All of my life, I have been a space geek.
This Sunday, I witnessed another historic event in the journey beyond our planet.
The earliest space flights I can recall are the flights of Gemini IX and Gemini X in July of 1966. Those memories are of animations on the news: details of the capsule, the arcs of its orbits, and what was supposed to happen for them to land. It lit my young imagination as brightly as the flare from the Titan II which launched it.
Apollo came next. Its mission, to take us to the moon. Humans have long had a desire to travel to the moon.
In the ancient Chinese myth of Chang’e, a woman banished to the moon for drinking an elixir of immortality meant for another. This myth was referenced during the Apollo 11 mission. While Michael Collins orbited the moon alone in the command module, flight controller Robert Evans told him the story of Chang’e and how she lived on a moon with a white rabbit. Michael Collins replied he would keep an eye out for her.
Lucien, a Syrian-Greek from around 125 BCE, wrote of space travel. The story, a part of his journeys throughout the Mediterranean, tells how he and 50 companions are lifted by waterspout to the moon. There to be greeted by a race of three-headed vultures. They end up fighting a war with another alien species. After fighting beside the three-headed vultures and winning the war, preventing the aliens from conquering the moon, they find a way home. Lucien’s tale is the earliest known piece of fiction depicting a form of space travel, a moon landing, an alien invasion, and an interplanetary war.
The Rigveda from India can be cited as an early source of these same concepts. The difference between Lucien’s story and the Rigveda and Lucien’s tale, his was not written as a religious text.
Jumping ahead in time, bypassing many other references, I want to point out Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to The Moon.” This futurist accurately predicted so many things regarding our modern trip to the moon: the use of retro-rockets, capsules splashing down in the ocean, lunar module, and more. Verne turned to his brother for help with the math of the moon shot. Based on the available knowledge, he was very close to escape velocity, orbital trajectories, and choosing the best geographic locations to best launch the rocket. The book’s chosen launch site is only ninety miles north of Cape Canaveral. And yes, he got a couple of things wrong, acceleration being one of the biggest.
All of these dreams and stories serve a purpose. They provide hope and purpose, along with a sense of adventure and discovery. They tell us there is a potential our species can still obtain.
“The Man Who Sold the Moon” by Robert Heinlein is the story of one man’s dream and how he makes a difference by fighting for his vision and, in doing so, pushes the human race to reach its potential.
During the mid-twentieth century, these dreams culminated in the Apollo missions. I was among the millions of people worldwide glued to our televisions on July 20, 1969. I watched every newscast I could. The same men who told me about Gemini were now telling me about Apollo: Walter Cronkite, the most trusted voice in America, narrated the events, while Paul Harvey told us the rest of the story.
A year later, these same men kept me on the edge of my seat during the Apollo 13 mission. We all held our collective breath as these three men fought for their lives in the harshness of space. Hope was as thin as a razor’s edge. As we know, they returned safely. At the time, the tension was palpable. But the near-disaster served some critical purposes, including these two: it prompted a reconsideration of the propriety of the whole effort by the civil space program, and it planted in the popular mind the technological genius of NASA.
My favorite Apollo mission happened in July and August of 1971. Apollo 15 carried the Lunar Rover. After that, every car I rode in for years was a lunar rover.
Skylab. Launched on May 14, 1973, this was a milestone event. A space station! How far could the apartments in space from my favorite stories be? Skylab had some early teething pains. Problems with the launch caused two crucial issues – pieces, including a meteorite/sunshield, broke off, and the solar array didn’t deploy properly. Again, NASA’s technical genius of the day came to the forefront, and a mission was dispatched to repair the station.
The final mission to Skylab was launched on November 16, 1973. The station slept for four years. Placed in what was expected to be a stable orbit, it was discovered in 1977 the orbit was decaying as a result of greater-than-predicted solar activity. Skylab plunged to a fiery death on July 11, 1979, spreading debris across the Indian Ocean and over parts of Western Australia.
Not long after Skylab was put to sleep, the world received another glimmer of hope. The United States and the Soviet Union had reached a tenuous détente in the Cold War. In July 1975, we saw the first international effort designed to test the rendezvous and docking systems’ compatibility. The goal was to open the way for possible international rescue missions and future joint missions.
Significant science did not occur on this mission. Instead, it was symbolic of the lessening tension between the two superpowers. This was the final flight of an Apollo spacecraft. At the time, I really did not understand the ramifications of that. All I saw was spacecraft from two countries being able to meet and have the crews shake hands. All it meant to me was a future was possible.
A couple of years passed before another manned venture was underway. It was so exciting to watch the first space shuttle roll out of the hanger. The crew of my favorite TV show, “Star Trek,” was there for the christening. A spaceship named Enterprise had my head dancing with visions of new planets, colonies on Mars, and more. The letdown was pretty sharp when I realized this was a test vehicle and would never go to space. I wanted so badly to see a ship named Enterprise in orbit.
Still, on April 12, 1981, I came out of my chair and bounced around my living room when Columbia had a successful lift-off. This was beginning to look more like the science fiction I loved.
On January 28, 1986, I was working for Terminix. It was a routine morning, performing a regular pest control visit. The customer had her television tuned to the launch of Challenger. Her crew represented all of us, a cross-section of the population in terms of race, gender, geography, background, and religion. I stopped work for a moment to watch. I stood in the kitchen, a marbled yellow countertop between me and the television in her den. The exhilaration of the launch caused my heart to beat a little faster.
