REALSPACE: Ruminations at the end of the Space Age

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I'm just kind of rambling here, so bear with me. I'm kind of sorting things out in my head as I type. Since the Chinese put their first man in orbit eight years ago, I've been reflecting on the history of the space program. "History," Napoleon said, "Is a set of lies agreed upon." A century later, Henry Ford put it more succinctly when he said, "History is bunk." Here's an example: The Space Age is commonly said to have begun on October 4th, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 into orbit.

In actual fact, this isn't true. By any objective standard of observation, the Space Age really began fifteen years and one day earlier: On October 3rd, 1942, when a German V2 reached an altitude of 53 miles, making it the first man-made object to leave the atmosphere. Over the next two years, several hundred of these V2 rockets were launched from Poland, and landed in London, causing untold destruction and costing thousands of lives. For obvious reasons, no one wants to admit that the Nazis started the Space Age, and so this fact is generally politely overlooked. Even so, between the end of the war and Sputnik, there were any number of American and Russian rockets that flew on suborbital trajectories that took them well into space, so the Sputnik date is rather disingenuous. I'm not really in favor of giving the bad guys credit for anything either, no matter how impressive their technical accomplishments were, but in the interests of objectivity, let us put it this way: The Space Age began on 10/3/42, but people didn't actually notice it had begun until 10/4/57.

In the forty-two years since the first human went into space, by my rough count, approximately 500-ish people have been up there, many of them multiple times. This is heralded as important and a triumph of science and human will, and certainly it is impressive, but how much of it really matters? What I mean is of those 432 people, how many of them were actually doing real pioneering space stuff? How many were 'firsts?' There is a strong bias in the American mindset that being first to do something is all that really matters. Clearly this isn't logical: Leif Eriksson discovered America 500 years before Columbus, but most Americans aren't even aware of this. The Vikings never did anything of note here other than, you know, find the place, and then ignore it. Columbus, however, was responsible for handing the New World over to a bunch of mooks who raped and plundered the place to their hearts' content and so he's the guy everyone remembers, even if he was a certifiable moron who went to his death thinking America was actually Asia. My point being that it's really more significant to use something effectively than it is to simply do something once and then forget about it.

Even still, I confess that I, too, am subject to the stereotypical 'first' bias. I mean no one is making effective use of space – there are no colonies on the moon or mars, no space-based industries, no nothing – so in the absence of more rational criteria, why shouldn't we use 'firsts' to judge stuff? We are now either sixty-one or forty-six years into the Space Age, depending on when you're counting from. In that time, how much have we really accomplished? How many 'firsts' of actual note have there been? If you were making a mental list of important pioneers of the Space Age, exactly how many names would you have to remember?


That's right, only four. A depressingly small number, when all is considered. By comparison, two generations after Columbus 'discovered' America, there were literally dozens of important explorers and firsts, and, of course, some pretty substantial colonies in the New World as well. Yes, yes, yes, I know – sailing a boat on an ocean is much easier than flying a spacecraft, and building a stockade in a nice field where you can breathe the air is a hell of a lot easier than building a pressurized dome on some airless rock somewhere – most metaphors don't bear close examination. That's not my point: my point is that the early American explorers and colonists were capable of coming here, chopping down trees, and building stuff, and they chose to do so. Likewise, as a people, we're capable of going somewhere else and building colonies – the technology exists – but we choose not to do so for some reason. So it's harder, so what? As our aspirations increase so do our goals.

Anyway, here's the four people who actually matter in the space age:

Lt. Yuri Gagarin – The first man in space. He was also the first man to orbit the earth. He did both during the same mission, on April 12th, 1961, in his spacecraft, the "Vostok 1"

Neil Armstrong – The first man to walk on the moon. That was on July 20th, 1969

Junior Lt. Valentina V. Tereshkova – the first woman in space. She flew on June 16th, 1963, nineteen years before Sally Ride. Sally Ride is nothing but a poser.

Vladimir Mikhailovich Komarov – the first man to die in space, on April 24th, 1967, due to a malfunction in his spacecraft, the Soyuz 1.

