Tuesday, July 04, 2006

To Infinity and Beyond!

Hot damn! We is down among 'em! ~ Eugene Cernan, Apollo 10

[Originally appeared in Gog's Blog November, 2005; this version has been revised slightly]

You will be hard pressed to find Gene Cernan's quote on any NASA site. The only way I was able to verify my memory of this moment was by going to Google, where I found a post I made several years on a newsgroup asking if the quote was accurate. Apollo 10, in case you've forgotten (and you probably have) was the mission that tested the LEM, releasing it from the command module and letting swoop down to within 15 Km of the Moon's surface. It was that moment that prompted Cernan's slightly profane outburst.

Of course, NASA didn't approve of one of their boys acting like a human being. But, Cernan was ultimately forgiven and even became the last man to set foot on the Moon.

It just goes to show that the spirit of adventure that was the Apollo program seems to have disappeared.

We desperately need to get a sense of adventure again. The Space Ship One pilots had some of that, but they spoiled it by crying after just about every mission. But, given the lack of testing and the last minute changes that were being made just before takeoff, I guess I'd cry for joy about getting back in one piece, too.

But space flight today is so scripted. There are the endless press conferences with shuttle crews, all saying just the right things, thanking everyone until they're blue in the face. The Chinese taikonauts must have taken a set of dialog cards with them. I know things suffer in translation, but the quotes from these men were nothing more than propaganda. They surpassed even the Soviet cosmonauts in praising the nation, the workers, and, of course, the government.

There used to be a more excited approach to space flight. Perhaps it was a little "cowboy", but it was very human. Alan Sheppard, ready to ride the first Mercury capsule and having sat on the launch pad for next to forever, had to take a whiz in his suit. He later exhorted Mission Control to “fix your little problems and light this candle.” John Glenn, so exuberant he forgot he was supposed to be doing a scientific mission, kept being amazed by the view. Joking and chatter was common, because this was the unknown, and people tend to make jokes to avoid thinking about how scared they might be.

On Apollo 8, Frank Borman read from Genesis as they slingshotted around the Moon. NASA wasn't expecting this. But, this mission was changed at the last minute from an earth-orbital test to the lunar fly-around in an attempt to one-up the Russions. With so much uncertainty about whether they were going to succeed, astronauts giving a nod to the Almighty seemed like a very good idea.

It's not much like that anymore, but maybe it's because of the missions. When you're shuttling supplies to a space station and bring back the trash, it must be a little hard to get cocky. The shuttle doesn't go anywhere. The Mercury and Gemini missions just went up and down, too, but they were preparing the way for the big trips. We don't have any big trips, now, except for the ones run by our robots (who are doing a heck of a job on Mars and around Saturn).

Now we want space travel to be routine, with little risk. Recently NASA announced that the Discovery astronauts had a 1 in 100 chance of not making it back. This news has taken some people aback, but the truth is that riding on a controlled explosion in a space ship full of design compromises is fraught with risk. If you can't stand the idea of risk, stay home.

Of course, there's risk and there's stupidity. Ignoring the concerns of safety officers who are tyring to make the best of a poor desigin is not smart.

This bring us to other side of the coin in the loss of the Apollo spirit, that is the lack of innovation. The current thinking about using Apollo-style technology for the CEV isn't going to make anything safer. It's just going to limit our options even more. The ISS, as currently configured is never going to be a launching platform for big missions to the planets anyway, but limiting our thinking to existing technologies means that we won't have anything else.

We've spent half a trillion dollars (yes, that's trillion) getting our soldiers killed so that oil prices can soar higher than our rockets. Think about what that kind of committment could have done for space exploration.

Gene Cernan has another quote, of more recent vintage. As the years since his last trip to the Moon passed with no new endeavors for manned space exploration, he said, “Yes, I am the last man to have walked on the moon, and that's a very dubious and disappointing honor. It's been far too long.”

That's the kind of attitude that will get us to Mars -- and beyond.

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