Thursday, August 9, 2007

Is space still "worth it"? (and can we even achieve it if it is?)

The first "earthrise," Apollo 8, December 1968

The other afternoon, my friend Matt and I were tooling southbound on I35 headed to Austin. We were again discussing the pitiful choices the two major parties are putting forth for president, and this led to a general griping about how this country can't do anything right anymore. The war, Katrina, the sad shape of our highways--what's with the United States? This was particually poignant to me as right about this time, the shuttle Endeavour was rumbling on a launch pad in Florida, about to return to space.

"The shuttle?" you ask. "Do we still launch those?" Yep we do, and while I will admit it is indeed a great technological achievement (especially since these things have been flying since 1982 or so, and are about a decade older than the oldest garbage truck likely to be found in your neighborhood) , I'll also admit I really haven't been keeping up with this nation's space program, apart from the occasional shuttle disaster, for the past twenty years or so.

I don't think I'm really alone in this regard. Space flight isn't what it used to be. What we have left is a withered space shuttle program winding down a 25 year run. The last shuttle flights are supposed to take place in 2010, then. . . . what? I know the president made some sort of "commitment" to putting a man on Mars in the future, with a first stop on the moon by 2018, but such a pronouncement seemed more like a desperate attempt by a president mired in an unpopular war than a rallying cry for this nation like the speech by John Kennedy at Rice University in Houston in 1961 where he stunned the nation by vowing to send men safely to the moon and back in less than 9 years time. Nine years? It only struck me recently, as a middle aged American who recalls the space race only as a pre-teenager, what a audacious achievement that was. Our country today can't even fix New Orleans, for God's sake, and here Kennedy challenged the country's imagination to an extent not seen since. The cost would turn out to be extraordinary--$128 billion in 2006 dollars (for context: according to, the Iraq war has already drained our country of around $460 billon dollars, give or take a billion) --and was a huge drain on the national economy at a time when we were also fighting a war in Vietnam. (The two endeavours effectively scuttled LBJ's proposed "New Society;" he couldn't extricate himself from Vietnam, and didn't have the guts to go against popular sentiment and kill the slain JFK's pet program). But you can't argue with the results. I've read somewhere that the costs of the program were returned several times over by new technologies developed as a result. And we have MOON ROCKS! And cool stuff in museums to look at!

I. and E. and a Mercury Redstone. . .
in Hutchinson, KS, of all places. . .

I've definately been thinking about space again since returning from vacation a couple of weeks ago, part of which was a great day spent in Hutchinson, Kansas touring the Kansas Cosmosphere. You don't think of Kansas as the logical place for one of the nation's finest museums about the space program, but I was dumbstruck at their collection and presentation. We got there around 1030am and when we left at 5pm, I felt I'd barely scratched the surface. While the Cosmosphere is rather light on coverage of the space program after Apollo, the coverage from the days of Nazi Germany's development of the V-1 and V-2 missiles through the moon landings is incredible. The Soviet space program is given deep coverage as well, with two capsules and numerous artifacts displayed as well. Cosmosphere features flown capsules from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo projects--reportedly, even the Smithsonian can't top it. There's plenty to see, watch, and read: the Cosmosphere is all about context. And a ticket is cheap, as well. If you or your kids have any interest in manned spaceflight, this is the place to go.

The Apollo 13 capsule in Kansas--yes, THAT one.

Seeing all the artificats--relics of a fading earlier age, really--on display made me realize how far in the past all this stuff was. I can remember as a five year old Gemini launches on the black and white set while my mom folded laundry. The nerve-wracking return of Apollo 13 brought our entire school into the multi-purpose room to watch a dozen televisions wheeled into the room. We strained to find the tiny capsule and its orange and white parachutes against the vast sky in the poor images broadcast from the bobbing deck of a ship in a distant ocean.

Scott, Worden, Irwin, Apollo 15:
Heroes to an 11 year old. . .and the 47 year old of today

We didn't only worship sports heroes: schools loaded up their kids in buses to see the Apollo 15 astronauts speak (if you were lucky--I was--you got all their autographs). Boys my age pretended we were astronauts on the playground (we always wanted to be Armstrong; never Mike Collins), built Revell models of the spacecrafts, and even today recall exactly where they were when man first set foot upon the moon. And our minds went wild the first time we saw the small piece of moonrock that toured the nation with the Apollo 11 capsule in 1972: dusty grey with tiny shining bits of what looked like glass imbedded in it.
Unabashed nostalgia for those days make even Nixon and metallic green LTD's seem not so bad anymore. Today's world is still wracked with wars and poverty and a million other things to spend money on. Why even care about space these days? Personally, I don't think the international space station is worth the expense (its main reason to exist seems to be its continuing construction and expansion); apart from flights to repair in-orbit satellites, the launching of new satellites can be accomplished far more cheaply than sending them up on the space shuttle.

Space has seemingly slipped from our national consciousness, which made Bush's hail-Mary announcement in 2004 (amid dark days in the Iraq war) of the Orion program to return to the moon seemingly come from nowhere. The program will once-again cost a ton of money (estimated $210 billion thru 2025). Looking at the concept for the program, it almost looks like the old plans for Apollo have been dusted off and given a technology upgrade..

Endeavour: flying dinosaur

So why bother? Sometimes, middle-aged nostalgia for the space program of my youth gets the best of my pragmatism. But E. looked at that moonrock in Kansas the same way I did 35 years ago, pondering what it was and how it ended up in front of him. And he went bonkers that same afternoon I drove to Austin, hunkered down in front of the television at home with his brother I. and a school friend, loudly counting down the final seconds and cheering wildly as Endeavour flawlessly lifted into the Florida sky.

Spaceflight still stirs the imagination--even in a new generation of six year olds. That in itself may well be reason enough to continue our presence in space.

E. photographs a moonrock

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