Sunday, April 24, 2011

space --the final frontier

I remember the first moon landing. I was very young and I confess that the memory is shrouded by time. I can recall a small television set up on the crafts counter in my class room. I recall watching with my classmates as a man in a bulky white suite with a sinister dark face plate. He made an awkward little hop from the ladder down to the ground and that was it. A man stood on the moon. I don't remember if there was any cheering in the classroom. We were too young anyway to really understand what a remarkable thing had just occurred. The television picture was jerky, overcome occasionally with static and the occasional loss of horizontal sync so that the picture would start slowly scrolling off the top of the screen and then entering back at the bottom.

If I did not fully grasp the miracle of this triumph of the rocket age, displayed live on television --small-screen, low-resolution, television with an unstable picture, but television nevertheless --what I did grasp was the excitement. What I did grasp was that this was that this was the beginning --the opening of a new age, an age where physicists and engineers would control the direction of society, an age of a vast new frontier, an age of exploration and enterprise. What I did grasp was completely and utterly wrong.

What I did not understand at the time was that the real challenge of the moon-landing generation was never the moon, but was Communism. The moon landing, like Vietnam, like Korea, like the Olympics, were really all about the fight of the free nations of the world against the creeping darkness of totalitarian empire. That battle against Communism, I understand today, was far more crucial for the future of mankind than was space exploration and that the resources used in space exploration were really meant to defeat a deadly enemy of civilization.

I understand this but still, I confess, it hurts. The space landing was a pivotal point in my young life. It was what made me decide to become an engineer. Growing up in the days of Apollo, nothing to me seemed nobler than to be an engineer, advancing the capabilities of the human species. I read every science fiction book I could find in the juvenile section of the local library. I was introduced to Tom Swift, EE Doc Smith, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Andre Norton, Robert Heinlein, the concepts of time travel, faster-than-light travel, aliens, psionics, teleportation, robots, space stations, undersea cities, asteroid mining, beautiful space princesses that needed rescuing by good red-blooded American men, and many other things too marvelous to believe. When I had read all of the science fiction in the juvenile section, I went to the adult section where I was introduced to Roger Zelazny, Jack Vance, Arthur C. Clark, and the concepts of dystopias, solipsism, group sex, libertinism, anti-heroes, human evolution into something non-human, and other ... now that I think of it, all of the good stuff was already there in the juvenile section.

But even though a lot of adult science fiction was pretty disappointing to me as a juvenile (and still is to me as an adult), I still read all that I could. I also read books on physics and other sciences. I subscribed to Science News. I read encyclopedias. All of this was not because I wanted to be an intellectual but because I wanted to be an adventurer and I thought that scientists and engineers had adventures. I blame Tom Swift for this misunderstanding.

When Skylab came along, I was thrilled: the first real Space Station! Sure, it was only an experimental living quarters but it was the first step towards opening up the space frontier. Soon there would be commercial applications like asteroid mining, orbital power stations, orbital factories, and the like. Then Skylab was allowed to die a fiery death through neglect, and there were no plans for a successor.

When the Space Shuttle came along, I was thrilled: a low-cost reusable space vehicle! Sure, it was only for astronauts and government launches, but in a few years --ten at the most-- there would be another generation, one that would open up space to commercial applications like asteroid mining, orbital power stations, orbital factories, and the like. A-a-a-a-and nothing. The shuttle was, frankly, a sad failure that never spawned any new technology and never even delivered many of the benefits that it had promised.

Over time, it became painfully clear that the window had closed and that there would never be an opportunity for me to go to space; to join in the great adventure of helping to open a new frontier. The world had failed to deliver what it had promised me all of those years ago when I was encouraged and guided into a life as an engineer.

It's not that I haven't enjoyed being an engineer --I have-- but I didn't become an engineer to help deliver SMS messages faster and more reliably or to create practical systems for police to investigate phone-call histories; I became an engineer to help open the next great frontier. I got screwed.

What happened? There were only about 25 years between the first airplane flight and the first trans-oceanic commercial airline service. The first space flight was in 1961. It is now 2011 --50 years later-- and there is no sign of any sort of regular commercial service. Why hasn't space flight followed the path of air flight? I think that the reason is, at least in part, NASA.

Imagine that you are an investor and sometime over the last few decades someone came to you with a proposal to build a fleet of ships capable of carrying cargo into orbit and back. What would you say to him? I think that you would say, "Space is too big for a single company! Look at NASA. They are the freaking federal government and even they can't make space flight practical. A single flight costs a half billion dollars. Don't you have an idea for a web site? Maybe one that would attract the profitable female demographic with pictures of fuzzy kittens or something?"

NASA's failures, I speculate, discouraged others from trying and suppressed investment. I also speculate that this is why a lot of space fans weren't too upset when Obama cut NASA's budget. I think a lot of us would just as soon see this bloated and failed monstrosity die. Saying such a thing is not easy for me. I was a big fan of NASA during the Apollo and Skylab days. There was a time when I very much wanted to work for NASA. But those days are over. The days when NASA contributed significantly to space technology are over. Let NASA be swept out the door to make room for new players who may do a better job.

So all of that was just an introduction for this speech by one of the new players in the space program, Jeff Greason, CEO of XCOR Aerospace (link courtesy of Instapundit as most of my links seem to be...). This speech is tremendous. I confess it made me a bit misty. I'm not sure most people would get that, unless their own lives were impacted by the space program as mine was.

Maybe I should call XCOR and see if they have any openings for astronaut engineers...

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