Up Earth Creek without a paddle

March 11, 2007 | By | 2 Comments

I am a child of the Space Age (or, to use Robert Heinlein’s phrase from his ‘Future History‘ timeline, the False Dawn of Space Travel). I had just turned 8 years old when President Kennedy in May 1961 issued his famous challenge:

“I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space, and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

I grew up with Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and the Moon flybys and landings and followed them all closely. One of my most vivid memories from high school is the all-night gathering at Alan Scrivener’s house to watch the coverage of the Apollo 11 landing in the summer of 1969; I felt the future had begun when I heard the words, “Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

And then it all collapsed. We made six more trips to the moon, with one near-disaster (Apollo 13), then cancelled the remaining three trips — Apollo 18, 19, and 20 — instead putting the massive Saturn V rockets that would have been used on their sides to rust and rot at three NASA centers (Houston, Florida, and Alabama). We put up a large, fully functional space station in 1973, then let it fall to earth six years later.

By then, I had gone to work in the space industry myself, first working on the Space Shuttle flight simulators at NASA/JSC, and then working at the Lunar and Planetary Institute next door (it has moved since). I knew astronauts training for the Shuttle, and I spoke with John Young and Bob Crippen just 48 hours after they completed the very first Space Shuttle flight (their debriefing was over at LPI). I saw the Saturn V at NASA/JSC almost daily during my two years there in Houston; I walked through the Skylab replica on site at NASA/JSC. We replaced all that we had done with a half-assed, fragile and horribly expensive launch system — the Space Shuttle — and a half-assed, fragile, and horribly expensive space station — the ISS. Both are dead-ends, and we really don’t know what to do next or how to do it, NASA’s current (and underfunded) plans, notwithstanding.

Nothing new in what I’ve said, and nothing that hasn’t been said a thousand times already. So why the polemic now?

Earlier this evening, I watched the SciFi Channel Saturday-night movie, Earthstorm. The premise: a large asteroid has hit the far side of the Moon, and a chunk of the moon is threatening to break off, resulting in The End of the World as We Know It. Much scientific silliness, though I appreciated the reference to Miranda in the debate whether the Moon would heal itself or lose a chunk, and I frankly thought that Stephen Baldwin was more believable and enjoyable in his role as a demolition expert drafted into the save-the-world effort than Bruce Willis was in Armageddon.

But for me, the real silliness was the idea that we could send a few probes — and then a Shuttle — to the far side of the Moon on a few weeks’ notice. The probes — the probes, maybe, though there I have to wonder how long it would take someone to actually build a probe that could make it to lunar orbit and send back real-time photos and other telemetry. But the Shuttle? One has a far better chance of getting a rowboat across the Atlantic than to get the Shuttle out of near-Earth orbit and to the Moon, particularly on short notice. Even if our survival as a species depended upon it, it would takes us months, if not years, to get humans and payloads back to the Moon.

Of course, the Shuttle in Earthstorm bore as much resemblance to the real Shuttles as Superman does to you and me. It had what were termed nuclear pulse engines (though they clearly were not Orion-type engines of any kind) that allowed it constant acceleration toward the Moon (curiously, it never had to flip over and decelerate). It swooped and banked through on-coming debris heading for earth, not via the OMS and RCS engines but through imaginary and impossible aerodynamics (hard to have aerodynamics when there’s no air). It survived multiple collisions with said rocky and metallic debris at high speed with no real ill effects, a far cry from Shuttle realities as demonstrated by the Columbia tragedy (done in by a 1.7 lb piece of insulating foam — foam, for crying out loud). It descended into a crevice on the Moon, held position, jettisoned its nuclear pulse engines, but then left the Moon at high speed. Oh, and it had artificial gravity inside. As I said, the Superman of Shuttles, and about as realistic. I worked on the Space Shuttle simulators, I knew the Shuttle well, and this was no Space Shuttle.

Of course, it’s no fun to make a movie where Earth is threatened and we all die because we can’t get the Shuttle up above low earth orbit. Except I think it would be. I’d love to see a movie where we are menaced by some space-borne threat and can do nothing to save ourselves because we’ve dropped the ball for the last 35 years. Maybe that’s why I liked Deep Impact more than Armageddon; it was closer to the truth of what we could actually face (though both had what I felt were unrealistic out-of-Earth-orbit missions). And, of course, there are always the worst-case scenarios. And yet I fear that most people think we really could put together a Deep Impact/Armageddon/Earthstorm-type space mission should some astronomer report tomorrow that a new comet or Earth-crossing asteroid was headed our way.

