Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Gap in U.S. manned spaceflight

The drop tests of the Enterprise Space Shuttle test platform, beginning in 1977 and four years before Columbia finally launched, were dreary teasers of a program long on promises and short on funding. The original manned spaceflight 'gap,' according to David S. F. Portree, colors the end of the Shuttle program with unnecessary dread. The "Gap" of the present day is hardly a gap at all in comparison. The needless dread attaches itself to an all-too-human inability to fully prepare one's self for the "wholly new" [NASA].
David S. F. Portree

July 1979 was the busiest month for American spaceflight I could remember, and it was a mixed bag. On the one hand, Skylab fell from orbit, pelting Australia with debris. Where the heck was the Shuttle, which was supposed to have saved it? That was bad. On the other hand, Voyager 2 zipped through the Jupiter system, returning more breathtaking (and freaking weird) views of the planet’s intricate zones and bands and crazy moons. (Voyager 1 had flown by Jupiter earlier in the year, making new data from Voyager 2 eagerly anticipated.) That was terrific.

July 1979 also marked four years since Americans had flown in space, three years since Viking 1 had landed on Mars and found no recognizable life, and 10 years since the first men had walked on the moon. The Shuttle was late, I couldn’t get a date, and the first Star Trek movie wouldn’t be out until Christmas.

Much has been made of the current “gap in U.S. spaceflight.” Some even bemoan “the end of U.S. spaceflight.” Poppycock. You call this a gap? I’ll tell you about a gap. I was in 6th grade when the last crew left Skylab (February 1974). A year and a half later Apollo-Soyuz flew. Then, nothing – no Americans in space at all – until April 1981, when I was a sophomore in college. On the plus side, somewhere in there I got a date.

There was no Internet then and no cable TV. Unless a mission was happening, space news was tough to come by. Heck, even if a mission was happening, it was hard to find out what was going on. NASA published infrequent mission updates on paper, and wasn’t always good about sending them via snailmail to space-cadet teenagers. I remember specific issues of magazines that contained a lot of space news because that made them unusual. They were like freak rain squalls in the space cadet desert.

Being able to remember the Apollo landings made the 1970s gap worse. Even though I had been about to start 2nd grade when Neil and Buzz cavorted on the Sea of Tranquillity, I had sensed that we were at the beginning of something magnificent. I lacked the words to express how terribly wrong it seemed when, just three and a half years later, Apollo 17 returned to Earth and the moon missions ended.

During The Great 1970s Gap, humans continued to fly in space. Soviet cosmonauts worked on board Salyut space stations, but their program was deeply mysterious. They claimed that they had never intended to send men to the moon. We had, they said, spent a lot of money and risked astronaut lives to race ourselves. Many spaceflight opponents repeated that propaganda on the 10th anniversary of Apollo 11.

Skylab’s untimely demise happened 11 days before the 10th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, spoiling the party. Not that anyone threw a party to celebrate Apollo 11′s 10th anniversary; there was nothing like Yuri’s Night in 1979. It seemed that no one mentioned Apollo 11 without also mentioning Skylab, as if the latter had diminished the epic significance of the former. They didn’t mention Voyager 2 much on the Apollo 11 anniversary, as I recall, even though it was inside the Jupiter moon system when Skylab fell. After all, the Voyagers were just machines operated on behalf of goofy scientists (this was before Cosmos and planetary scientist Carl Sagan’s rise to pop culture icon).

No comments: