TCS Daily

Getting More Than 'Halfway to Anywhere'

By Rand Simberg - July 21, 2006 12:00 AM

This week, thirty-seven years ago, humans first walked on earth's moon.

But for those who find decadal anniversaries more emotionally compelling, consider that exactly seven years later, thirty years ago this week, the first Viking Martian explorer successfully landed on the Red Planet. It provided close-up views of the surface of that orb that today probably seem pedestrian, in light of the much more spectacular missions of the later Pioneers and Voyagers and Galileo and Cassini to the outer planets, and the much-better imagery still being sent by the doughty little Martian rovers we have now. But at that time, in a world before we were jaded by detailed high-resolution computer graphics of imaginary worlds, the first pictures trickling back, literally bit by bit, from the ancient red "wanderer" of the ancient astronomers (pictures that would continue to come for over six more years, until November 1982) were amazing.

They seemed particularly so, given the timing.

A little over two weeks previously, amid much hoopla, both appropriate and otherwise, the nation had celebrated its two hundredth birthday. In addition, we were in the midst of the first post-Watergate presidential campaign, still attempting to recover from, in President Ford's famous phrase, "our long national nightmare." So good news like this was both fitting, and more than welcome.

Moreover, the nation's space program itself was in a transitional period. The Apollo program (and at least temporarily the ability to send Americans into space) had finally come to an end the year before, with the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, the last flight of the Saturn/Apollo system (and a continuation of the "detente" with the Soviet Union initiated by the Nixon administration). The Space Shuttle was in development, but actual flights still lay in the future (seemingly far in the future to those of us who had grown up with the space program and regular manned space flights). The seeds had already been planted for what is now recognized as its failure to meet the program objectives of high reliability and low cost, though few were aware of it at the time.

So this new success of a robot on Mars, clawing into its dirt, seeking signs of life, whether present or past (an issue that it failed to resolve), sending back images of Arean sunrises, coming on the anniversary of our greatest triumph of the new frontier, offered hope to many that the ending of Apollo was just a temporary setback. Once we started flying the Shuttle, we would once again pick up the ball and continue the vision offered to so many of us in the sixties, of a progression of space stations, to lunar bases, to sending humans themselves to the Red Planet, and not just their electromechanical emissaries.

Three decades later, with the perspective of history, we can now see that it was in fact a false dawn. While there have been many more spectacular robotic achievements, both on Mars and the planets beyond, some of whose very existence was unknown to the ancients, and the Shuttle did lead to a space station, it is one that remains incomplete, far over original schedule and budget, with few of the capabilities originally envisioned for it. Humans have not ventured again beyond low earth orbit in over a third of a century.

The recent announcement of a new "Vision for Space Exploration" once again offers hope to many that perhaps this time, we will finally pick up where Apollo left off, return humans to the moon, and eventually deliver them to Mars.

Unfortunately, many are concerned that NASA, in its chosen implementation of that vision, has taken the phrase of "picking up where Apollo left off" a little too literally, with its plans to go back to small capsules on large (and expensive) expendable boosters, owned and operated by the government. This was an approach that was successful for Apollo, whose goal was to get humans to the moon as quickly as possible, in which NASA was given a charter to "waste anything but time." That success was first dramatically demonstrated thirty-seven years ago today.

But, as the old saying goes, that was then, this is now. It's unclear that the approach that helped us beat the Soviets to the moon is the best approach for a more "affordable and sustainable" space program, which is one of the stated goals of the new vision. In choosing, almost a year ago, an "Apollo on Steroids" approach, the agency has not explained why, given that Apollo was cancelled largely because it was perceived to be unaffordable, things will be different this time.

It is important to learn from the past, and from both our mistakes and our successes. But it's even more important to take the right lessons, and not the wrong ones. It's tempting to recall the success of past achievements, and comfortable to return to methods that are perceived to have created that success. But one has to be careful to recall not just the success, but the failures as well. While Apollo achieved the (limited) goal laid out for it, it failed in a broader sense, for those whose goal was to see us as a spacefaring nation, with massive amounts of affordable human activities off planet. Rather than looking at a few examples from the government space program, it might be more appropriate to draw broader lessons from history in general.

Traditionally, this nation was built on individualism and free enterprise, not command and control by the government via five- and ten-year plans. It seems likely that the same will be true of space as well. Just a few days ago, on a Russian rocket, a Las Vegas hotelier launched an experimental module into space which, if successful, will provide the prototype, combined with similar modules, for a private hotel in earth orbit. Other companies are investing in lower-cost means of getting cargo and humans into orbit -- a location that is, in Robert Heinlein's immortal words, "halfway to anywhere."

On this anniversary of two major space events of the old space age, it's perhaps not too optimistic to hope that we are seeing the beginning of a new one, and that perhaps, on the fiftieth anniversary, that first Viking landing will be celebrated on the planet Mars itself, not by government employees, but by many more people who paid their own way to get there.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his web log, Transterrestrial Musings.


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