Heinlein not only correctly predicted the False Dawn of Space Travel, he correctly predicted it would coincide with what he termed “The Crazy Years”, and that space travel would then re-emerge largely through commercial ventures. And that is what is indeed happening. It could have happened 30 years ago, but NASA for too long has acted as the Pharisees of space: “…for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.” (Matthew 23:13). That is changing, but we’ve lost decades while spending many, many billions of dollars on the Shuttle and the ISS.

We’ve dodged a bullet with 99942 Apophis, but I wonder how we’ll react when we find ourselves facing a real threat — and whether we’ll have any ability to react at all. ..bruce..

[UPDATED 03/11/07 -- 12:49 pm MDT]

Having stayed up late to write this post, I found this morning the following article in the Sunday New York Times about how to respond to killer asteroids:

But in a report to Congress, NASA said that because of budget constraints, it could not undertake any new programs to find smaller asteroids, up to about 450 feet in diameter.

Scientists who study near-Earth objects say the collision risk is very real. But the odds of a major impact in the average lifetime is very low — perhaps 1 in 100,000, according to David Morrison, a scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center who is an authority on impact hazards.

Dr. Morrison said he preferred not to talk about risk but about the need to find whatever is out there. “It’s like walking across Broadway with your eyes closed,”he said. “You’d rather look and see. We’re not looking and seeing.”

Of course, as per my response, we have no technology to actually get out to the asteroid before it’s in low earth orbit (LEO) — and by then, it’s far too late.

[UPDATED 03/12/07 -- 0919 MDT]

And here’s a report on our current attempts to get back to the Moon by 2020 — fifty (50!) years after we first went there:

“The Vision for Space Exploration was enacted as the law of the land,” Griffin said in a recent interview, referring to the NASA Authorization Act of 2005 endorsing building new vehicles to replace the space shuttle and carry astronauts to the Moon by 2020.

Congress also has shown its support with money, providing $9 billion for exploration since Bush rolled out the vision. While a substantial amount of that funding initially went towards now-defunct legacy projects rolled into the exploration program — notably the proposed multibillion dollar Prometheus space nuclear systems initiative — NASA has received sufficient budget to go well beyond the viewgraph stage. Scott Horowitz, the former NASA astronaut hired away from ATK Thiokol in late 2005 to run the U.S. space agency’s $3.4-billion-a-year-and-growing Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, said the vision has progressed in its first three years from a statement of goals and objectives to a bona fide program that has signed contracts and started building hardware…

That world, however, is far from perfect. NASA has not been given the budget increases the White House initially promised, forcing the agency to make unpopular cuts to science and aeronautics to keep its human spaceflight programs adequately funded. And a decision by the new Democratic Congress to fund most federal agencies this year at last year’s levels has left NASA’s exploration planners struggling with a $500 million shortfall that Griffin recently announced would delay the introduction of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and its Ares I rocket to 2015.

While NASA still hopes to shoot for the Moon by 2020, agency officials readily concede the next four years or so are all about completing the International Space Station, retiring the shuttle, and building and testing Ares and Orion. Work on the heavy-lift rocket, lunar lander and other hardware needed to send astronauts to the Moon is not due to really get started before the shuttle is done flying. Even the series of robotic precursor missions Bush called for in his landmark 2004 address now appears likely to be scaled back to a lone Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and a piggy-back payload NASA added to the mission because it had room on the rocket.

Sigh.

[UPDATED 03/20/07 -- 1327 MDT]

I ran across this review of Moon Dust, a book by Andrew Smith (review by Lizzie Guilfoyle):

WHERE were you, I wonder, when Neil Armstrong made “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” Andrew Smith, author of Moon Dust and just eight years old in July 1969, watched the Apollo 11 moon landing on television in his San Francisco home.

Almost three decades later, a magazine assignment led to a meeting with Charlie Duke who flew the Apollo 16 mission, and his wife Dotty.

It was during that meeting that Duke received news of fellow moonwalker Pete Conrad’ death, and it was a remark of Duke’s that prompted Smith’s quest to discover how the astronauts’ lives were changed by such a momentous experience.

The remark itself was a surprisingly simple one –“ Now there’s only nine of us” — nine out of a total of only 12 men who’d gazed back at Earth from another world. And statistically speaking, that means there will soon be none.

I’m ordering the book — but it makes me wonder if any of the Apollo astronauts, the only humans to escape low earth orbit, will be alive when we return to the Moon? ..bruce..

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Category: Commentary, Main, Science, Space

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at at Bruce F. Webster & Associates LLC. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at 720.895.1405 or at bwebster@bfwa.com, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

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