Skip to comments.Bryan Appleyard: Space was starting to look routine. Then a reminder
Posted on 02/01/2003 4:40:15 PM PST by MadIvan
After the Apollo Moon landings, space exploration went into decline. Nobody went back to the Moon. There was no economic justification and, after the collapse of communism, no competitive spur. The scientific arguments looked pretty thin and speculative when set against the enormous cost. Meanwhile, the obvious next step after the Moon, Mars, simply looked impossible.
It was, even if only aesthetically, a great pity. The Apollo rockets were Nasas gleaming white masterpieces. Only the Boeing 747 could claim to be a more beautiful machine. The rockets whiteness alone was a masterstroke, suggestive of the purity of the impulse to leave Earth behind. And the way the Apollos rose slowly and majestically from the launch pads was one of the big thrills of the 1960s, along with Muhammad Ali dancing like a butterfly, Gary Sobers batting and Antonioni movies.
This looked like a great adventure with real risks. These gleaming, fire-boosted pillars looked as dangerous as they were beautiful. The astonishing shots taken from cameras facing down their length at launch showed smoke, steam, bits flying off. The whole thing was an artwork designed to suggest risk, instability and sheer hubris. And, finally, the spidery little tinfoil fragments they bore to the Moon looked as though you could poke a finger through them. The lunar module looked like a primary school science project or one of Valerie Singletons Blue Peter efforts with Fairy Liquid bottles.
Though few died in an Apollo capsule, they all looked as though they might. Apollo 13 was the perfect space story: they nearly died but they didnt. They brought their tin can back. As that wonderful film The Right Stuff made clear, those Apollo boys were brave boys indeed.
So with the Moon and Mars off the agenda, what next? Nasa could scarcely curl up and die. The final frontier still beckoned, even if it was now only a couple of hundred miles up there rather than millions. And, you never know, it might one day pay. America was tied into space, it was an aspect of the national self-image too valuable to be discarded. The nation needs its frontiersmen.
The shuttle was born. Everything about this machine was ugly and unromantic. For a start its launch power-to-weight ratio was much higher than Apollos, so it did not rise majestically from the pad, it wobbled a bit and then raced away. On top of that, it looked awful. A stumpy plane-like object was stuck to a vast, bulbous fuel tank which, when they discovered how much white paint cost, was coloured a sort of dull rust.
The two solid fuel boosters clung uneasily on the side, their rounded nose cones making them look like thin petrified pierrots. Its roll programme after takeoff was just bad cinema.
And it was called the shuttle. Shuttles are walk-on walk-off planes taking businessmen between New York and Washington. Or they are buses buzzing between Gatwick and Heathrow. Shuttles are boring. What shuttles are not is space rockets.
The name seemed defensive. It implied economic viability and a cosy familiarity to the Washington execs who might be making the spending decisions on this one. These were spacecraft that could be reused. They were recyclable. What could be cosier than that? And they were only designed for putting stuff into Earth orbit.
There was none of that high-risk, high-cost interplanetary stuff. The shuttle would just put satellites up and, latterly, build the International Space Station. And, finally, its technology was bog standard: just plain old rocketry. No ion drives, no nuclear pogo-sticks, no solar sails, just the same old crude, blazing thrusters. This was a craft that told us, in no uncertain terms, that Star Trek was wrong.
The shuttle was, in short, an attempt to routinise space travel; Nasa had done the adventure. Routinisation worked, for a time. The Challenger disaster was, of course, an appalling setback. But the speed and acuity with which the great physicist Richard Feynman identified the problem of the O-rings on the solid fuel boosters was consoling. It looked like a one-off. Rich civilians had started to go into space for the buzz of it and many were booking space holidays. Some began to speak of Moon tourism as a possible way of making space financially viable. Almost weekly, new plans were unveiled for cheap rockets that would get us all into space.
In this way the routinisation embodied in the shuttle began to reignite the fire of space exploration. Once, we took part by watching Neil Armstrongs boots reaching tentatively for the lunar dust. Now, there was the prospect of planting our own Timberlands on the very same spot. Perhaps aware that people were beginning to get excited again, the Americans have recently raised the possibility of a manned Mars mission within a decade. Perhaps we could get out there after all.
It is in this context that yesterdays tragic break-up of the Columbia should be seen. Most of us would hardly have known there was a shuttle up there, any more than we would have known in advance the number and destination of a plane that has just crashed. Shuttle flights just kind of happened and the big fat shuttles just glided down and landed like any other plane. The astronauts that got out would be unknown to us. The most interesting thing we could say about them was that they were preparing the way for us to get up there. They were technicians, engineers. Maybe they didnt even have the Right Stuff.
But Columbia just broke up at 12,500mph. At that speed even dumb, clunky, ugly shuttles become vulnerable. Fat-bellied cargo tugs, low-orbital coasters they might be, but getting up there is still an effort that strains every material we have yet managed to fabricate. Flaming into the atmosphere is not, lets face it, what we or our artefacts are supposed to do. Its not healthy.
The disintegration of Columbia was what Nasa, past masters in euphemism, called a contingency. A lovely word that, freighted with philosophical overtones. It means something happened that was not meant to happen, something not in the flight plan. But what it really means is: We can never be sure of anything. Every aspect of life has contingencies planes and cars crash, we get sick for no good reason, we win the lottery yet we seldom use the word. But Nasa employs it as a technical term. They need it for the simple reason that getting into space and being there is quite ludicrously full of contingencies.
The Columbia disaster is a timely warning that space is still a long, long way from being routinised. Perhaps there have been fewer accidents up there than we might have expected, but that is only because of the colossal engineering effort that is put into the task, backed up by the demands of national self-esteem. The truth is that those anonymous operatives that took those dull fat ships up there had to be as replete with the Right Stuff as Aldrin, Lovell, Armstrong and all the other Apollo heroes. They knew about contingencies; they had to.
Also the disaster, combined with the disappointments of our efforts at space exploration, points to another, deeper lesson. We are, whether we like it or not, Earthbound creatures. We can only get up there by taking little bits of Earth with us. Keeping ourselves and this fragile little environment together is an immense and costly effort. Furthermore, we do not yet know what damage just being there at all will do to us. Cosmic rays threaten cancer, weightlessness threatens the loss of bone mass. Everything about space seems designed to tell us: stay where you are, youre not going to like it up here one bit.
We dont listen, of course. We never do. We just go on, as they said in The Right Stuff, pushing the envelope. And, every so often, we die in the attempt, contingently and alone. The fireworks of Columbias expiration over Texas are just another reminder that, wherever we go, we still have to get back here. Somehow.
In retrospect, it looks like this is exactly what happened with the Columbia, too.