flight--at least until problems more relevant to the human condition have been solved and money is again available for institutionalized silliness. As Max Born, a 1954 Nobel Prize winner in physics, said not long before Eagle landed on the Sea of Tranquillity on July 20, 1969, somewhere en route to the moon we lost our way in the maze that separates intellect from reason.
An early end to our persistent man-in-space lunacy will not happen, of course; too many vested interests are working to keep the Space Shuttle flying. But there are signs that the end could be in sight as tight budgets constrict discretionary Federal spending and tax-shy legislators cast about for ways to avoid angering voters. Even one of the space program's most loyal defenders in Congress, George E. Brown Jr., the California Democrat who heads the House Space Committee, has decided it is time to shelve the next National Aeronautics and Space Administration super spectacle.
The project in question is what Ronald Reagan dubbed Space Station Freedom, which, over years of design revisions that made the orbiting platform ever smaller, came to be called "the incredible shrinking space station." If it should shrink out of sight in the fiscal 1996 budget, no one but the aerospace industry would suffer much, and space science might be a lot better off.
To understand the space effort whose apogee we celebrate in July, we must go back to the early 1950s, when the military-industrial complex was casting about for something lasting, lucrative, and spectacular to do with idle bomber and fighter assembly lines. The idea of space travel (dear to the hearts of sci-fi fans who had gone through the acne era reading Amazing Stories) was fostered in a series of articles in Collier's magazine that was later expanded into a lavishly illustrated book entitled Across the Space Frontier (Viking Press) in 1952. One of the authors was Wernher von Braun, the ex-Nazi V-2 engineer whom songsmith Tom Lehrer later lampooned as the person to whom "the widows and cripples of old London town/Owe their large pensions...."
Von Braun and his colleagues laid it all out with beautiful pictures--a multistage rocket with features that foreshadowed both the Satum-Apollo moon ship and today's Shuttle, and a space station surpassing Reagan's Freedom in both size and beauty, to which the spaceship would travel from Earth hauling goods and personnel.
President Eisenhower, no fan of foolish notions like man-in-space, allowed himself, in 1955, to be talked into announcing American plans for a few "small unmanned Earth satellites" as part of a U.S. contribution to the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1956-1957. Prescribing a nonmilitary role for this project, he handed it to the Navy, which perceiving it correctly as a "civilian" undertaking) gave it such low priority that it missed its IGY deadline altogether. Meanwhile, von Braun and his buddies were lying low at an army arsenal in northern Alabama waiting for der Tag. It arrived in December 1957, when the Navy's rocket crumpled ignominiously on the launching pad and its four-pound payload forfeited a chance to be more than just a footnote in history.
By this time, the United States had lost the first heat in the space race to the Soviets, who in October and November of 1957 had orbited a 186-pound instrumented sphere called Sputnik 1, followed by a larger Sputnik weighing more than half a ton and carrying a dog named Laika--both craft vastly more massive than anything the United States could hope to launch for years to come.
The flight of Laika was, additionally, a tipoff to long-range Soviet intentions because of its biomedical implications. All this added up to embarrassment and consternation for Americans, who had laughed derisively in 1955 when the Russians said they planned to do satellites for the IGY, too. Imagine, a country that couldn't even build iceboxes and cars for its citizens!
America got into space to stay on February 1, 1958, when Explorer 1 went into orbit to the gleeful, heavily accented jubilation of Wernher von Braun: "A great day for American rocketry!" Explorer's not-quite-accidental discovery of a radiation belt around the Earth--predicted in theory a half-century earlier by a European physicist--stands in the record books as the first significant discovery of the Space Age. It was also the last American "first" of major consequence until Eagle set down on the moon more than a decade later.
It was precisely because the United States was so far behind the Soviet Union that Project Apollo was born. An ignominious geopolitical event--the Bay of Pigs debacle of mid-April 1961--added to a desire on the part of the new Kennedy Administration to put something upbeat before the American people and the world. The sixth and final section of a message to Congress on "Urgent National Needs"--a 1,065-word call to action in space--set the stage for the Apollo moon program on May 25,1961.
As a reporter for the Washington Evening Star, I asked Dr. Edward Welch, Kennedy's closest adviser on space, why the President had chosen a moon landing as his goal for the 1960s. "Because it's the only thing we can conceivably do in space before the Russians," Welch replied without hesitation.
