Thursday, May 5, 2011

"Fix Your Little Problem and Light This Candle"

Half a century ago, the fifth of May was a Friday and I was in 7th Grade in New Jersey. Shortly after the school day began our teachers marched us (the older kids, at least) into the small auditorium where a black-and-white television sat on a table on the stage. From our seats we squinted to discern history being made in the snowy image. Fifty years ago today, this is what we saw:

It's interesting to remember something that happened fifty years ago. An initial reaction is, "Damn! I'm older than dirt!" But then you can stop and reflect, and appreciate the perspective of the long view.

We watched as Cdr. Alan B. Shepard, Jr. became the first American to ride a rocket into space, inaugurating NASA's Manned Spaceflight Program. That first suborbital toe-in-the-water soon begat the Mercury orbital flights, then the Gemini developmental flights, then the Apollo missions that led - after just over eight years - to another black-and-white video image of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the surface of the Moon.

The most incredible adventure in the history of Western civilization started fifty years ago today. Guys in short-sleeved white shirts, with pocket protectors and, for God's sake, slide rules, designed and built incredible machines to take other guys, with ice water for blood and the famous Right Stuff, to another world and home again. There were heroes (Shepard was the first) and martyrs. There was the tragedy of the Apollo 1 fire, the triumph of Apollo XI and (before we awakened fully from the dream) the high drama of Apollo XIII. Oh, it was magnificent.

And then we lost interest. Just twelve years after Al Shepard told the engineers to "fix (their) little problem and light this candle," Gene Cernan climbed the ladder on Challenger, the Apollo XVII Lunar Module and became the last man to walk on the Moon. The last three Apollo missions were cancelled. The awesome Saturn V, the ultimate evolution of expendable rocket technology, flew once more to put Skylab into orbit, then never flew again.

It had never been about exploration. It had never been about choosing to do things because they are hard. It had always been about beating the Russians. Once the checkered flag had come down on the space race, the country turned away toward other concerns. NASA, left more or less without a job, lofted a few patchwork missions - three Skylab crews and ASTP - and waited around for the Space Transportation System (STS) - the Space Shuttle - to be ready.

NASA described the STS in glowing terms. We were going to make travel to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) routine. We would launch every two weeks. It would cost $100 to put a pound of stuff in orbit. We'd build observatories and space stations. Out of naiveté or desperation, they believed their own propaganda.

The Space Shuttle is a magnificent machine. But it was never going to be anything other than an incredibly complex, high-risk, experimental aerospace vehicle. The pre-Shuttle astronauts came almost exclusively from the ranks of test pilots, and they never had any illusions about their jobs. The Shuttle astronauts, despite the inclusion of scientists and engineers and politicians and a school teacher, have also always been test pilots. The way the game was rigged was exposed when Challenger exploded.

Now we are anticipating the launch in late June of the last Shuttle mission. Challenger and Columbia are gone, sacrificed to the normalization of deviance that bedevils so many technology-intensive programs. Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis are headed for museums and American astronauts headed for the International Space Station will be hitching rides on Russian rockets. After a couple of months more than fifty years, the American Manned Spaceflight Program will end.

The Shuttle, conceived (or mis-conceived) in response to NASA's need for an ongoing mission, is a magnificent technological dead-end. A look at the history of technology and in particular the history of transportation technology, will reveal many comparable instances where a technical paradigm evolved to produce a machine so wholly admirable as to capture the heart, and yet destined for the scrapyard (or, if lucky, for static display).

Donald McKay's clipper ships were the ultimate embodiment of wind-driven maritime transport. For a time in the mid nineteenth century they dominated the sea lanes and yet in a flash, they were gone. Mundane but reliable coal-fired steamers drove the clippers from the seas.

The steamers had their own century, mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth, and they too evolved to a peak exemplified by the liner SS United States. Nearly 60,000 tons, with a quarter-million shaft horsepower to drive her at nearly 40 knots, she had no peer on the trans-Atlantic run. But she did not sail for long before jet aircraft did to her what her ancestors did to the clippers. Now, she rusts quietly at a pier in Philadelphia.

The same jets that ended the career of the United States also wrote the last chapter for piston-engined commercial aircraft like the Lockheed Constellation. The "Connie", according to my friend Dennis Wolter "the most beautiful technological artifact ever designed by man," was the ultimate evolution of the propeller driven airliner and we aviation romantics can't forget the song of those four Wright R3350 turbo-compound engines. But beauty in commerce takes second seat to efficiency and so the Connie's and the DC-7's and the Stratocruisers went away.

The list goes on. The mighty steam locomotives, the graceful Concorde, and now, the Space Shuttle. Successful and at the same time doomed. Like the dinosaurs, unable to survive a changed environment.

It's been an exhilarating, exasperating ride these fifty years. I sat in that grammar school auditorium and watched Alan Shepard begin America's Manned Spaceflight Program. I watched its triumphs as the Apollo VIII crew circled the Moon at Christmas, 1968, and as Armstrong and Aldrin loped over the lunar surface. I held my breath as we waited for the Apollo XIII crew to come safely home and I suffered heartache in the aftermaths of the Challenger and Columbia tragedies. And I expect to watch the end of the journey as Atlantis plunges toward the threshold of the runway at Kennedy Space Center, flares at the last second and settles onto the ground for the last time. That, I expect, will be a bittersweet moment.

And then? Will manned space flight rise again, Phoenix-like, in this country - driven this time by the efforts of men like Sir Richard Branson and Elon Musk? Is a good dose of the American Entrepreneurial Spirit™ all that we need here? Pardon me if I am not reassured.

Let us toast the heroes and mourn the fallen. Let's retell the stories of great efforts and great achievements. And finally, always, let us hope.


Dave Starr said...

Poignant and thought provoking. I was in my high school machine shop class during the launch/flight. Our school broadcast events live over the PA system, about as far as they chose to go with current events, I guess.

Has it really been 50 years? What will the future hold ... where's our challenge for the future?

I remember thinking at the time that before I was an old man, we'd probably have space travel and many of those other Buck Rogers/Arthur C. Clarke things.

Well, I'm certainly entering the age zone of 'oldness' now, and space travel? We wouldn't even be able to send a man to the moon again.

Is our science and sense of adventure forever stuck in 'reverse'?

Man's reach is supposed to exceed his grasp ... are we reaching far enough?

Frank Van Haste said...

Dave, my friend, I can answer your final question.

NO! We are not reaching far enough. We make small plans, and they have not the magic to stir the blood.

And that's why I ended with, "Let us toast the heroes and mourn the fallen. Let's retell the stories of great efforts and great achievements. And finally, always, let's hope." Perhaps a new generation, not afflicted by our weariness, will hear our tales and be inspired.

Best regards,


Stephanie Belser said...

Well said, Frank.

Frank Van Haste said...

Thank you, Stephanie. Means much, coming from you.


Allison said...

Frank, you put the marks in the rigt places.

I'm old enough to remember Ham and his flight, young enough to regret the end
of US manned space craft.

I'm not thrilled about this chapter. I hope this is the gathering before the next bigger push.


Frank Van Haste said...

Thanks for commenting, Allison. Maybe we who remember the beginning can try to communicate our excitement to a new generation. Let's try, OK?

Best wishes,