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Monday, July 20, 2009

"Destination Moon"

America's achievement through British eyes.

Not for the first time, we had sweetened our failure with fantasy. NASA’s Mission Control may have been the acme of American industrial cool, a collection of (Alfred) Sloan Rangers, calm, crew-cut men in white shirts methodically guiding tiny vessels over immense distances, but we had Doctor Who, an almost-perfect embodiment of the chaotic, improvisational genius that Brits like to believe is one of their better national characteristics. The doctor generally appeared to have little control and less interest over where or when his spacecraft might land — but wherever and whenever it was, and whatever the perils he encountered there, he invariably managed to emerge victorious at the end. To be sure, he was an alien from another world, but he was a very British alien, amateurish, surprisingly effective, and clad in vaguely Edwardian clothing, a wistful nod to a lost empire’s last good time. 

Go read the rest of the piece, it's rather well done. A personal recollection of a magical moment - if that's the word - in human history. To keen spacenuts like yours truly, the moonshot was a brilliant climax. That was the problem, it was THE climax. Nothing since has some close in daring or accomplishment. The moon, the wisemen told us, was only the first step. Mars was next, by 1990 surely. 1990 came and went. Whatever the scientific merits of sending men rather than machines to the planets, the spacenuts wanted Captain Kirk to follow logically from Neil Armstrong. It was the future. It was progress. It was inevitable. 

We didn't notice, until rather late, the problem with Apollo. The clever crew cut men, hard cold and objective, gazing at their computer screens - ancient to modern eyes, but so beautiful - using mind boggling math to do the amazing. Beneath the math, the engineering and the hard science was the dismal science. Apollo was a government boondoggle, a creature of politicians it died when its political masters saw that it was no longer a vote getter. 

The spectacle of space flight having become routine, the public began to ignore it. When a biopic of Werner von Braun was released in 1960, I Aim at the Stars, the legendary comedian Mort Sahl quipped: "But sometime I hit London." Arguably the greatest rocket scientist in history, von Braun's career path, from hobbyist to Hitler's space obsessed henchman to the designer of the Saturn V, tracks the unfortunate indifference many scientists and engineers have to politics. The funds keep flowing, and the rockets keep getting launched, the rest is accountancy. The future of space exploration lies with the private sector, with investors and visionaries little concerned with the sundry business of vote chasing, or world domination. Our next "magical moment" will happen when the separation of state and space has finally been established.

Posted by Richard Anderson on July 20, 2009 | Permalink


After 40 years, one thing is clear: the future is not what it used to be.



Posted by: Mike Licht | 2009-07-20 9:13:03 AM

The private sector is already getting involved in spaceflight, as concepts like SpaceShip One prove. The Russians have even found a way to make their state space program turn a profit, by charging millionaires for orbital adventures. It's ironic that the Russians, even given their delicate finances and their reputation for a second-rate Space program since 1969, now have a more effective spacefaring capability than the United States. Also unlike the United States, they have a working toilet on the ISS. The ISS escape capsules are Russian Soyuzes, too.

For all the misty memories that Columbia and her sisters have given us, the Space Shuttle was actually an expensive distraction that is past due for retirement. Designed to reduce operating costs, the shuttle increased them instead. The technology of the 1970s was not advanced enough to produce a true spaceplane. Ironically, although this is no longer true today, the Americans are returning to the Saturn-style booster rocket and the Apollo-style capsule, while the Russians are pursuing a much smaller shuttle-style vehicle. But Space will not be truly accessible until we have a truly reusable orbital craft along the lines of SpaceShip One.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-07-20 10:07:27 AM

And warp drive.

Posted by: dp | 2009-07-20 10:39:02 PM

Even the Solar System offers opportunities, dp. Think of hydrogen and helium mines in the atmosphere of Jupiter. Or mining the huge aluminum deposits on the Moon. Or solar-powered refractories or factories operating in an airless, zero-G environment, producing materials with properties undreamed of on Earth. The constellation of GPS satellites and satellite communications offer only a minute taste of the boon that awaits the conquerors of Space.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-07-21 6:37:35 AM


I cannot believe that you Canadians are so lame as to think that one of you didn't make it to the Moon first. The article above implies that had the Avro Arrow not been canceled, Canada would have had a successful space program rivaling that of the US.


Even the Soviets, who had similar talent and access to resources, could not have achieved that - and they sent unmanned missions to the Moon! Even they admitted that a putting humans there was beyond their capabilities. Get your heads out of your asses, people - well, those of you in Ontario keep it there because it makes it easier to kick your ass. What a lame, lazy, ignorant people you are.

God Pity poor Canada for its self-inflicted madness. Without America, they are nothing.

Posted by: Zebulon Pike | 2009-07-21 9:12:26 AM

Shane- I'm afraid we've lost a lot of our inventiveness, and we might not get it back, until we have to learn how to build a fire, with no matches.

The current trend seems to be hiring as many Asian engineers, as we can squeeze onto the planes. They're smart, they're educated, but they're not inventive. They come from a stagnant culture. They're forte, is adapting their surroundings to different applications. Our European ancestors aimed at changing their surroundings.

It might seem like an insignificant detail, but it's not. It's the difference between building a ship, and sailing it to a new world.

Posted by: dp | 2009-07-21 9:54:40 AM

Asian engineers are not inventive? I worked with like 200 hundred out of perhaps a thousand total engineers I would recall by name I have worked with over my years in high tech. Not a really large sample size but enough to get the drift and they seem just about the same to me. How many have you worked with personally to base this on?

Are you perhaps just confusing inovation with business issues: western countries with R&D universities and companies that have vast amounts of wealth and are willing to take great risks on novel programs to the poorer Asian countries that cannot afford to do so. Asian countries where the governments are typically worse than ours (he shudders) and so risk has less reward and so risks are not taken as often,

That is till they get rich, like the Japanese. Then how non-inventive do you think the Japanese engineers are: i.e the engineers that are leading the way in several industries these days?

Posted by: V. M. Smith | 2009-07-21 4:46:52 PM

Actually, Zeb, the Russians might have put men on the Moon, if not before the Americans, had their N1 booster program not failed for various technical and political reasons. It certainly was not beyond their capabilities in the technical sense. For more, see Wikipedia's article on the N1 rocket.

Posted by: Shane Matthws | 2009-07-21 6:29:29 PM

V.M., dp is correct about Asian inventiveness in an important way--the Asian education system stresses rote memorization, whereas the Western model favours comprehension. This basic difference in schooling methods results in a marked difference in thinking patterns. Asian kids tend to excel at mathematics and engineering, applying knowledge that already exists, where Westerners do better at tinkering, experimenting, and "traditional" inventing.

Putting a man on Mars, needless to say, will require at least as much of the latter as of the former. Remember, it is America, not Japan, where private companies are building and flying suborbital spacecraft.

And dp, you're right insofar as little that is revolutionary is likely to come out of government-funded universities and institutions. Even today the most influential and ingenious innovations and inventions come from one or two guys starting out in their garage.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-07-21 6:38:16 PM

p.s. Fire won't burn on Mars, there being no air to sustain combustion. But I take your point. :-)

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-07-21 6:39:24 PM

V.M.- I was not trying to belittle Asian ingenuity, simply point out the differences between "us, and them". I believe Shane articulated my idea better than I did.

The Japanese did invent the mechanical pencil, for which I'll always be grateful. Other than that, most of the great leaps were made by Europeans, Americans, and Israelis. Asians are good at refining, not as good at inventing.

Posted by: dp | 2009-07-21 7:57:21 PM

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