So out of half-thousand or so people in space, only four have mattered, and one of those is really a dubious distinction at best. There are lots of other, lesser 'firsts,' but though significant, these are so much less impressive than the four above, that they're almost like Guinness Book of World Records stuff. Certainly they're not as memorable as the ones above. Here's a sampling:

Alexi Leonov – first man to 'spacewalk.' (March 18th, 1965)

Joseph A. Walker – first man to fly a reusable spacecraft, the X-15 rocketplane (June 27th, 1962)

Alexy Yeliseyev and Yevgeny Khrunov – first men to leave earth in one spacecraft, and return to it in a different one (Soyuz 4 and Soyuz 5, January 15th, 1969)

Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders – first men to circumnavigate the moon; the first humans in all of history to see the far side of the moon with their own eyes ( December 21st – 27th, 1968)

Harrison H. "Jack" Schmitt – the first, and only scientist on the moon, a Geologist. (December 7th – 19th, 1972)

Virgil Ivan "Gus" Grissom – first man to smuggle a pastrami and swiss on rye sandwich into space, aboard the Gemini 3 on March 23rd, 1965. Really.

Boris Volynov and Vitaly Zholobov – the first people to go crazy-eight bonkers aboard a space station, abandon their mission, return to earth prematurely, August 24th, 1976.

And the list goes on and on. All these are significant technical feats, including the admitted difficulty of smuggling a large, hot sandwich past a small army of technicians and security, but none of them really catch the imagination. In fact, with the exception of the crew of Apollo 8, none of them really have any poetry to them at all. Given the comparatively small number of people who've been in space, nearly everyone can legitimately claim to be the first at something – Buzz Aldrin has on occasion claimed to be the first person to urinate on the moon – but these 'firsts' are smaller and smaller in scope, and more dubious in merit.

I'm not saying nothing has been done of any significance in space since we stopped going to the moon. The Russians have done impressive work with orbital construction on their five or six space stations prior to the ISS. The US did impressive repair work to fix damage Skylab sustained on liftoff. There's been a fair amount of interesting work on Biology done in orbit. These are all important skills to master for any spacefaring people.

What I am saying is that by this point, there really should be more 'real' firsts, on the order of Gagarin, Armstrong, and Tereshkova. Instead, we've had nothing like them. We have managed to have seventeen more Komarovs, however – fourteen dead from two Shuttle disasters, and three more from the botched re-entry of Soyuz 11.

So if Direction is what is needed, where is it going to come from? From a government? Unlikely. Nixon essentially shut down NASA's manned spaceflight program and relegated them to using Apollo castoffs through the mid-seventies. He also managed to negotiate an end to the Russian Lunar and Mars programs before negotiating himself into early retirement a year later. Before you say 'Oh, but Nixon was a bad guy," remember that President Carter, whom most people fell to be a good guy, would have shut NASA down entirely, but couldn't because of the adverse effect it would have had on the economy. Instead, he actually ended even the Bastard Stepchild of Apollo manned space flight program that Nixon had allowed to continue, destroyed the last rockets capable of putting a man into space, allowed Skylab to burn up without even a token attempt to save it, and successfully delayed the Shuttle for more than three years. (It was originally supposed to launch in '77 or '78.) He also canceled three potential US/USSR follow ups to the Apollo/Soyuz project, which had been in development. Why did he do all this? Who knows. My own gut feeling is that it was his religious beliefs, but I'm sure he'd deny it, and I can't prove it. The reasons aren't as important as the result in this case: he ended US dominance in space. It is an interesting footnote of history that Carter is the only US President since Eisenhower not to have had any Americans in space during his administration. (1976-1980)

Meanwhile in Russia, the six-remaining N1 moonrockets were scrapped, and their Space Program became entirely military in nature. They experimented with using Space Stations to provide logistical support for ground troops, such as in their invasion of Afghanistan, but when this proved unwieldy, it, too, was dropped. Ultimately, their space program became a diplomatic venture, ferrying representatives from jerkwater countries like Cuba and Syria into orbit to impress the slackjawed locals, and preach about the Universal Brotherhood of Communism. This ended with the collapse of the Soviet Space Program in 1991. People bitch about how undignified it is for the Russians to be taking tourists in to space nowadays, but, really, they've been doing it since the early 1980s. The US has done the exact same thing more surreptitiously, but for the exact same reasons the Soviets did: What was the purpose of taking a Saudi prince with no technical training into orbit as an 'advisor' if not to improve relations with Arabia? What was the purpose of all those ESA missions flown on the shuttle? Hard Science? Hardly: it was simply cold war propaganda. We had to make Western Europe feel 'included'.

