Human Spaceflight Anniversaries

Sixty years ago today, the first human went not only into space, but into orbit. Two decades later (by coincidence–it was scheduled to occur two days earlier than the anniversary, but a computer timing issue delayed the flight), the Space Shuttle first ascended from a launch pad.

At the time, the Shuttle was viewed as a huge advance over the expendable rocket that got Yuri Gagarin into orbit, and the key to getting us back on track in advancing into space after the end of the Apollo moon missions almost a decade earlier. It was to be just the beginning of a series of new types of launchers, and most assumed that it would operate for only a decade or two until it was replaced by something better.

One of the Apolloists’ key errors was in viewing the seemingly rapid progress from Gagarin to the lunar landings, in less than a decade, as normal, and linearly extrapolating it into the future, with dreams of NASA lunar bases and Mars missions in the 80s. But while the Shuttle was indeed a harbinger of the future of human spaceflight, it was not the exciting one that its proponents imagined. Instead, because the vehicle flew so rarely, and cost so much to fly (in defiance of the original program goals), NASA languished in low earth orbit, and in December of next year, it will have been half a century since a human walked on the moon.

This happened because Gagarin’s flight kicked off a race, where the goal was not to open space to humanity, but to demonstrate technological superiority between two adversaries in what was viewed as an existential war, at any cost. With Apollo, the US won that race, but at the cost of establishing a compelling, but unsustainable and, in fact, un-American model for getting humans beyond earth orbit. After the expense of Apollo, few could imagine that any entity other than the government of a superpower could get humans into space, creating for decades a false perception that inhibited private investment in commercial hardware for human spaceflight (a perception that NASA often encouraged when investors would ask its “experts” if they should invest in a private space company).

Less than five years after its debut, in early 1986, Challenger fell into the Atlantic, killing all aboard, including a school teacher. Few realized it at the time, but it was the beginning of the end of the program, though there was recognition that it was never going to live up to the promise of delivering all payloads to orbit, or operating out of the west coast, or carrying tourists. But institutional inertia kept it flying, with many failed programmatic attempts by NASA to replace it until, a little after two decades after its maiden voyage for the fleet, the loss of Columbia in 2003 made it clear to all that the program must come to an end.

Despite that event, some persist in their devotion to the failed Apollo model of NASA spending unthinkable amounts of money to deliver a handful of astronauts to another body, which is now exemplified by SLS/Orion. Sadly, while they are few, they are also powerful members of Congress, or former ones, about to become NASA administrator.

But fortunately, as Columbia was being sundered by a hurricane of plasma in the upper atmosphere, a new private space company was starting to develop its own rockets in southern California, with the goal of creating human communities on Mars. Almost two decades since that sad event, the company has taken over delivery of NASA astronauts to the International Space Station, ending our dependence on the Russians. It is testing with its own money prototypes in south Texas of a much more practical vehicle that will be capable of affordably carrying humans en masse into the solar system. Decades after the false dawn of the space race, the American space industry is finally starting to do space in an American way, and the future is brighter than it has ever been for human spaceflight and the expansion of humanity into the solar system.

[Update a while later]

Yes, I fixed the math on the date of Apollo 17.

21 thoughts on “Human Spaceflight Anniversaries”

    1. Four decades would be Dec 2012. Dec 1982 was 1, Dec 1992 is 2, Dec 2002 is 3, Dec 2012 is 4, and Dec 2022 is 5.

      But almost nothing on the moon has changed since 1972. I don’t think we can blame NASA for the overall stagnation of lunar society, though those that think NASA’s mission is to uplift and inspire other cultures will certainly say it’s our fault that the moon is still a backwards pile of rocks with no signs of social advancement. To such people, it is always, somehow, our fault.

  1. The earth orbit altitude record is still held by Gemini 11, which got up to 854 miles. It’s nice to see that SpaceX intends to finally break that with one of its non-ISS flights next year.

    Who will have ten manned crewed flights first? SpaceX or China?

    What will be really nice is to see others like Sierra Nevada follow through with their plans, and even have Boeing get its act together. (I see NASA is now making lots o’ noise about how a high priority is to make sure their next lunar landing crew is fully «diverse».)

    1. The video says “Comments are turned off.”

      Darn. I was going to get all snarky on them. The SLS by itself can’t even get a human to the moon, much less to Mars, unless Musk can figure out how to use it as an upper stage launched by a super booster stack with 84 Raptors underneath.

      1. As I am fond of pointing out to SLS fans, yes, SLS certainly can get a crew to the surface of the moon all by itself, with a single launch.

        I then explain to the SLS fan what delta/v is, and what “lithobraking” means, due to that being the only way SLS can deliver a crew to the lunar surface.

        1. Of course that wouldn’t be true if NASA would go with my idea of resizing Orion and Artemis for astronauts the size of Peter Dinklage. If they’re not going to make the launch vehicle bigger, they need to make the payload smaller.

          1. When the Progressive Fascists say diversity, that isn’t the kind they mean. Too small a population, they would have to band together with several other groups in order to be considered.

        2. An SLS *could* do a single launch landing mission, *if* it was a Block 2 SLS, and *if* you really stripped the lander design down to bare bones.

          Of course, a Block 2 SLS does not even exist as a paper design yet, and NASA is not interested in using bare bones lunar landers.

    2. Just imagine a world where all children regardless of their race or gender were given the same opportunities that are funneled to kids based on race and gender today.

      Do we need more female kids interested in STEM? No, we need more kids interested in STEM.

  2. It is reassuring that democratization of space is taking place, or at least the seed is planted. The future is uncertain but this points to a path forward where Progressive Fascism does not yet have total victory over society.

  3. It is reassuring that democratization of space is taking place, or at least the seed is planted. The future is uncertain but this points to a path forward where Progressive Fascism does not yet have total victory over society.

    Nonsense. Anyone living in space will be completely at the mercy of terrestrial politics for centuries to come. Fight, not flight, is the only hope against authoritarianism of whatever stripe.

    1. That’s why I’m worried about Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin becoming a critical part of the space infrastructure. We seen his behavior, and it is not pro-freedom.

      1. We seen his behavior, and it is not pro-freedom.

        And Musk? He identifies as a progressive; he votes Democratic. Is he also “not pro-freedom”?

          1. I think Musk was strongly against Amazon deplatforming conservative sites like Parler

            Really? Is this fact or just your personal conviction?

          2. That would be fact. Musk tweeted quite a bit and got involved in the debate. In response to the Babylon Bee, he said “A lot of people are going to be super unhappy with West Coast high tech as the de facto arbiter of free speech.”

            His take on things spawned quite a few articles.

          3. So that’s why I think SpaceX versus Blue Origin could result in radically different futures in space. SpaceX wants to go out and expand humanity in any way possible. Even they can’t predict the outcome. Bezos seems to want to build a core transportation infrastructure so that whatever humanity builds, he’ll be able to control it however he sees fit. We’ve seen the kind of monopolistic and dictatorial decisions he makes, and how he’s perfectly happy to silence tens of millions of people if he doesn’t like what they might say.

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