John Topley’s Weblog

NASA And That Vision Thing

I was born too late for the Apollo era. If I could choose to observe any momentous moment in history, then I wouldn’t choose to see the invention of the wheel because we don’t know when it was invented or by whom. There probably wasn’t much to see anyway—some guy discovering that you can more easily roll a round rock than a square one. Viewing the Big Bang is out because I think even the TARDIS would struggle with the physics of being present at the creation of everything without getting sucked into it all. No, I’d choose to go back to July 1969 to witness the culmination of eight years of incredible effort with the first moon landing. I really can’t think of anything more significant that Mankind has achieved.

Sadly it looks like the closest I’m going to get is via third-party sources such as books and DVDs, although I do always enjoy seeing the Apollo 10 Command Module whenever I visit the Science Museum in London. I just stare and think about the fact that the strange-coloured small thing in front of me has actually travelled a quarter of a million miles and orbited the moon. It looks primitive when you see it for real, with its thick copper-coloured exterior and big bolts that give it the look of a piece of heavy engineering from Victorian times. That tiny cramped capsule did the job though, and how.

I just bought a DVD of the excellent From the Earth to the Moon twelve part TV series that came out in 1998. Sort of following on from Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 film, it tells the story of various aspects of the Apollo space programme, from the tragedy of the loss of the Apollo 1 crew, to the Grumman engineers who gave seven years of their lives to the development of the Lunar Module. Like the Apollo 13 film, Tom Hanks is involved too, although he only briefly appears on-screen to give an introduction to each episode. He’s obviously a space nut and From the Earth to the Moon is great viewing if you have any sort of interest in that great endeavour of the 1960s and early 1970s.

Talking of Apollo, NASA are running a story on their website about how one of their teams have been inspecting the umbilical connection that supplied electricity and oxygen etc. from the Apollo Service Module to the Command Module. They’re looking at it to improve the design of the Orion spacecraft that will replace the Space Shuttle. The article says that they had difficulty finding an intact umbilical—it was normally severed before the CM returned to Earth—but that they got a break when they came across a family’s holiday photos on the Internet that showed an intact unit at the Saturn V complex in the Kennedy Space Centre. This worries me. A lot. Don’t NASA even have a list of the Command Modules that were built and where they ended up? Why not just work through the list until you’ve inspected all the surviving CSMs that are on Earth? It’s not like these things change hands on eBay. Isn’t leaving it to a chance encounter on the Internet a bit hit and miss?! And what about the original plans? Have NASA lost those?

The proposed design of the Orion spacecraft is strikingly similar to the Apollo CSM. It’s like the Space Shuttle never happened. I guess it shows just how much the people who worked on Apollo got right forty years ago. It makes sense to stick with things that are well understood when you’re risking people’s necks by sending them a quarter of a million miles to the moon. Of course, Orion will benefit from the significant technological advances that have been made in materials, computing and other areas and will be able to carry more astronauts.

I don’t know if Americans felt like they were being heavily taxed in the 1960s, but the United States has been a rich country since the end of the Second World War and I don’t think the ordinary folks of the time were crippled by high living costs. They were almost certainly paying a pittance for fuel compared to their European counterparts and still are in fact. The Apollo project was costing about 4% of the total federal budget, which sounds like a lot until you learn that the Vietnam War was costing about 12%. Somehow we can always find money for killing people.

It’s too early to say if Project Constellation is going to be a success. NASA’s last big idea of a low-cost, reusable space plane didn’t turn out to be a resounding success in either of those two objectives. The Space Shuttle now seems to be regarded as a failure and as not really having delivered much for the money. I’m sure there are many people who are closely involved who would strongly disagree, and I’d cite the Hubble space telescope alone as being worth the cost of admission, but my perception is that people are no longer interested in the Shuttle. Perhaps the tragic loss of two crews has tainted the whole endeavour forever. It’s a shame because I remember my seven year old self being excited by the Shuttle when it first flew in 1981.

Unfortunately flying about in Earth orbit doesn’t really capture the imagination of the general public, who when it comes to space exploration, are only ever going to be observers rather than participants. Apollo had that vision thing and at one stage NASA even had plans to use the mighty Saturn V for a manned flyby of Venus. You couldn’t say NASA were lacking in ambition at the time! However, the public got bored very quickly with the moon programme after the highs of Apollo 11. It took the near-disaster of Apollo 13 to re-awaken interest and show that this stuff is far from routine or ordinary.

A picture of Werner von Braun stood next to a horizontal Saturn V rocket

George W Bush is no JFK and there’s no Cold War imperative to drive the project forward through seemingly impossible barriers. I do hope it works out. It would be really exciting to watch a moon landing sometime in the 2020s. Even though it’s been done before, there are a lot of us who weren’t around to see it first time around and who feel like we’ve missed out. Sometimes I just stare up at the moon and imagine seeing the Earth at the same scale from space. Or I stretch out an arm and hold my thumb up and imagine it obscuring the Earth and the whole of the rest of humanity. It’s easy to see why Apollo 8’s “Earthrise” photo is so affecting. We should go back to the moon and not stop this time. There are still so many things to do and learn there. Then let’s go to Mars.

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I really can’t think of anything more significant that Mankind has achieved.


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