Category Archives: Space History

Half A Century

Fifty years ago, three astronauts died on the launch pad in a ground test. It occurs to me that, like the Kennedy assassination, this was one more event that, had it not occurred, the moon landings may not have been successful. There were many problems with the program that weren’t seriously dealt with until after that disaster. It reinforces the reality of how unlikely the success of Apollo was, and why it’s foolish to think we can replicate it half a century later.

Meanwhile, Commercial Crew is delayed again. Because it’s more important to not lose an astronaut than to end our dependence on the Russians, even though at this point, we should have no confidence in their systems. While crew flights use Soyuz, not Proton, they both use the third stage that just failed on the Progress mission. And they seem to have systemic problems in their aerospace industry.

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Here’s a piece from the WaPo.

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Andrew Chaiken asks, did it have to happen? They were being very sloppy. They hadn’t had any problems with pure O2 in Mercury or Gemini, so they ignored the issue. I’d forgotten the name Marty Cioffoletti; he went on to work on the Shuttle, and I worked with him occasionally in Downey in the 80s.

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This is a useful bottom line, that I’ve been thinking about this week, in the context of the book:

A month after the fire, NASA’s director of manned spaceflight, George Mueller, said in a Congressional hearing that NASA’s experiences with Mercury and Gemini “had demonstrated that the possibility of a fire in the spacecraft cabin was remote.” Mueller’s words lay bare the false logic that, in the pressure to meet President Kennedy’s end-of-the-decade deadline for a lunar landing, had skewed the thinking of nearly everyone at NASA: It hasn’t bitten us, so we must be okay. This fallacy would strike NASA again, with the O-ring leaks that brought down the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 and the broken-off chunk of foam insulation that doomed its sister ship Columbia in 2003.

It’s nice to think that if we only spend enough money, and take enough time, we can ensure that no one ever dies, but as I write in the book:

No frontier in history has ever been opened without risk and the loss of human life, and the space frontier will be no different, particularly considering the harshness and hazards of it. That we spend untold billions in a futile attempt to prevent such risk is both a barrier to opening it, and a testament to the lack of national importance in doing so.

Those men died because we were in a rush, because what we were doing — beating the Soviets to the moon — was at the time considered important. But now, “safety is the highest priority.”

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[Mid-morning update]

OK, I had forgotten that the Outer Space Treaty was opened for signature on the same day. It didn’t get as many headlines.

Gene Cernan

He never wanted to be the last man on the moon, and he almost certainly won’t be, but it’s a shame that he didn’t live to see the next man (or woman) kick up the regolith.

But he didn’t cover himself in glory, or make it more likely to happen, when he testified in ignorance against private spaceflight back in 2010 (the headline of the story is incorrect; they weren’t “defending spaceflight” — they were unwittingly attacking it). He was a hero of the Cold War, and should be honored for that, but his passing shouldn’t be an excuse for a new bout of misguided Apolloism from conservatives.

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“It appears we are condemned to forego the human exploration of the solar system until the full measure of the first generation of space explorers has passed.” It didn’t have to be, and some of that generation, including Cernan (and Walt Cunningham), didn’t help.

Thiel Versus Sessions

They’re battling over the future of NASA.

Thiel is pushing for a 21st-century space policy. Sessions represents the past, Apolloism, space socialism, and pork. He should stick to being AG.

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Not sure what “commercial space trade association” Tim Fernholz thinks that Alan Stern leads.

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Tim pointed out to me that he’s chairman of the board of CSF, which I hadn’t known, or had forgotten. But I pointed out to him that Eric Stallmer is really the person who “leads” it, which he agreed was fair.

More on this topic from Eric Berger.

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Not exactly space related, but sort of, in the sense that indefinite lifespan will help with opening the universe, an interesting description of what else Thiel is up to.

Make NASA Great Again

My thoughts on the passing of John Glenn, over at National Review.

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Buzz Aldrin remembers his former colleague.

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Dear President Trump, here’s how to make space great:

This list of goals sounds audacious, perhaps outrageous, but it is entirely within the capability and character of the people who built the Transcontinental Railroad, the Hoover Dam, and conquered a continent. Americans are leaders in every one of these fields. It is only necessary for the new President to unleash America’s potential—once unleashed, American innovators will move these dreams toward reality faster than anyone can imagine.

Asteroid mining, moon mining, propellant depots, solar-power satellites, asteroid deflection? Crazy talk, when instead we could be building a giant rocket.

