Category Archives: History

Apollo Memories, And A Modest Proposal

…from Iowahawk:

Today, America still has a space effort, but sadly it just doesn’t inspire like it once did in the heady days of Apollo and Gemini. Unmanned probes and orbiting space labs are fine, I guess, but where is the glamor? Where are the crewcut astronaut he-men with names like ‘Deke’ and ‘Buzz’ and ‘Gus,’ driving around Houston in matching big block Corvettes and Ray-Bans? Nowhere, that’s where. They’ve all been outsourced by space computers and floaty-haired National Junior High Science Teacher of the Year nerds. You tell me — do we really want dorks like these as Earth’s first line of defense against invading intergalactic aliens? No wonder my brother and I have to be half-blotto before we play pretend astronauts anymore.

If America wants to get back on the right track, scientific space mission-wise, we need to once again pick an inspiring, audacious goal, and man it with the kind of inspirational crew to make it happen. At long last, let us realize mankind’s most cherished dream — sending the entire United States Congress to the Moon by 2010.

When I mention this proposal to my space engineering friends at Meier’s Tap, they are often skeptical. They’ll argue it’s impossible, that even NASA’s most powerful booster rockets never anticipated a payload of 535 people including Charlie Rangel and Jerrold Nadler. Look man, I’m just the idea guy, and I’m sure those details can be worked out. When John F. Kennedy first proposed going to the Moon in 1961, did you people expect him to already have a formula for Tang? The beauty of my proposal is that our Astro-Congress is already on payroll — and chock full of crisis tested problem-solving engineers. If they can take over the entire US auto industry and re-engineer the American heath care system in two weeks, surviving a Moon mission will be a snap!

If only he’d been elected president last year. I’d be space czar now.

Apollo Thoughts I’d Missed Monday

From James Lileks:

As I’ve said before, nothing sums up the seventies, and the awful guttering of the national spirit, than a pop song about Skylab falling on people’s heads. “Skylab’s Falling,” a novelty hit in the summer of ’79. It tumbled down thirty years ago this month, and didn’t get much press, possibly because of the odd muted humiliation over the event. But it wasn’t end of Skylab that gave people a strange shameful dismay. It was the idea that we were done up there, and the only thing we’d done since the Moon trips did an ignominious Icarus instead of staying up for decades. So this wasn’t the first step toward the inevitable double-wheel with a Strauss waltz soundtrack, or something more prosaic. Wasn’t that the way it was supposed to work? Moon first, then space station, then moon colonization, then Mars.

If a kid could see that, why couldn’t they?

…Robot exploration is very cool; I’d like more. As someone noted elsewhere, we should have those rovers crawling all over the Moon, at the very least. It’s just down the street. But think how much grander we would feel if we knew that our first mission to Jupiter was coming back next month. (Without the giant space-fetus.) How we would imagine our solar system, how each planet would feel like a blank page in a passport waiting for a stamp. Perhaps that’s what annoys some: the aggrandizement that would come from great exploits. Human pride in something that isn’t specifically related to fixing the Great Problems we face now, or apologizing for the Bad Things we did before. Spending money to go to Mars before we’ve stopped climate turbulence would be like taking a trip to Europe while the house is on fire.

I had forgotten that Skylab fell a decade after the first landing. What a metaphorical fall, in only ten brief years (though they seemed longer at the time, I being much younger).

Oh, and the astronaut punching the guy in the face thing? As long-time blog readers know, it was a hoax. Never happened.

Uncle Walter, Space Cadet

Someone asked me yesterday why I hadn’t posted anything on the death of Walter Cronkite. Well, I’m not as big a fan as many want me to be, and de mortuis nil nisi bonum, and all that. Yes, I grew up with him like everyone of my generation, but I never trusted him as much I was supposed to after Tet. There was nothing objective in his essential declaration of a lost war after a great American victory. When Johnson famously said “When we’ve lost Cronkite, we’ve lost middle America,” he may have thought or meant that Uncle Walter was somehow a reflection of middle America, but to the degree that his statement was true, it confused cause and effect. If the administration had lost middle America it was because it was too susceptible to influence as a result of a reputation for objectivity that was perhaps overstated.

Middle America’s news sources were far too limited in those days. (It’s worth noting that people who listen to Rush Limbaugh have a lot more choice, at least in theory, than viewers of network news did in the sixties.) As Glenn says, all of the mourning in the media isn’t about the loss of some mythical era of press integrity and objectivity, but of lost power to propagandize the American people with the loss of a single voice to which much of America turned to for their news. I have no nostalgia for a return to those times.

But that having been said, there is no question that he was the biggest supporter of the space program in the media, and he was, for most Americans of the time, the voice of Apollo. There was a sincere, boyish quality to his enthusiam in his reporting. I was listening to some video this morning on a CBS tribute, and he was describing the launch of the first surface mission as special because it was the one that would actually send men to the moon. And then he mused (paraphrasing, not transcript handy), “…send a man to the moon. What words. Golly, just think about it.” And on the landing, “Oh, boy.”

“Golly.” It’s hard to imagine any current news reader saying “golly,” and that kind of little touch is what resulted in the myth that he was an everyman, though he clearly thought like a Washington elite, as his later statements (the most recent of which was when he declared Iraq, like Vietnam, a lost cause) displayed for anyone who chose to notice. Thankfully, his influence had waned considerably in the intervening decades.

He was purely of the Apollo era, and a part of it impossible to separate. His last day on the air, in early March, 1981, was a little over a month before the first Shuttle flight on April 12th, so there was no overlap with the more modern human spaceflight program that followed the first push. And in some ways, in relating and relaying his own enthusiasm for the program to America, he helped create the enduring myth of Apollo as the beginning of a grand age of space exploration, when it in fact was a dead end that few realized at the time. It’s a false perception that continues to haunt our space policy to this day.

The Folly Of Apollo

Some thoughts from Jerry Pournelle, in response to the Derbyshire piece a few weeks ago:

Years after Apollo I had a conversation with John R. Pierce, Chief Technologist at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. John said that we’d made a mistake. In Heinlein’s future history, we go to the moon in stages first developing sub-orbital capabilities, then satellites, and finally went to the Moon; and we should have done it that way this time.

At the time I get somewhat angry in my disagreement with him, but it’s pretty clear John was right. He really meant that we should have learned to build space ships, real reusable ships that could fly suborbital, then orbital, then be refueled in orbit — rather than developing a bit disintegrating totem pole that could only be used once. I think he was right, and we may have to do it all over again before we can become a space-faring nation.

This will be one of the themes of my upcoming piece at The New Atlantis.

[Monday afternoon update]

Paul Dietz notes in comments that the Pournelle response was actually to a different Derbyshire post, that I hadn’t seen. He says that Apollo wasn’t a mere folly, but a magnificent one.