Happy Moon Day

Forty-seven years ago today, Americans landed on the moon. I was five years old and still remember every bit of it, including my parents letting me stay up way past my bedtime to watch an unassuming man from Wapokoneta, OH, step out and take a stroll.

For the closest thing you may ever have to a front-row seat, check out these painstakingly synchronized audio and video loops from both the spacecraft and mission control. And this video does an excellent job of explaining what was going on inside Eagle and the split-second judgments they had to make just to keep going:

Any one of those glitches could’ve ended in an abort if they weren’t resolved. Not to mention that the computer took them about three seconds long, which would’ve put them down into a boulder field. Being the steely-eyed missile man that he was, Armstrong recognized this with about 500 feet left to go and flew them forward to safer ground. When they finally landed, it was estimated that they had less than twenty seconds of fuel left.

Would that we might muster the will to do such things again.

11 plus 45

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Forty-five years.

Neil Armstrong is dead now, as are many of the men who followed in his footsteps.

Those of us who, as children, experienced the grand spectacle of NASA’s greatest achievements grew up expecting even greater things. Those of us who continued to follow it closely into adulthood grew perplexed at the notable lack of achievement.

For a while, we believed the PR that projects like Skylab were the natural evolution of our expanse into the solar system. Everyone intuitively got that Mars was a very long way away, so if we were going to send people there it would be wise to get our arms around real long-duration spaceflight. There was even supposed to be a second Skylab, in orbit around the Moon, that would give us a strong foothold at the edge of deep space as we pushed on to Mars.

That was cancelled, of course. The massive Skylab II module now resides in the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. You can even walk around inside of it and imagine what it would’ve been like to live in it while orbiting the Moon.

Everything at NASA became focused on the Space Shuttle, which we were promised would be the key to reliable space access and the first essential step to building the kinds of massive ships that would be needed to venture beyond the Moon. The idea made sense, but the execution never did. Shuttle became a victim of mission creep, needing to be all things for all users. In the process, it became so big and so over-complicated that economic access would be impossible.

The International Space Station was conceived as a necessary destination, and then it got turned into a make-work program for unemployed Soviet engineers in order to keep them from selling their skills to, say, Iran.

But think about that for a minute: the shuttles were built to service a station which ended up being there to give the shuttles something to service. And now we have no shuttles. Just as well, really, since they turned out to be inefficient death traps – because that’s what happens when you try to make an experimental vehicle your workhorse.

Through this time, the space agency we all grew up in awe of flailed around. We were told it was because they had no defined goal, no destination like Apollo. That made sense for a while, as we really had no other experience to judge it against. A few “voices in the wilderness” cried out that there were better ways to do it, but nobody really listened since everybody knew space was Dangerous and Mysterious and Expensive, therefore it could only be done by a big government program using big government rockets bankrolled by big government money.

Thankfully, this paradigm has begun shifting in the last few years.

But I didn’t sit down at the keyboard today to sing the praises of SpaceX and XCOR and Blue Origin and Orbital Sciences. I am here to lament what could be happening right now with NASA, but never will because of myopic bureaucrats and idiot congressmen who can never see past their own reelection.

Rand Simberg points to a series of Houston Chronicle essays about the state of our space program, the most recent installment of which is alternately depressing and infuriating. It describes a study commissioned by NASA which determined we could pretty readily be sending people back to the Moon to do useful work within the next few years. And we could do it with existing launchers (Delta IV-heavy, specifically).

It wouldn’t be possible to throw everything up in one launch, instead needing several. But the bulk purchases of launchers would start to drive the costs down, and we frankly have plenty enough on-orbit construction experience now that it shouldn’t be that much of a stretch. The real enabling technology to be developed would’ve been long-term propellant storage and on-orbit refueling, which is technology we desperately need anyway (and is a proper R&D role for a government agency).

But that common-sense, low-cost approach ran afoul of the hogs at their troughs in Alabama, Florida and Texas, all of whom prefer a great big government rocket program:

The plan used the commercially available Delta IV Heavy rocket to conduct a steady stream of missions to the lunar surface, allowing humans to begin tapping into the moon’s resources.

“We briefed it to all the key NASA human spaceflight centers, giving them a chance to challenge the conclusion,” Miller said. “I thought it was a tremendous result for human spaceflight. We could have a plan that flies early and flies often.”

NASA never published the study and Miller’s contract wasn’t renewed.

Congress didn’t want radical change and instructed NASA to build a big rocket, the Space Launch System or SLS.

Much as I’d love to see a Saturn V class launcher again, it would make a lot more sense to use the tools we already have. But we all know government doesn’t work that way.

The Moon is there for us to use. Water ice has been detected, which would be the single most precious resource for a spacefaring society. Besides its obvious life-giving properties, it can be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen. That is, breathing air and rocket fuel.

NASA will not get us there. I wish they would, as it would make things much easier for the businesses who are ramping up to follow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Eagle Has Wings

Neil Armstrong has passed away. He’d not been well, having recently undergone heart surgery.

He was, of course, pretty much at the top of my list of boyhood heroes. And he was certainly the most reclusive of the Apollo veterans, famously avoiding the media spotlight. It’s been speculated that his quiet, taciturn personality was a big reason he landed on the short list of potential first moonwalkers. Continue reading “The Eagle Has Wings”

One Giant Leap

Apollo 11 Launch. Credit: NASA

Despite (or perhaps because of) today’s dreary headlines, I’d be neglecting my space-nerd cred if I didn’t point out that today is the 43rd anniversary of the first moon landing.

I was five, and completely obsessed with the whole program. My grandpa loaded me up with Apollo toys from the Gulf station, including some nifty stuff that came inside Tang jars (the official OJ of the space program). The coolest was this little plastic disc that you’d pop out of the lid and bake in the oven. It came out as a perfectly realized Apollo Command Module.

Yeah, I had a couple dozen of them. Plus models. Plus GI Joe astronauts. Plus books. So it was pretty much a no-brainer for my parents to let me stay up well past bedtime to watch the first moonwalk on TV. And I wasn’t the least bit fooled when my Mom called in from the front porch that she could see them up there on the Moon (unlike my little sister, who fell for it).

She couldn’t fool me. I had a telescope, and therefore knew better. Didn’t stop me from trying later on, though…

Our youngest has always had a fascination with the moon. Not sure why – who can explain such things? But I totally get it. When he was younger, he’d ask me if he could go to the moon when he grows up. I told him I certainly hope so. He said “I’m going to go to that moon, and smoke a cigarette when I get there”.

It’s beyond disappointing that we stopped going and have been mired in low Earth orbit ever since. I don’t want this to just be another vague story my kids hear about from their old man – I want them to see it happen again. I want them to have the chance to go – and to go even farther.

Thankfully, that may be even more likely now than it was just ten years ago. Here’s hoping my son has the chance to light up a cig on the moon one day.

But afterwards, he’d #$%@! well better never touch one of those cancer sticks again.