By 1961, man-in-space had taken on a life of its own. Two years earlier, in April 1959, seven military test pilots were introduced to the world as America's first Astronauts, and immediately became heroes before the fact. It would be May 1961, just two weeks before Kennedy spoke to Congress, before the first of the seven would fly a brief up-and-down mission offshore from Cape Canaveral, but within months of their "unveiling" in 1959--thanks largely to a checkbook-journalism deal with Life magazine--the astronauts were certified, bona fide, pasteurized heroes.
From the word "go," the one-man Mercury program--two suborbital and four orbital flights between May 1961 and May 1963--through the flight phase of Apollo between December 1968 and December 1972, NASA became more and more glitz-oriented as television grew to be the dominant portrayer of the agency's message. Sometimes, fiction got a bit mixed with fact, as when the late Lieutenant Colonel Shorty Powers, original spokesman for the Mercury Seven, invented "A-OK" as a piece of Astronaut-talk that has now become a part of the English language. The image that NASA wished to create for its spacemen was that of All-American Boy grown large, and for itself that of an entity that never settled for less than perfection. Neither image was accurate (though John Glenn came close in both his personal and professional lives), but for years the public swallowed both.
NASA's feet of clay were exposed on January 27, 1967--just nineteen years and one day before a bloodier and even more public exposure. A crew of three Astro nauts--including one of the original Me cury Seven--was incinerated inside a sealed Apollo spacecraft on a launching pad while rehearsing the countdown for a liftoff scheduled as the maiden Earthorbital test leading to actual moon flights. In the fire's aftermath, the initials NASA acquired new meaning when some said they stood for "Never a Straight Answer."
Through subsequent years of triumph and tragedy--including the Challenger disaster of January 28, 1986, in which seven persons died--the nickname stuck as NASA bobbled, wobbled, and (in the words of then-Senator Walter F. Mondale of Minnesota at an inquiry into the fire) "danced a semantic waltz" around facts that threatened to embarrass.
One thing demonstrated by the Apollo fire and the Challenger explosion (and by another near-catastrophe in mid-flight of Apollo 13 en route to the moon in April 1970) was that NASA talks a better game than it plays.
The Apollo fire happened because nobody bothered to read a safety manual that at the time was on the shelf in NASA'S own technical library (which I found, on a tip, not long after the fire). The manual warned about the extreme hazard created by flammable materials in an oxygen-supercharged atmosphere. The spacecraft was festooned inside with fabric netting while the countdown was proceeding in an atmosphere of pure oxygen at sixteen pounds per square inch. (Normal sea level air is 20 per cent oxygen at 14.7 psi.)
When confronted with the safety manual, NASA officials mumbled, and eventually tried to blame the fire on dead men, suggesting that one of the Astronauts must have kicked a loose wire, causing a spark that ignited the fabric. No one could explain what a loose wire was doing in a supposedly flight-ready spacecraft.
On Apollo 13, a pressurized propulsion tank in the spacecraft's service module exploded halfway out to the moon, rendering a lunar landing impossible and requiring the crippled craft to circle the moon and limp home dependent on rocketry aboard the lunar module--a quick-fix solution that saved three men's lives, but not before they had been at imminent risk of death for more than three days.
The Challenger tragedy was worst of all. The multi-billion-dollar Shuttle lifted off under freezing conditions inappropriate to a launching, apparently to meet some deadline (though NASA heatedly denied there was one). A horrified world saw the result of this misjudgment some seventy seconds later. To apply Max Born's formulation, the launching of Challenger that morning was a tragic failure of both intellect and reason.
It took another Nobel physicist--the late Richard Feynman, a member of a special Challenger inquiry panel--to show graphically with a piece of puttylike rubber in a glass of ice water what even rocket engineers should have understood: It was too damned cold that morning to be launching a spacecraft.
It took NASA more than twenty months to recover from the Apollo fire, more than nine months to snap back after the Apollo 13 explosion, and five years to get on track after Challenger. Replacing the destroyed shuttle alone cost NASA (read the public) billions, to say nothing of the irreplaceable men and women--including a schoolteacher who was aboard as a NASA stunt. Yet NASA pushed on, its direct death toll from manned space operations by now standing at thirteen, including three technicians asphyxiated in the tail section of a shuttle being prepared for launch--again due to simple disregard for human safety.
