Sunday, July 20, 2008

Apollo 11 + 39, Ares I-X, etc.

The odds are probably better than 50-50 that if you're reading this blog, you were too young to remember Apollo 11, or weren't even born yet. I myself was two weeks away (or thereabouts) from becoming a live-born citizen of the United States. Still, the event is worth commemorating. We live in the world after Apollo 11, so it's difficult to understand the mindset of the time.

In 1969, the space age was 12 years old. Human beings had only been in space for 8 years, and there was a very real threat that the Soviet Union might beat the United States to the Moon. We had never been there before. When President John F. Kennedy called upon the nation to the goal of "landing a man on the Moon, and returning him safely to Earth," the U.S. had had 20 minutes of human spaceflight experience. The folks at NASA, then only three years old as an operating entity, were charged with the largest peacetime engineering project since the building of the Panama Canal, and they'd been given nine years in which to do it.

More suspense was to be had besides the challenge of the race itself. The Mercury capsules flew on top of the Redstone rocket, named for the arsenal and the red clay to be found in northern Alabama. Redstone was not powerful enough to launch human beings into orbit. The next, bigger rocket in the Mercury program, Atlas, had the power, theoretically to get men into orbit, but they had a frightening tendency to explode.

The fuel for Atlas, like Redstone, was RP-1, a refined version of kerosene, and liquid oxygen (LOX), the element we breath, brought down to a couple hundred degrees below zero. In addition to being ultra-cold, LOX is super-flammable, causing things to burn much more rapidly than the would in air alone. If the Saturn V were to explode, it would have the explosive equivalent of just over half a kiloton of TNT, the equivalent of a small nuclear warhead.

The rockets flying with the stuff needed to be pressurized and made of materials enough to withstand the nature of fuels; the forces of acceleration, vibration, and noise as the vehicle ascended into the sky; and the odd tendencies of materials to behave differently in space. The journey itself was risky, but the engineers making the rockets and their early-model computers found the solutions to make it all happen, leaving the next challenge: getting a human being to actually set foot on another world.

The Moon has been with us for all of human history, for as long as Earth itself has been in existence--around 4.6 billion years. In our brief time here, we'd looked at it, studied it, written songs about it, and made some strange guesses about who might be living on it. Earlier NASA probes and the Apollo 8 mission had all but confirmed that life didn't exist there. Baked by the sun without benefit of an atmosphere, pelted for eons by asteroids large and small, the Moon had daytime temperatures of 250 degrees during its 14-day "day," and -250 degree temperatures at night. The distance to the Moon, nearly 240,000 miles, is so far that it takes one-and-one-quarter seconds for radio transmissions to reach Earth.

We had to take our own air with us, along with machines to filter our air and wastes and water, as well as food for the journey. Actually touching the Moon in its natural state was impossible. We had to build custom-made suits of armor with 17 different layers in them to address everything from boiling heat to freezing cold to astronaut comfort to holding in air to survive in the hard vacuum.

And we did it. Two fighter jocks piloted past their original landing place and manually selected and landed their spacecraft after their computer overloaded. They had less than 30 seconds' worth of fuel remaining when they shut down the engine. A flat, Midwestern voice drawled back to the anxious people in Mission Control, "Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed." Waves of relief and triumph swept through the control room and throughout the world. A couple hours later, that same Midwesterner, a laconic test pilot from Ohio named Neil Armstrong, became part of history forever by becoming the first man to set a footprint on the Moon. In a transmission that was either garbled by static or flubbed by nervousness, Armstrong said, "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind." That was July 20, 1969. Armstrong and Aldrin stayed on the Moon for less than three hours and then began the long journey home.

Until a human being sets foot on Mars in the next century, no single moment will demonstrate human accomplishment so elegantly and greatly. We live in a world now that takes the Moon landings--and there were five more of them over the next three years--for granted. What's worse is, because we stopped exploring other worlds (reaching for greatness), there is now a substantial group that doesn't believe we did it in the first place. We have spurned greatness for tackling simpler issues much closer to home. And while some of those things perhaps needed to be done, who can say how many bigger problems we might have been willing to tackle if we had kept the same faith that made us believe we could put a man on the Moon in nine years and then do it. With luck, spirit, and determination, human beings will return to the Moon. With a little more money and a lot more dedication, those human beings will again be Americans. We need the spirit of Apollo to guide our efforts as we reclaim the role of a frontier nation.


Today, of course, the world is different. We live in a time of unprecedented technological progress, innovation, and comfort, thanks in part to the trails blazed by Apollo. And yet we no longer go into space. We don't perceive a deadly rival to stir our competitive spirts. We don't see the rush or sometimes even the need for a human space program. The Constellation Program has been in existence for 4 years, and that existence is precarious because the taxpaying citizens still don't want to spend money on greatness, but are quite comfortable spending on comforts here on Earth. The space program is just a line item to be given a pittance in the next federal budget. Space must be marketed of all things, using practical benefits alone because greatness, competition, and national security are not seen as part of its existence anymore. Yet other nations want to do what we have done. They want the strength, prestige, advancement, and progress that we enjoyed from Apollo because they know it was real. They know that, given enough incentive, unity, and commitment, Americans really can do any project they set their minds to...if only we wanted to.

It took the deaths of seven Space Shuttle astronauts to get us out of our near-Earth lethargy and reach once more for greatness. The reasoning being: if we're going to lose astronauts in space, shouldn't they be dying for more than just a trip to Earth orbit? So now we're building Moon rockets again, at a slow clip given the limited budget and low priority of space exploration today, but we are at least returning to the path of greatness. That gives me hope. I just hope it will be enough.


And speaking of marketing space, NASA is beginning to take steps to reach that generation of kids who never knew Apollo except as museum pieces. The first test flight of Ares I, the crew launch vehicle that will get astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft into orbit, is happening in spring 2009. has been around for awhile--and has had some success reaching the public, as the Mars Rover web sites have gotten millions of hits. However, I myself have not always been able to find what I'm looking for on Others prefer to get their information in different ways, like through social networking web sites. Well, the Ares I-X flight test now has a presence on MySpace as well as Facebook.

The hope is, if Generation Y won't come to NASA, NASA can where they are and learn to speak their language. The I-X team got one of their Gen Y interns to put together the sites, and after some internal negotiating with the NASA Public Affairs Office (PAO), they're now a reality. Targeted marketing (though NASA doesn't like to use that word) just might begin to bear fruit. Social networking, blogging, and other internet-based outputs are no longer side shows, but soon to become the primary output channels for public information. The days of three TV networks and three major newspapers are over; the internet thrives on content, and if the PAO isn't providing that information clearly or copiously enough, people will go to sites like NASAWatch and to get their information, and those sites aren't so positive about NASA activities. Better to allow more individuals to share information with the public -- as long as it's not sensitive but unclassified (SBU), proprietary, or subject to the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) -- than to have people leak things out just to be spiteful.

In any case, the Ares I-X sites are a hopeful sign. If more people are aware of the flight test, they might pay more attention, care a little more, get a little more excited, support the Constellation Program a little more, and (wild thought) vote in such a way that the program continues and accelerates. Sometimes it's the little things that get things moving. Here's hoping the Ares I-X (and other NASA programs') social networking sites are just the little things we need.

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