I had dinner with Coyote in Seattle last June.

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Bill Gates’s and America’s false memory of Apollo:

So whether you agree with Bill Gates and his assessment of Trump or not, it’s important to remember that funding for the Apollo program was opposed by the majority of Americans. Why then does America have this bizarre memory of the program? You can blame the baby boomers like Gates.

The baby boomers were kids during the Apollo space program. And when you’re a kid you don’t have much to worry about in the way of paying the bills or public policy. You certainly don’t have fully formed political ideas about, say, ways that government funds can be better used than blasting people into space.

But that was precisely what happened. Baby boomers, as children of the 1960s, just remember the speeches on TV and watching the moon landing. They don’t remember that the majority of Americans (American adults, as those are the people who get polled) thought that the Apollo space program was a waste of money.

Roger Launius, chief historian at NASA, put it best in a 2005 paper: “While there may be many myths about Apollo and spaceflight, the principal one is the story of a resolute nation moving outward into the unknown beyond Earth.”

This is why, as I wrote a few months ago:

Because they view Apollo as the model for how large space programs should operate, and because they believe that Apollo represented a moment of national unity, they seem to think that we ought to recreate it.

In a sense, however, a critical reason that we cannot do what they want is because we never really did it the first time.

Stop trying to make Apollo happen again.

The Abandoned Frontier

Mark Steyn reflects on the passing of John Glenn. I don’t agree entirely, and I think he misses some key points, one of which was that Apollo was a battle in the Cold War that didn’t have much to do with space. With regard to Charlton, anyone who thinks we’re in technological decline, and unable to do great things any more hasn’t been paying attention to what’s been happening in microelectronics, microbiology, and yes, spaceflight. I’d suggest that Mark read my recent essay on the need to get over Apolloism.

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Henry Vanderbilt weighs in over at Arocket:

Apollo was amazing, yes. But it did things the brute-force, massively-expensive way. Just look at the size of a Saturn 5 ready for liftoff, versus how much came back. Multiply that by the size of the payroll for the hundreds of thousands building and operating it, spread over a handful of missions a year. That’s a lot of expensive aerospace talent and hardware spent on every mission – billions worth.

Of course, they had no choice but to do it that way. They had an urgent national goal, a tight deadline, an effectively unlimited budget – and a 1962 technology base. One example: The computer that flew a Saturn 5 weighed as much as a small car – and was less powerful than the chips we put in toasters.

Two things happened after Apollo, one immediately bad, one eventually good.

The bad thing is that in the seventies, bureaucrats took over, and did what bureaucrats do: They carved into stone doing things the Apollo way. Shuttle resulted: gorgeous, yes, but only somewhat less expendable and slightly less labor-intensive than Saturn 5. And, alas, somewhat more fragile.

For decades this bureaucracy defended their billions-per-mission turf and defeated all efforts to do things less expensively. (In fact it’s still trying, with a MANY-billions-per-mission bastard offspring of Shuttle and Saturn 5 called “Space Launch System”.)

But the other thing that happened is, back in the eighties a few of us saw this bureaucratic logjam forming, and looked into whether space really had to cost billions per mission. We concluded it didn’t. We began pushing the different approaches it’d take to get costs down to where all the useful things we might do in space begin to be affordable.

It took a lot longer than we hoped getting into this. But thirty years later, commercial space companies are doing things at a tenth of traditional NASA costs. And that’s even before the really radical new technologies kick in, like the reusable flyback boosters just entering test in the last couple of years.

I won’t defend the wasted decades. (It wasn’t us wasting them, though at a number of points we could have been less naive about how ruthlessly the bureaucrats would defend their turf.)

But at this point, despair over the wasted decades is obsolete. Costs are coming down fast, huge possibilities are opening up. We could still blow it, yes. But compared to even just five or ten years ago, right now the future’s so bright I gotta wear shades.

Henry Vanderbilt
Space Access Society
(founded in 1992 with the intent of being no longer needed and disposed of in five years. yeah well.)

As I said on the Space Show the other week, the future for human spaceflight has never been more exciting.

John Glenn

Farewell to a war hero, and hero of the early space age. The last of the Mercury Seven has gone to the stars. In the interest of de mortuis nil nisi bonum, I’ll ignore his political career for now.

[Update Friday morning]

One of John Glenn’s last acts was to praise reusable rockets.

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