Saturday, July 20, 2019

Looking Back At The Apollo 11 Achievement 50 Years Ago- A Different Nation (& World) In Many Ways

                       Astronaut Buzz Aldrin walks on the Sea of Tranquility 50 years ago today.

First,  a bit of perspective: the world of 1969 was radically different from the one today, which few born after 1985 may appreciate.  There were fewer than half as many humans inhabiting the Earth for one thing.  Most animal species - not yet faced with incursions by humans (of their habitat)  - were not on the edge of extinction.  There were no computers available to  ordinary mortals. So you relied on either a slide rule, e.g.

 Or Wang  (electronic) calculator - say if you were doing a college physics or math project.    Of course, no  scientific calculators existed back then either  so high school kids taking math had to also do their computations using slide rules. (Or they could use tables of logarithms.).

Google did not exist, so if you sought to learn or research something-  say for a term paper -  you went to the nearest library.  You used what was called the 'Dewey Decimal System' to find what you were looking for.

There were no smart phones or cell phones to text or take photos.  You relied on your trusty Kodak camera with color film - and you talked on a land line.   "Texting"  entailed putting a sheet of 8 1/2  by 11 " paper in your Smith -Corona typewriter, typing out a letter and then mailing it to the intended recipient.  You might get a similar response in a week to 10 days.

The pace of life was much slower then, and the competition for attention  dramatically less. You had three major TV networks and when Americans watched the news, they all came to the same conclusions on what was portrayed. There was no "fake news".    There was no cable TV, no hundreds of stations vying for attention.

Oh yeah, and money was worth vastly more, went further.  The whole Apollo project took $25 billion, which in today's dollars would be over $270 billion.   The talk today is of "going back to the Moon" and the laughable basis is supposedly commercial space enterprises, run by billionaires such as Jeff Bezos, and a guy named Elon Musk.. Here's a newsflash for the private space aficionados: The first attempts at such flights bearing humans are now likely to be delayed past the end of this year and perhaps beyond 2020. This according to a small WSJ piece from 4 days ago ('Capsule Launches With Astronauts Unlikely for 2019', p. A3)

Back in the 1960s the federal government spent twice as much as private business on the space program. Today, as Greg Ip has pointed out  (WSJ, July 15, p. R9) business spends three times as much as the federal government. But are we any better off? Hardly.  As Mr. Ip observes:  "We now equate risk-taking and innovation not with moonshots but with venture capitalists, pharma labs and internet entrepreneurs pursuing wealth, not discovery or prestige."

Which is why we'll be lucky to make it back to the Moon by 2024,  far less build bases there for more distant travel, say to Mars.  But 50 years ago, before Johnson's Vietnam War had sucked up $269 b in federal revenue,  all things space were still possible. We hadn't yet squandered it all away by misplaced priorities.

Fifty  years ago, at roughly 4:17  eastern daylight time in the afternoon,  I arrived at the University of South Florida's  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 at the time 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 safely 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 $25b, which -  let us note - we have pissed away in today's equivalent dollars in just 12 years in Afghanistan (we've now been there 18 yrs.)   There followed six Apollo Moon 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 and 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’ missions 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, e.g.

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.  (Indeed, at roughly the same time yesterday as Armstrong walked on the lunar surface 50 years go, an American astronaut was being launched from Kazakhstan -  in a Russia rocket-   to the Space Station.)

To me, this 'beggar thy neighbor' motif,  along with the capitulation of  national manned space programs to the private sector, shows how far we've 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.

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."

As for the deluded ones placing their future space hopes in the commercial, venture capitalists like Richard Branson,  Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, don't hold your collective breath.  These characters will no more get us to the Moon or Mars than Mickey Mouse.  This is given they can't afford - or refuse to pay - the ancillary (added) billions in costs for redundancy of systems that affords protection to humans in space vehicles.

Let's hope our species gets some smarts before the next 'planet killer' asteroid arrives.  Let's hope enough smart people see the answer again is federal government support and money - once it ceases spending hundreds of billions a year on the military-industrial complex and unnecessary wars!

As for the Moon landing hoax dingbats, I have always had but one question: Why would a 363' tall rocket (the Saturn V) be: a) constructed, and b) launched at Cape Canaveral (seen by one million people estimated there) - with the energy of a small atomic weapon equivalent-  all to perpetrate a "hoax"?   It is among the most hare -brained pseudo- conspiracy memes yet and one was therefore  elated to see Apollo 11's  Buzz Aldrin punch out one simpleton who confronted him and called him a "liar" for not coming clean on the supposed "hoax".  

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"Let us set aside July 20, the day a human being first walked on the moon, as a day to remember this profound accomplishment and all its implications, a day to contemplate whether we will embrace our wondrous existence or take it for granted and continue to trash our Mother Earth. "

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