Sunday, July 20, 2014

Remembering the Apollo Moon Landing - And How Far Our Manned Space Vision Has Regressed

Neil Armstrong on the Moon, July 20, 1969
Forty-five years ago, at roughly 4:10  eastern time this afternoon,  I'd just returned from an Introductory Astrophysics class with Prof. Sabatino Sofia at the University of South Florida, and trekked to the Beta Hall Commons. There,  nearly 40 students had already gathered to watch the Apollo 11 Moon landing and the first time humans set foot on our natural satellite..

Within eight minutes of my arrival - watching the black and white images on a 22" TV set - Neil Armstrong slowly stepped off the landing ladder and uttered some of the most famous words ever spoken: "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.".   Most of us then envisaged a great space future, with this event only the warm up. I mean, after the fantastic film '2001 - A Space Odyssey' - which had just opened a year or so earlier - we had visions of space stations and Moon colonies dancing in our heads - not to mention trips to Mars by the turn of the century.

What spawned the Apollo project? Space historians go back to May 25, 1961, barely 3 weeks after Alan Shepherd's successful first sub-orbital trip in the Mercury capsule. At that time President John F. Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress and asked for a joint commitment to 'landing a man on the Moon and returning him to Earth', within the decade. Thus began America's biggest, costliest and most ambitious effort ever, rivaled only by the building of the Panama Canal and the Manhattan Project's building of an atomic bomb.

It would take just over 8 years to fulfill the vision, which included disastrous mishaps such as Apollo 1, in which Gus Grissom was killed along with fellow astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee during a pre-launch test at Cape Canaveral on January 27, 1967. Despite the setback and other problems that came up, the vision remained in place.

On July 16, the Apollo 11 crew was launched aboard a Saturn V rocket topped by the 'Eagle'  lunar module, arriving on the dusty surface of Tranquility Base 4 days later.. As commander, Neil Armstrong was first out of the module and walking on the Moon, followed by Buzz Aldrin. Alas, somebody had to remain behind and that was command module pilot Michael Collins who was responsible for being the 'gatekeeper' - in lunar orbit.

The success of the mission met with resounding public approval and the U.S. emerged as leader in space faring after a string of losses to the Soviet Union. This was despite the final cost tally of $20b or about $80b in today's dollars. There followed six landings in all through 1972 with 12 men  having explored the Moon. We  spaceniks wanted more - including the establishment of lunar colonies, to show the whole Apollo deal wasn't a flash in the pan for PR. But it wasn't to be.

What happened? Short story: the country painfully learned it couldn't support "guns, butter" and manned space exploration all at once. There wasn't enough money to do so. Recall a short time earlier Johnson's 'Great Society' programs were launched and before that - the Vietnam War - after a concocted incident in the Tonkin Gulf in August, 1964.

Indeed, as the red ink bled, both from the war and LBJ’s “Great Society” programs, it was evident by 1971 that: a) the Apollo missions would have to be truncated, and b) the manned space program – if kept – would devolve and diminish to a low Earth orbit substitute of earlier aspirations. When then President Richard Nixon (just before his Watergate crisis) confronted NASA’s administrators in 1972, they were basically informed of the writing on the wall: Either come up with a much tailored down program for manned space exploration, or have nothing at all.

Given the choice between something and nothing, NASA chose the first – which meant pursuing the less costly Space Shuttle program, already on the drawing boards. Alas, since the Shuttle was really designed for re-supply of existing space stations and none existed yet, this meant it would be constrained mainly to ‘show and tell’ events in low Earth orbit. There were no other choices, it was either this, leading on to the eventual substantive Shuttle missions 20 years later, or no manned flights.

And so the nation's manned space vision had begun to dim and recede.

Once Reagan assumed office in January, 1981, the constrictions on spending for space grew much more formidable, thanks to his massive tax cuts (going from a maximal marginal rate near 70% to 28%) and the $2.7 trillion defense spending spree (which combination was in fact responsible for converting us into a global debtor). Naturally, in this anemic and hostile (to space spending) fiscal environment the screws tightened even more on NASA and they were forced to lowball cost estimates and cut corners for future flights. The latter included ramping up an already overly ambitious launch schedule. If they didn’t do this, they’d be totally left out of the manned space budget. In these circumstances, the Challenger disaster must be understood and referenced- as the ultimate result of excessive cutting corners, and rushing launch schedules (the Challenger never should have been launched under those frigid conditions – and the O-ring risk had been noted by engineers at Morton Thiokol)

By 2011, and the final launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, the U.S. had basically reached its nadir in space exploration. Now, three years later, the U.S. is still dependent on the Russians to get crew to the Space Station. Without the Russians allowing our illustrious guys to "hitch hike" on the Soyuz, there wouldn't be any Americans in space.

To me, this 'beggar thy neighbor' motif,  along with the capitulation of  national manned space programs to the private sector, shows how far we have regressed in vision and acumen along with the symbols embodied by our collapsing bridges, sewer lines, water mains ......and the fouling of our air and water by natural gas fracking. Not to mention squandering nearly 80% of current budget expenditures since 1969 on military BS and other wars of choice (Iraq, Afghanistan.)  We have thus become a nation in monumental decline, though pie-eyed,  false hope pols and others brainwashed by PR refuse to see it.

U.S. space junkies, some of them, assert the U.S. will soon have its own program back, thanks to private outfits like Space-X. But from my vantage point, that is years away, if ever. I'd even be amazed if they have a manned craft ready to go to the IST in 3 years. (Robot craft are one thing, but you need lots of redundancy with manned craft and private companies are more likely to cut corners for profit.)  I will bet it's more like five years, again, if ever. Space-X  truth be told, is a pale imitation of the NASA -government funded space program we once had until too many wars of choice made it unaffordable.

To underscore my justifiable skepticism, I can refer to an April 7 article  from The Denver Post to the effect Space X is filing suit against Colorado- based UAL which has an AIR FORCE contract worth $70b to use Russian-made rocket engines.   Hmmmmm......wonder why that is? Because they're MORE RELIABLE! As a UAL spokesperson put it: "We've been using them (in Atlas rockets) for twenty years now".

So why - without meeting QA test criteria, would the AF give a contract to Space X? Well, because they don't believe that outfit is ready yet to handle its ELVP (Expendable Launch Vehicle Program) demands.   Instead of squallering like brats and babies whose nappies are soiled, Elon Musk and Space X need to show- by meeting the Air Force's standards,  how and when they can deliver better quality engines than the Russian ones used by UAL.

Most serious space junkies that I've talked to are appalled at how far we have receded in our space vision and the commitment to manned space exploration - which is emphatically not a 'gimmick' or ploy to hook the hoi polloi. It is the only means by which we can eventually leave this planet and colonize another world, because - as Isaac Asimov put it in his 1976 Barbados lecture: "Only a foolish species would leave all its eggs in one planetary basket."

Right on! Let's hope our species gets some smarts before the next 'planet killer' asteroid arrives.

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