Apollo purportedly came in "on time and under budget." On time, yes; Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin reached the moon roughly five-and-a-half months before the end of the 1960s. But its budgeted $25 billion did not buy all that was bargained for. Ten lunar landing missions were originally planned; one Apollo 13) failed for technical reasons and three were canceled after the Nixon White House lost interest during the gathering storm that followed the 1972 election.
In the bargain, three men died on the ground and three are lucky they didn't die in space.
The story of the Shuttle is a superb example of oversell. Its aim--largely forgotten now and never talked about at Nasa--was to provide cheap, fast-turnaround Earth-to-orbit transport. It was to be the "space truck"; even its official name (Space Transportation System) was calculated to deglamorize it. At one point, its salesmen were claiming it would put "payload on orbit at $100 a pound"--certainly the most flagrant understatement of true cost expectations since Lewis Lichtenstein Strauss, the "atomic admiral," claimed that nuclear-generated electricity would be "too cheap to meter." In reality, $10,000 a pound was closer to the cost, even allowing for the lax accounting standards of Government budgeteers. Shuttle salesmen also told Congress that the system would fly twenty-five missions a year; after thirteen years of operations that began in 1981, there had been just forty-two successful missions--plus one (No. 22, the Challenger disaster) that NASA did not include in a list of manned space flights that it supplied to The World Almanac.
It was obvious even in the late 1950s that man-in-space would be difficult and expensive. The few true experts at the time who would express misgivings pointed out the difference between flying men and flying instruments. With instruments, the name of the game is to get results back, never mind the spacecraft; with men aboard, results always rank second. The vast sums spent on Apollo and the Shuttle were used primarily to buy crew safety, and this required heavy (and costly) backup systems that cut heavily into the payload capability of launching rockets. The whole twelve-year Voyager program (1977-1989) to explore the outer solar system's four giant planets with two TV-equipped spacecraft cost less than the replacement Shuttle built after Challenger's loss.
But man is essential in space, defenders of the Shuttle and similar projects will say, pointing to the 1993 mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. While it is true that the Hubble could not have been fixed without Astronauts, it is equally true that if NASA had been doing a good quality-control job, Hubble's mirror would never have been accepted with focusing defects that made the orbital service-call necessary.
If the Incredible Shrinking Space Station starves to death next year, not much will be lost; indeed, as Space Committee chair Brown has perceived, money released by the demise of Freedom (or whatever it is being called this week) will be better spent otherwise--in space or for something else. If the saved dollars continue to flow to NASA, but at a rate that will not support Astronaut antics and Mickey Mouse laboratory experiments, perhaps genuine space scientists--typified by teams at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena who shepherded dozens of robot craft across billions of miles of hitherto untraveled space to land on or to view close-up every planet except Pluto--will get a chance to show the world what "Across the Space Frontier" really means.
An afterthought: One day in Houston, while covering an Apollo moon mission (perhaps the one in which Astronaut Alan B. Shepard proved scientifically and conclusively that a man can drive a golf ball on the lunar surface), I encountered a dog that helped me sort out the manned moon program. I met the dog when he started chasing my rented car, and I wondered what he would do with it if he caught it. I slowed down and let him catch up, watching him the while in my left side mirror. He came to within a few yards, then slowed down and approached cautiously. Next, he sniffed the left rear tire, marked it territorially as dogs have always done, and turned and walked away, stiff-legged but with unflappable dignity.
That, in essence, is what we did in our brief encounter with the moon. Metaphorically speaking, we caught the car, marked it--with footprints, American flags, old landing modules, and lunar jeeps (not to forget Al Shepard's golf ball), and then walked away from something we had no use for after we had caught it.
Maybe someday we will go back to the moon, or erect an Earth-orbiting station for use as a transfer point for manned travel to Mars and beyond, as Wernher von Braun and his buddies envisioned in their 1952 picture book. One can only hope that if we do this, we will proceed with more attention to "why" than to "how," and less reliance on pie-in-the-sky promises of quick, easy payoffs than has been the case up to now.
William Hines covered American space activities, first for the Washington Evening Star and later for the Chicago Daily News and Sun Times, from the time of President Eisenhower's 1955 space-satellite announcement through the flight of Voyager 2 past Neptune in 1989. Now retired, he lives in Lovetsville, Virginia.
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|Title Annotation:||manned space exploration|
|Date:||Jul 1, 1994|
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