The International Space Station is a triumph of pork barrel politics over substance. Conceived of as the strictly American "Space Station Freedom" in the late 1980s, this was sarcastically renamed "Space Station Fred" as it's budget sank along with it's aspirations. This became the essentially unnamed 'ISS' in the 90s, and was championed by ex Vice President Gore, who publicly felt that operating costs could be held down if the Russians were included and picked up some of the expense. Privately however, it is rumored that there were wealthy Russian families involved in the administration of the Russian Space Program to whom Gore was indebted for some reason; families who stood to make an obscene fortune on government contracts if this100 billion turkey ever flew. The bill passed congress by an incredibly partisan measure, with only two votes putting it over the top. Presumably said Russian families are quite wealthy now. To date, the ISS is a decade behind schedule, at least $60 billion over budget, perpetually understaffed, full of failing equipment, and, as of this writing, springing leaks. It has not produced one iota of information or science that has not already been done a hundred times over in Mir, Salyut, Skylab, and countless shuttle 'Science Missions' in the 80s. It is useless, it is dangerous, and it is expensive. It is, in a nutshell, exactly what you can expect from a government run project.

In China there had been extensive plans for manned missions by the end of the 1970s, with an eye towards Lunar missions in the 1980s. These were Casualties of the Cultural Revolution, however. In many ways, China is still recovering from that ill-considered experiment in social engineering that killed hundreds of thousands, and produced…what, exactly? In any event, China has finally joined the Man-In-Space club, essentially by using knockoffs of cast off Soviet technology. Their objectives have not been made clear, though they have expressed interest in going to the moon in the next 20 years or so. Their resources are spare, however. They are not planning on more than one manned launch per year for the foreseeable future, and unless they're being extraordinarily sneaky about it – which I suppose is possible, though unlikely – all of these are strictly orbital missions.

Ok, so the governments of the Big Three can't be trusted to do anything useful in space. What about the others?

Well, South Korea wanted to start it's own manned space program in the '60s, but the US shut 'em down. Japan expressed interest in it's own manned space program also, but the US shut 'em down. England discussed starting it's own manned space program, but instead passed laws making it illegal for British citizens to go into space in any capacity whatsoever, I assume at the insistence of the US. The West German OTRAG corporation began test-launching unmanned rockets in Africa in the early 1980s, with an eye towards eventually putting people in orbit, but the US shut 'em down.

The French announced a manned space program in 1978. This was to use the 'Hermes' Spacecraft, a kind of 'mini-space shuttle,' or, if you prefer, a big version of the old X-20. This was to be launched atop Arianne V rockets. The project was behind schedule from the get-go, and billions of francs over budget, with technical problems and substantial safety issues. Eventually it became a joint Franco-German project, and languished for several years, then fell under the auspices of the ESA, whereupon it finally died in 1995. It should be noted that the Arianne V is perfectly capable of putting a manned space capsule in orbit, and it would be simplicity itself to cobble together something like a Mercury or Gemini capsule to carry Franconauts into space. ("Mercury" and "Hermes" are different names for the same god, by the way.) The French Government has never expressed any interest in this, however. They ain't gonna do it.

So there you go: the only countries that have ever expressed interest in a manned space program are either squashed by the US, or else by their own French incompetence.

Why would the US do this? Well, obviously we have no interest in doing space stuff, but at the same time, we're not going to let anyone else do it either, so we play '500 pound gorilla' whenever the situation arises. And why do we do that? I don't know. I've spent about 15 years pondering it, and I'm still no closer to an answer that makes any sense. Perhaps it's simply a matter of defending the Status Quo. Space, potentially, could shift the balance of power in ways akin to how the New World shifted the balance of power in Europe 500 years ago. Countries like England and Holland and Spain went from being marginal players to becoming the richest nations on earth overnight. Meanwhile, once-major powers like Italy and the Ottoman Empire quickly slid into impotence and obscurity. Had they known what was about to happen to the balance of power, would any of those countries have actually been willing to let Spain or England take over a hemisphere? Well, Spain and England would have, yes, but would Italy have said 'sure, we'd like to be a backwater nation suitable only for the fomenting of organized crime and bad jokes about our treatment of women'? Probably not. But as the US and Russia are in the positions of England and Spain right now, I can't really figure out why we aren't aggressively pursuing it. Hence my earlier codicil about not reaching any conclusions that make sense.

