Friday, June 21, 2024

Reflections on a Space Race

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Fifty years ago, we went to the moon. It was on TV, a couple of people watched. That’s sarcasm: 400,000,000 people watched. It was July 21, 1968.

Fun fact: at the time that Neil Armstrong was taking those steps, the only satellite receiving the signal was in Australia. Australia had, at the time, crappy reception, and they could not broadcast the specific type of signal from the Lunar Lander. They could receive it, though. So they received the signal and watched it on a television. Pointed at this television, capable of broadcasting signal to the wider world, was a camera.

That’s right folks. The most iconic broadcast in the history of the world was a bootleg. I mention a fun anecdote to start things off because I have nothing humorous to offer for the rest of this.

First things first.

We went to the moon because we justified it militarily. It’s such a nostalgic, Aren’t We Great thought that we went to the moon in the spirit of peace and exploration and we were not at all worried about an enemy nation doing this thing first. Because if we get there first we can guarantee we won’t weaponize space! See? We’re great!

An aside: the crimes against humanity committed by both the United States and the Soviet Union are uncountable. Both nations sucked and continue to suck but in different ways.

Back to the point.

When Kennedy stood up and said, “We will go to the moon in this decade. And do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” A rousing speech. And then he asked Congress to pay for it. And they didn’t pay for it because it made them misty-eyed with patriotic happiness. They paid for it because going to the moon presented a clear tactical advantage against an adversary who had, so far, demonstrated technical superiority in the realm of space.

We chose to make the moon the only battle that mattered because, up to that point, the Russians had bested us in every first in space. First man to in space. First to orbit. First object to orbit.

It is not insignificant what was done. I’m not sad we went to the moon. When I stand by the F-1 engines at the base of the Saturn V I am overwhelmed with raw awe because goddamn that’s some horsepower! Imagine this for a second: a rocket, standing more than 240 feet tall. It weighed one-point-five million pounds. It was propelled by five engines that produced a combined SEVEN POINT FIVE MILLION POUNDS OF THRUST. That’s the juice that’s what that is.

As another brief aside, every Apollo mission encountered an event almost as catastrophic as Apollo 13, but managed to fix their problem and carry on. Although, there were no missions between Apollo 1 and Apollo 8. Three astronauts died in Apollo 1 because of exposed wiring that sparked and ignited a fire in the capsule. (No, it wasn’t because of a pencil. And the Russians continuing to use pencils anyway is not a testament to how much tougher they were; it was an example of how cheap life is. Eventually, however, they too used the zero-g pens.)

So we go to the Moon. Neil takes his steps. The broadcast is super fuzzy because the rest of the world is watching it through a shitty camera pointed at a TV. Weirdly, people got bored of watching rockets that, if something went wrong and they exploded, would erupt with more explosive power than the A-bomb at Hiroshima.  And they scrapped Apollo after mission 17.

During the height of the Space Race, NASA returned seven dollars in functional inventions to the economy for every one dollar spent. This is the result of the things that had to be developed to take us to the moon. NASA wasn’t contributing to the military anymore. It wasn’t a strategic agency. So they lost their funding. These days, there’s no real money to be made in space unless you’re hoisting satellites for private corporations.

They tried putting up a space station, Skylab, to rouse some interest. It kinda worked. Not well. Time for a new idea to revitalize interest. A reusable space vehicle that can take off, carry significant payloads into orbit and land like an airplane. Enter the Space Shuttle. And NASA gets some funding again.

And it was cool, and hip, and new, and for a time it was interesting. The Space Shuttle was so loud that it could rattle the windows in Palm Bay, Florida, more than fifty miles away from the launch pad. But people grew bored. What’s a little space exploration? No one cares. NASA news was column-inches-filler.

So a new mission! A teacher in space A pet project dreamed up by the Reagan Administration. (May the man himself rot in hell forever. Why? He and his administration allowed more gay men to die of AIDs than there were casualties in Vietnam. Vietnam: almost 59,000 dead. Aids: 151,000 dead.)

Anyway. The gimmick was to put an ordinary person in space to answer questions for school kids. Not a military scientist, a teacher. And the world watches again. In theory. No one covered the launch live. It was taped and run as B-roll. But after the accident…

The night before Challenger flies, it’s inordinately cold on the Cape in Florida. O-rings get brittle. Engineers know this because it’d happened in testing before, leading to catastrophic failures. Engineers warn the higher-ups, and this falls on deaf ears. The headlines are more important than anything else. They gotta fly the mission.

