Monday, February 20, 2012

"One giant step backward"

The Apollo 11 lunar module Eagle ascent stage, carrying Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin as seen by command module pilot Michael Collins, as the two spacecraft prepare to rendezvous and dock over the eastern limb of the Moon. An immediately iconic image even though the photograph went unseen by the public for many days after the expedition returned to Earth. In addition, the image was not available in high resolution until remastered into digital format 30 years later [NASA/JSC/ALSJ].
Tucker Mitchell

We watched it from Boy Scout summer camp. The only TV set around was in the mess hall. They propped it up on a counter, made popcorn and keep fiddling with the antenna. A blob of aluminum foil squeezed and shaped just so finally did the trick. We had a picture and just in the nick of time. The door to the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) opened, Neil Armstrong climbed down the ladder and hopped off into the powdery lunar soil. 

The picture was fuzzy but the moment was crystal clear. You’ve seen it. One small step for (a) man … etc. (*See footnote below) 

The impact of American space exploration in the 1960s, 70s and beyond cannot be denied. It wasn’t just the fantastic scientific breakthroughs in communications, rocketry and breakfast drinks (Tang!), it was the cultural import of being people who really learned how to fly. We were so mighty we left the planet.

The nation’s greatest heroes in that period were astronauts, rather than actors of sports stars. None was bigger than John Glenn, who, 50 years ago this week, became the first human to orbit the Earth. The achievement seems a little lackluster in retrospect, but at the time it was a huge deal. Everybody knew the name and America’s next generation sought to emulate him. Popular entertainment reverberated with space-based plots and ideas. It seemed like us students studied the Solar System and all that went with it for well more than half the year. 

Riding with the Russians 

And yet, here we are today in America, without a working starship or even a rocket for that matter. All the Americans who will go into space until at least the end of this decade will ride Russian, using tickets that cost $60 million a pop. 

This sounds like yet one more sign of the apocalypse. Though we’re still committing a fair amount of cash to the space program — President Obama’s budget calls for spending $17.7 billion on NASA next year — it has faded from the frontal lobes of the national consciousness. This is not, as some might suspect, more effects of the Great Recession. Space program spending, measured in real dollars, has plummeted since its mid-1960s peak, when it represented almost 5 percent of governmental spending. The space agency’s budget recovered briefly — and only incrementally —in the late 1980s, but has been in slow decline since. 

This has more to do with space fatigue than economic pressures. After conquering the moon, NASA’s mission became (comparatively) more mundane. While space launches were still noted and viewed, the missions themselves weren’t edge-of-the-seaters. We stopped sending Walter Cronkite to Houston to report live from Mission Control, when all that was happening was that the Columbia was making another orbit, conducting tests on gamma rays and helium isotopes. 

Part of that is our growing distraction due to the ever-increasing media bombardment. A bigger part may be just reality itself. As the idea of human space exploration has matured (realizing, of course, that we’re probably still in our infancy) the next steps have been, well, humongous leaps for mankind. Launching monkeys into space, sending a man up, sending a man into orbit, sending a man some 240,000 miles away to the moon … the progression there made sense. But after 5-6 lunar trips, public interest (which is critical to funding) waned. The next obvious target was, and is Mars, but serious Martian adventures require an expense and contain a complexity of magnitude that dwarfs all that came before. Because of the necessities of launch widows, etc., astronauts headed to the Red Planet would need something on the order of 3 million tons of supplies, or 600 times the capacity of our biggest existing shuttle. And the shuttle currently can’t be any bigger because we don’t have a rocket powerful enough to push it out of our atmosphere. 

The current budget includes expenditures on research for bigger rockets and other technology, but the bulk will be spent on what NASA calls “Earth Science.” These missions look at the Earth’s surface from orbital perches and help us figure out answers to questions about global warming and crop rotation. 

Important stuff that, but it was more fun when there was something in the mess hall to watch.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

How about a one ticket trip to Mars? East Asian mentality fits that... I envision the Chinese doing it in the no-so-distant future in order to prove themselves by besting the previous human performance in space.