There are only a handful of other countries that are wealthy and technically adept enough to have a shot at a manned space program: South Africa is the best candidate, followed perhaps by Australia and perhaps Canada. None of these countries have ever expressed any interest in the idea.

So is there any hope?

Well, damn little, unless you've got a trillion dollars or a can of 500-pound-gorilla repellent handy. Public sentiment on space is, at present, pretty flaccid. Space is old fashioned, and much less interesting than watching Mel Gibson's career crash and burn for a second time, or seeing what Rhianna has glued to her nipples this week (I'm sure it's much nicer than whatever Brittany had glued to her nipples five years back). Public opinion in the US is too fleeting and ill-considered to be of much use anyway. Most Americans now oppose the War in Iraq, and are having a hard time remembering that they supported it just six months ago, and 11% of them think the moon landings were faked anyway. If they can't keep things like that straight, do you think they're going to be able to wrap their brains 'round the importance of some ephemeral advance in the study of geology that's been wrought by the space program? Unlikely. Everyone is amused by the R/C dune buggy we've got on Mars at the moment, but that'll fade quickly. Hell, newspapers can't even be troubled to check their space-related facts in a set of Grocery Store Encyclopedias before they go to press anymore.

The best hope, as I see it, is some kind of revolutionary new launch system that is, perhaps, expensive as hell on the investment end, but entirely reusable and vastly hardier than our current fragile rockets. Coincidentally, I happen to have one of these in mind. I'd intended to keep this a secret until I was in a position to enact my great plan, but as I'm a semi-destitute 36 year old insurance file clerk, I doubt this is going to happen any time soon, so I'll share it with you:

"We" build a mass driver up the side of Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa. This is essentially a maglev train track, nothing that couldn't have been done 20 years ago. No cutting edge technology here. The track would be about 250 miles long, which means it would run from the top of the mountain in Tanzania due west most of the way to the border of Burundi. (Let's call this "The Pitcher") At the western terminal we have all our major facilities, ground control, spacecraft prep areas, and, of course our landing runways. (Let's call this "the Pitcher's Mound") We also have several big sleds that run on the Maglev track. Atop one of these we strap down our spacecraft. (Let's call it "Fastball 1") The launcher sled accelerates down 'the pitcher' at about three times the force of gravity. It starts out fairly slow, but accelerates quickly and by the end of it, it's traveling at a hell of a clip: a bit faster than Orbital Velocity. At the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, at peak speed, our Maglev sled separates from Fastball 1, and stops short, and the spacecraft flies free. Kilimanjaro is 3.6 miles tall, meaning that when Fastball 1 releases from the sled, it's already above 95% of the atmosphere. True, atmospheric friction from the 5% above the mountain would rob us of some of our speed, but that's why we're going a bit faster than orbital velocity when we reach it's top. The remaining inertia The inertia caries Fastball 1 on into orbit.

The beauty of this system is that it's entirely re-usable. There's no expendable rockets or External tanks to be thrown away, no huge amounts of hypergolic fuels to present a health hazard. And it doesn't pollute, which rocket engines do an awful lot of. Of course Fastball 1 could have wings to be recovered like a Shuttle, or land on the ground with a Parasail, or splash down in the ocean all oldschool-like. You don't need to haul dead weight up with you, like the Shuttle's Main Engines, which are useless once they're in orbit. That's extra space you can use for cargo or passengers or what have you. Fastball 1 is extraordinarily simple in construction: A big tube about the size of a cranberry silo that may or may not have wings, and has one small rocket to decelerate with at the end of it's mission. Given this, it would be easy to make a fleet of dozens of Fastballs, customized for different purposes: sight seeing tourists, cargo ships, satellite launches, orbital repair missions, space workers, Hollywood film crews, you name it. Given the resilience and simplicity of the Pitcher itself, you could launch a Fastball into orbit just about as quickly as you could recharge the batteries for the Maglev. Conservatively, let's say a maximum of four launches a day. Far better than 115 Shuttle launches in 22 years, and far cheaper.

If we assume the spacecraft can land on a runway near the Pitcher's Mound, turnaround time could take only a week or so before Fastball 1 is ready to fly again.