73 seconds after lift-off, a small fire is seen on the side of one of the boosters carrying space shuttle Challenger into orbit. This fire burns for a heartbeat or two. And then an explosion rips through the boosters, gas tank, and orbiter. There’s no warning. Just detonation. And then white debris arching into the sky ballistically as it falls back towards the ocean.

Here’s the horror of space flight.

The crew capsule was hardened aluminum and exited the explosive cloud partially intact. It decompressed, and there are confused readings about who, or who wasn’t, alive once the vehicle exploded. At least three people were still conscious after the explosion. What is known is that there were inputs in the controls. Of course there was nothing to control. But a pilot was alive. All the way to impact with the water.

More than thirty months are taken to investigate the tragedy. The O-rings are to blame. Boosters are built with better O-rings to prevent this happening in the future. No one talks about how knowing the O-rings could catastrophically fail and choosing to fly anyway makes the deaths on Challenger negligent homicide.

Missions continue. We build an International Space Station. Dozens of countries pledge to help. It’s the only way NASA gets funding for the expedition; the promise that the United States won’t bear the sole cost of the project. We build it piecemeal, hoisted into orbit a bit at a time on the back of the Shuttle. It’s pretty damn cool.

Columbia flies her last mission. During takeoff, insulation falling from the gas tank punched a hole in the leading edge of the wing. NASA administrators deny an EVA to inspect the shuttle. They do not pass close to the ISS to get a visual inspection from the crew already in orbit. They reenter.

Now, returning to the atmosphere from space requires pitching the vehicle through incredible heat and friction to slow down from its orbital speed. During this time, ionization occurs, and prevents radio contact from the ground. And so the folks on the ground hold their breath. And wait. And try and call the vehicle. And they get no answer.

They heard from spotters first, people watching for Columbia along its flight path. Instead of a Space Shuttle gliding back towards its runway in Florida, they see debris. Aflame and falling.

Fire consumes the vehicle, it crumbles on itself. The crew isn’t fully suited up, some are still working. Only one person is fully suited up. The cabin decompresses as the vehicle breaks apart on reentry. Except for that single person, most of the crew are rendered immediately unconscious.

From the moment of decompression, the black box registers a workstation in use. Someone was alive, despite the fire consuming the vehicle, and trying to find a solution to the problem they were facing.

Detonation. Disintegration. No more inputs.

This is the unteachable thing that separates ordinary folks from astronauts. There is this ingrained faith that no matter the odds, as long as they are still breathing, there’s a chance to solve the problem. It is remarkable. Daunting. A little scary.

After Columbia dies, another investigation takes place. Same overseers that looked into Challenger. On future missions, the crew pass under the ISS and turn slowly for a thorough visual inspection to ensure the integrity of the vehicle.

Time passes. Obama is elected. He scraps the shuttle program. We talk about actively going to Mars. Bases on the moon. Private companies invest heavily in a manned mission to Mars. Dreams of science fiction that have lived since the first speculative fiction was written more than two centuries ago.

There’s risk associated with exploration. Be it North Pole expeditions trying to find a northwest passage, diving into the deepest pits of the ocean, or venturing into space. There’s always risk. And people will step up because the mission is more important than the risks. The astronauts who died would agree.

But here’s the ultimate thing. We’re not going to go to Mars. Or colonize the moon. There are rumblings that China is going to try so they can mine helium-3 for fusion reactors. I hesitate to put any faith in those claims. Not because China won’t try, but because claiming a foreign enemy is going to do something and we Have To Stop Them with another space race or invasion is just how we do business here.

And that leads me to this: we won’t get off this rock. Not ever. A Mars mission is a vanity project for billionaires. We won’t have genuine colonies, we won’t terraform.  Unless, and only unless, there’s some exterior motive that justifies the exorbitant cost of getting there.

We went to the moon because the military gave NASA its lunch money. But we won’t go to Mars. So long as the driving force of humanity is making money, we won’t leave this world.

We’ll burn it down, make it uninhabitable. Humanity will be born, and die on the rock we were born on. And our best ideals, the spirit that inspired us to send little satellites far, far out into space searching for other explorers?

That dies with us too.

Unless we fix ourselves and our world, we won’t explore the stars.

It’s not in our budget.

Image Courtesy of NASA

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