Exhilaration turned to anguish as the single white plume became a fireball, splitting the pillar upon which they were meant to rise. Tears rolled down my cheeks for the rest of that day.
After the smoke cleared and the lessons were learned, I continued watching the launches as they came. If I couldn’t watch live, I set my VCR to record them. I laughed when Endeavor repaired the Hubble Telescope. The image of a powerful satellite wearing glasses like I did, struck me as a cosmic joke.
The International Space Station. Many countries, coming together to further our presence in space. That rolled over and over in my mind, conjuring images from the 1940s and 1950s of possible space habitats. I was slightly disappointed that it was not the classic ring station, as seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yet, looking at it this past Monday, it could have been an alien city in space as it hung suspended above the Earth, the sun reflecting the solar panels.
I was able to watch as the shuttles took supplies and modules to the station. The thought of regular traffic between the Earth and a Space Station was almost surreal. At the time, I thought this was science fiction coming to life. Then came the demise of my beloved space shuttle.
Columbia launched January 16, 2003. The news that a suitcase-size piece of foam had broken off and struck a wing brought tension and anxiety to spaceflight not truly felt since Apollo 13. Would this ship, the oldest in the fleet, survive re-entry? No one could say with certainty.
Foam had broken off of the main tank in previous missions. But none had ever struck the leading edge of the wing. Engineers believed catastrophic failure was likely. As with the Endeavor, NASA managers did not listen to them. They thought even if there were significant damage, nothing could be done.
That brave crew all climbed aboard Columbia on February 1, 2003. At 8:55 a.m., 231,000 feet above the California coast, came the first indications of trouble. Heat-resistant tiles on the leading edge of the left wing had indeed been damaged or lost. Wind and heat entered the wing, and it simply blew apart. I bawled. For the people, for the ship, for our future in the sky. I watched Columbia’s first flight, and I witnessed her last. The saddest part? It could have been prevented.
In August 2003, an investigation board issued a report revealing that it would have been possible either for the Columbia crew to repair the wing’s damage or for the crew to be rescued from the shuttle.
The Columbia could have stayed in orbit until February 15. The shuttle Atlantis’s already-planned launch could have been moved up as early as February 10, leaving a short window for repairing the wing or getting the crew off of the Columbia. She might have gone down in flames, but the crew would have survived.
Shuttle flights shut down until July 26, 2005, when Discovery was launched. On July 27, 2011, Atlantis made the final flight and ended an era.
The spirit of “The Man Who Sold the Moon” showed itself on June 21, 2004. We saw the successful flight of SpaceShipOne. The first privately-owned craft to cross the Kármán line, the accepted point of entry in space as defined by the International Astronautical Federation. And it did so three times. Now, there are plans for regular tourist service to the edge of space aboard SpaceShipTwo. While there have been drawbacks and setbacks, there have been many successes.
The real breakthrough, for me, was the launch of Resilience. Straight out of science fiction. A commercial enterprise has developed a reusable rocket capable of delivering payloads, and now people, into space. While early results were literally hit-or-miss, the recovery system has evolved to a point where it has become almost routine for SpaceX to recover its launch vehicles.
SpaceX is already working on its next generation of spacecraft, Starship, designed to be a fully reusable system capable of carrying crews and cargo to Earth orbit, the moon, and even Mars. I can only hope it achieves its full potential.
As I muse on these achievements, I can’t help but draw some similarities to Heinlein’s “The Man Who Sold the Moon.” A broad stroke comparison between Heinlein’s protagonist Delos D. Harriman and Elon Musk is easy to make: both are successful businessmen, somewhat ruthless in achieving their goals. Heinlein’s story follows the economic elements regarding problems related to financing a feat that people of his time believed belong to the realm of science fiction and examines the steps and pitfalls required to achieve what he wants.
In Musk’s case, he faces many of the same problems, with one difference. Everyone knows it possible to go to the moon. Still, the common knowledge when he began was flights to the moon were the governments’ province. Private enterprise was simply incapable of accumulating the resources and raising the capital, even with government subsidy.
Heinlein faced the challenge of conveying the social conventions and norms of a strange cultural background. Did he do it? Yes, beautifully, without resorting to the brain dumps, which were typical for the time.
The culture he envisions has a technological background that creates, shapes, and sustains the culture he is describing. He then populates this world with people both recognizable and at the same time, a product of this culture.
In our reality, though, we humans chase power and advantage. We build cultures of fear to the point we become strangers to ourselves. As a society, we claim to seek the truth; truly, we have lost our own inner truth. Living in a crazy state of constant self-doubt and social positioning, we miss the obvious and simple joys.
In our culture, everyone is expected to make their mark by gaining an advantage, by invoking fear, persuading others of a problem – then marketing themselves as the answer. Because we buy into this, we have created a burdened world where problems beget problems, and they are inflated continuously by those who would sell the solution. As a result, instead of coming together to solve the problems, we become more polarized. We are living on top of a cultural atomic bomb.
The protagonist in Heinlein’s story has one objective. He wants to visit the moon. He does everything in his power to push humanity to the moon and perhaps beyond. Yet, in his world, he may be the one man who never sets foot on the moon. It is a poignant story.
We have a choice. We can work together to ensure we have a future here and among the stars. Or we can set off the bomb.
I know which one I choose. Do you?
Thank you for reading,
As a tribute to the brave pioneers of Apollo 13, Endeavor and Columbia, I offer one of my favorite songs, Phoenix by Julie Ecklar.