So how do we power this sombitch? It needs a lot of electricity to run. Well, the most elegant solution is to rent a couple Russian nuclear submarines. The Philippines did this in the 1990s to cope with chronic blackouts there. They just moored the subs in Manilla and ran power lines directly into their engine rooms. There's no reason we couldn't do the same to power our complex. After a few years, we could build Solar Power Satellites in orbit, or on the moon. Solar collectors are roughly 7x more effective in space than they are on the ground, so, a 1 square foot collector on the moon produces as much electricity as a 7 square foot collector on earth. Put a few thousand square feet of solar cells in orbit, or on the moon, and we'd have more than enough power to run the Pitcher. We'd beam this back to the ground in the form of non-ionizing microwaves, then convert it back to electricity to run the thing. We'd probably some excess to sell to our neighbors as well. Again, no pollution.

What about the environmental effects of the Pitcher itself? Well, sadly, there's a lot of them. Blasting a spacecraft to hypersonic speed at roughly ground level would produce a hell of a bang, and probably scare a lot of wildebeest and elephants and such. We can compensate for this, however: We can build an air tight tube around the track, big enough to allow the Sled and Spacecraft to move down it freely. Pump the air out of the track, and not only is there no sound, but the process is a bit more efficient since we no longer have to fight the wind on the ground. Ideally, we could build the entire track in a vacuumed-out tube underground, but this would make the whole project an order of magnitude more expensive. And you'd still have a hell of a boom several times a day when a Fastball popped out of the east end of the tube or tunnel. Still, that's not nearly as bad.

If you wanted to, you could make the pitcher about 100 miles longer. This would allow you to get up to escape velocity by the end of the track. You could throw a fastball directly to the moon! Of course you'd need some rockets on the fastball to slow it down and land it on the moon, and hitting a moving target a quarter million miles away is considerably tougher than simply lobbing something into orbit. Still, there's no reason to assume we couldn't shoot something to the moon once every 24 hours or so.

And then what? We've got our Pitcher, we've got our fleet of Fastballs, we've got a reliable non-polluting power supply, we've got the ability to put hundreds of people in space per day. What happens next?

Everything happens next. The balance of power changes. The first become last and the last become first. Earth becomes Europe in 1493, and New Worlds take the place of the old New World. There are revolutions in democracy, science, industry, commerce, art, religion, philosophy. Nothing is the same anymore.

I don't pretend to be able to prognosticate the future, but I know the past fairly well. There is no way Columbus, standing on his boat in the Caribbean, could have foreseen us five centuries hence; no way he could have anticipated our mostly humane society which has flaws, but is infinitely better than Europe of his day, no way he could have fathomed our medicine, no way he could have even begun to have understood simple concepts that we take for granted, like what a 'movie' is or a 'root beer float'. There is no way the Pope at the time could have known the discovery of the new world would usher in the Protestant Reformation, or the Enlightenment. There was no way anyone could have known that the world had become larger, and, eventually, better. Many, perhaps most of these things would not have happened had not people in Europe greedily seen a way to make money off the Terra Nova.

Likewise, there is no way for us to know what life will be like 500 years after our hypothetical Pitcher starts running, but it will be equally unfathomable: a larger world – worlds, actually – and hopefully better. Attempting to predict it, however, would be like a 15th century Capuchin Monk attempting to predict Cab Calloway: It can't be done.

My launch system might not be the optimal one, but it seems a damn site better than what we've got now. It's possible now, and requires no as-yet-undeveloped technology. In fact, it was possible 20 years ago. Should anyone deign to try it, just give me stipend and a ride in a Fastball, and I'll be happy. My point, however, is that there's all manner of options we could be trying, but are not. Eventually someone will come up with something like this or better, and they'll actually do it, and then the world will be theirs for the next century or two. Isn't it better that we do it now, rather than waiting around like the Vikings did, and then loosing the opportunity? And isn't it better that whomever actually does something like this be a reasonably enlightened western democracy, rather than someone with an appallingly shit-awful record on human rights, like, say, China or Libya?

Really, wouldn't you rather be in the catbird seat yourself, if at all possible?

The choices are an unfathomably larger and better and different world, and thousands of as-yet-unknown names to associate with important 'firsts', as yet undreamed of; or, conversely, the same old small world and more of what we've already seen and done a million times over.