To go where no one has gone before
Science and Politics and Space:
I had a hard time thinking of which category this should go into. I wanted to write about the space program from the 60’s on up and what I see for the future of manned flight. But you can’t write about the US space program without also mentioning the political side. Both the drivers and the detractors. The US space program but more specifically the Apollo program derives its success from the politics of the time.
The Soviets were trying to show the superiority of the “communist” system by building an impressive space program. They put the first satellite into orbit and launched the first person into low earth orbit. And what was to follow was a scramble by the US to first catch up and then surpass the Soviets in every way possible. We shortly caught up by launching our own satellites into orbit, and then with John Glen we were able to put our fist astronaut into space.
With his speech in 1961 President John Kennedy, in a bold political move set us on the path to landing on the moon. I say it was a bold political move because the science, although impressive, was only a drop in the bucket compared to what we could have or should have done. This was us proving to the world, but more importantly to the Soviet Union, that we could do it. And no one has done it since.
Honestly the only change I would have made would have been a slight change in emphasis and mission. I would have focused more on landing each Apollo mission within a close proximity to each other and I would have used more resources to actually build something on the moon. Something that after six missions we could say, “hey we have this really simple but cool base in the Sea of Tranquility, now we have someplace to go and stay for a while.” It would not have taken much more to actually have a few of those earlier mission that just circled the moon actually drop some stuff off on the way by that could have been used in the base construction. The planned space that was filled with all of the wonderful rocks we brought back could also have been filled on the way out with other stuff. Or even built into the side of the recovery vehicle, only to be removed before leaving to return to earth. Maybe the extra fuel requirements would have made this impossible or just a lot more challenging but I think it would have given the public something to care about. Something more than someone swinging a golf club, driving a buggy, or bringing back more rocks. With public opinion fading President Nixon even cancelled the last mission and basically used the last Apollo launch vehicle as a publicity stunt with the Soviets.
As we have found out with other worthwhile endeavors public opinion matters when you are spending public money. Better handling of this whole thing might have convinced members of Congress to continue funding farther. Or maybe not. Congress is very fickle. What is seen as a benefit to one state or district is seen as a waste to another.
But more than all of the political side of the space program was how it inspired a generation of young people to dream of more. One of my first memories is of the Apollo landing on the moon. I would turn five in a couple of weeks, and that one event would come to shape my life for years to come. To this day I remember every moon landing. I have been to Houston and Cape Canaveral. When I was in Houston I even got to watch a live (broadcast on the big screen) launch of the Space Shuttle. Listening to all of the technicians giving the yes or no for launch was amazing. Kind of like having a glimpse behind the curtain. I wanted to either be an Aerospace Engineer and or an Astronaut for my whole life. Didn’t find out until I was older that the suits and Shuttle were designed for people shorter than I was but that didn’t dampen my spirit too much. I found out in college that even though I was good enough I really didn’t have the knack like many of those around me. I was good but not the best. It wasn’t until I was in my 40’s that I realized my forte was actually in managing people and ideas. Not necessarily in being the actually engineer on a project.
So when I talk about some of this stuff, I really do kind of have an idea of what is needed to accomplish them. I am not going to kill everyone with the details on how this stuff could get done. I am just expressing a vision of what could happen if we had the proper focus.
Honestly it is one of the biggest disappointments to me that we abandoned the moon after just visiting a few times. We should have had a long term post with even modest facilities by now. The last time we stepped on the moon was over 40 years ago. And we haven’t been back. Instead we focused on going to and from low earth orbit with the Shuttle. That should have been like step two of a multi-step plan to having a permanent base first on the moon and then on Mars.
My quick next four projects:
We should be sending materials and supplies to build a permanent base on the moon. If for no other reason than as a base for mining operations both on the moon and in orbit.
If we are going to Mars we shouldn’t just be planning to spend months getting there stay for a while and leave. We should be planning to go and stay, by sending habitats and supplies ahead of our astronauts. We could have years’ worth of food and other supplies waiting for us when we got there.
We should be moving forward with means to reduce the launch costs. Having several contractors really does help but technology is still lagging to give us a launch number that will allow modest income people to visit space. And until modest income people can get to space it will never be the economic driver that it could easily become.
We need to find ways to clean up our orbit. We have a lot of space junk floating around causing problems for everyone that plans on launching into space. If we work on methods to clean this up we may find a resource rich environment of metals from discarded or derelict satellites, boosters and other floating junk.
I am sure lots of space fans have millions of things on their wish list of projects. The big thing is money. The US government, Congress and Presidents of both parties, are in love with wasting money on wars. Wasting money on bridges to know where and several trillion dollars’ worth of other projects that don’t need to be funded. And the American public is tired of the waste. On top of that we have real needs here at home that need our money and attention. How could I ever justify spending money on a space program that doesn’t help anyone?
Well, here is a little known secret. All that money spent on the space program, no matter which program, is money that is spent here at home. Either buying Shuttles from Lockheed, or new rockets from Boeing or Space X, that is money that actually gets spent here. The workers for those companies work here. And I for one would much rather spend money on the space program than another penny on a war of choice. I would rather invest in our space infrastructure than build another military base in a foreign country. Just 30% percent of the cost of the Iraq war, invested in our space infrastructure would have put us in the position to do some absolutely amazing things. It is obscene that we wasted it Iraq. And in the meantime all our money really did was destabilized the Middle East even more than it already was.
Investing in our space infrastructure has the potential of inspiring a new generation. With a large part of that investment being our schools. Where science and engineering programs could expand to fill the new void. Expanding with new ideas and new technology. New visions and new dreams. Enough to bring a renaissance and the second age of space.